The Keys to Rewarding Relationships: Secure Attachment

Learn the processes needed to build a secure, non-defensive personality

Posted Feb 12, 2015

If only we and everyone we meet could read social situations accurately, not get flooded or hijacked by strong emotions, and respond in a kind, empathetic, non-defensive and constructive manner, the world would be a more accepting and predictable place. Of course, we all have times when situations trigger strong emotions and behaviors that don’t yield the best results. That having been said, there are personality traits that enable some people to cope with stressors more adaptively than others. The personality trait of focus in the present article is known as a “secure attachment style.”

About 55% of people emerge from childhood with secure attachment styles. Attachment styles are the building blocks of our personalities. They are like mental roadmaps that help us understand and predict how the environment and other people are likely to react to us in different situations. Through helping predict how people and the environment are likely to react, they also help us prepare mentally and emotionally to cope with whatever comes our way. Because these patterns of perceiving, understanding, and coping with the environment are practiced so many times across our early childhood years and into adulthood, they become automatic processes that are ingrained, not only in our thoughts and behaviors, but in the very structures of our brains and emotional systems.

Whether you do or do not have a secure attachment style, the present information will help you understand yourself and the people you interact with. Understanding how and why people behave as they do should enable you to choose behaviors that will work in the interest of positive interpersonal interactions (or at least not horribly negative ones). Because these styles never stop developing, you can also learn to choose and shape your present-day social environments in a way that works for you. And, of course, if you are a parent, or plan to become one, this information will help you maximize the chance that you will foster attachment security in your children.

It all starts with how parents respond to their children’s needs and soothe (or not) the children when they are frightened or distressed. When parents are consistently available, warm, and responsive, (when the children get scared or distressed) the children develop secure attachment styles. One way that parents can respond consistently is by being sensitively attuned to their children’s emotional cues. This means that parents are accurate in gauging the level and type of distress that their children are feeling. When parents perceive their children’s feelings accurately, and show the children that they (the parents) “get it,” they teach their children that their emotions are valid and deserving of recognition (regardless of whether or not the parent agrees with the child’s perspective). Parents who can recognize and validate their children’s emotions provide the mirrors through which children learn that what they are feeling inside corresponds to events in the real external world. Dr. Edward Tronic, from the University of Massachusetts in Boston, has demonstrated how mothers and their infants go back and forth in an intricate game of facial and emotional expressions the calibrates the baby’s emotional systems. Consider an example from your own life; just think about the game of peek-a-boo and how the adult and child mirror each other’s mannerisms and actions.

Responsive parents do not just mirror and reflect back their children’s emotional experiences. They take it a step further to sooth and calm the children when upset of distressed. This process is known as “up-regulating” the child’s emotions. For example, if you have ever seen a toddler fall and bang his or her knee; the first thing the child will typically do before crying is look at her mother or father’s face for a non-verbal signal as to how serious the injury is. It is as if the child is asking “What am I feeling?” If the child sees an intense and pained expression that says “ouch, that hurt!” the crying starts immediately. The child learns that what he sees expressed on the parent’s face is what he is feeling inside. Once the parent accurately mirrors the child’s feeling, the astute parent will then alter her facial expression into a subtle smile, hug, and expression of compassion that says, “that hurt. But, now you are going to get better and be OK.” And thus the child learns that he/she can get hurt, but that it will pass and he/she will feel better again.

In recognition of the importance of this emotion-regulation process, the father of modern day attachment theory, John Bowlby, called the mother the “psychic organizer.” In other words, our parents help us organize our emotions until we develop the ability to do this for ourselves. Because the child learns that he/she can feel scared or distressed, and then get comfort and be helped to feel better, they learn that negative emotions can be tolerated and managed effectively.  By extension, once they grow into adulthood, they don’t worry too much about other people leaving them or about getting hurt in relationships. They know that they can tolerate such pain if it comes, so they are free to be themselves and not behave in an overly needy, aggressive, or demanding fashion.

Because secure children’s emotions are mirrored accurately, the children themselves acquire the ability, not only to regulate, but to accurately identify and label their own emotional experiences. The ability to recognize and label one’s personal emotional experiences, in turn, is a pre-requisite for being able to accurately recognize and understand the emotional experiences of others…an ability that we commonly refer to as empathy. By extension, people with high awareness of emotions in themselves and who are empathetic, are able to sustain more deeply rewarding interpersonal relationships.    

Because as children, they are confident in caregiver availability, secure children are free to focus their energies on play and exploring their interpersonal and natural environments. Having secure bases to return to when they meet with inevitable goal blockages or become frightened, these children will explore in ever widening circles. By extension, they should become increasingly successful in achieving their goals and develop hopeful ways of thinking. In this latter respect, when children seek comfort after failures, parents go beyond soothing distress and also provide the children with new strategies to use in successive goal pursuits.

As this process is continually repeated and children begin to internalizing the parents’ secure base functions (i.e., validating emotions; self-soothing; problem-solving new strategies or adopting new goals) they develop the confidence to act independently. Accordingly, as they mature through adolescence into adulthood, secure children become increasingly efficacious individuals who believe that; (a) they are lovable and worthy of support, (b) others as available and responsive, and (c) the world is a safe and predictable place. By extension, they have strong frustration tolerance, can tolerate ambiguity in relationships and at work, can deal effectively with others (without being over or under responsive), and can overcome the challenges that life throws in the way.

Starting with next month’s post, I will lay out what happens when parents do not respond to their children in ways that foster secure attachment. Parenting in the way described in this article, is not as much a natural process as one might think and we all tend to parent the way we were parented. For this reason, there is about a 70% probability that you will have the same attachment style as your mother. But rest assured, that if you are one of the 45% of the population who have one of the “insecure” attachment styles, you can learn to capitalize on your specific strengths and use the processes involved in secure attachment to over-ride the problematic emotions or behaviors that get in the way of having rewarding relationships.

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