Attachment: A safe base to work from

Dr John Bowlby (1907-1990)

Seventy years ago, psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, John Bowlby, came up with Attachment Theory as a good way to describe close relationships in families, how they do or don’t go well. His own childhood was a key influence.

Apparently Mrs Bowlby suggested he should call his a theory of ‘Love’. But Bowlby wanted to be taken seriously and chose a more scientific-sounding word.

The field of Attachment Theory has grown and developed massively since then. Famous for developing Emotionally Focused Therapy for couples and families, one of many approaches that have been based on Attachment, Sue Johnson now does call it ‘the science of love’. Her focus on couples highlights how the same patterns of safe and disturbed Attachment of children and parents are found in intimate adult relationships and separation.

It is certainly time to move it on from being mere ‘theory’ to call it Attachment Science. It is the basis of major research across the world. It provides an integrated framework for child development, neuroscience, emotion, psychology, adult relationships, mental health and personality disorder. It has spawned dozens of effective therapeutic approaches.

A safe base in stormy seas

Pat Crittenden’s DMM of Attachment and Adaptation (click image)

No surprise that Attachment is particularly useful for understanding the stormy seas of family separation. Breaking up can be a ‘life and death’ experience that severely affects the adults and their children who had counted on their family to be their safe base for life.

Even the most disturbed and abusive relationships and individuals – including those that come to family courts – can be understood if not helped within an Attachment framework. See the further resources below for more.

But just being such a well known idea doesn’t mean everyone automatically knows what Attachment is.

So here is my best pocket-sized effort to summarise it. This version was for an audience of family lawyers, a way to throw light on how family law systems everywhere so often fail children and families.


Attachment

Normally, children take their Attachment for granted. Secure Attachment breaks cover in the devastating fear, freeze, fight and flight reactions that are triggered for you as a child, for example in the instant you realise you’ve lost your mum in the department store.

If you’ve ever had that experience – as parent or child – you’ll never forget the feeling. Hold onto that feeling for just a moment … that’s Attachment.

In childhood, Attachment gives us confidence, comfort and a safe base from which we explore and face challenges and risks, and to which we return to recover when things go wrong.

Grown up children are the same, but we can carry the idea of safe Attachment in our minds as we develop our mature Attachments.

Those ancient visceral reactions to threat and loss of Attachment are still a matter of life and death. They scream out for survival and a return to safety. Attachment has been our universal biological inheritance from animal ancestors, long before legal systems got involved.

Humans aren’t like antelopes who are on the go shortly after they’re born: we have years more dependence during which our Attachments continue to develop to become parents ourselves.

When Attachment goes wrong we use well-recognised cognitive and emotional strategies to keep variations of Attachment going.

The most disturbed of those variations don’t work well. In fact they fit with named psychiatric disorders. That’s the arena into which you can usher children if you don’t take proper care with their Attachments.

In the news, we see the worst situations in the world. How outraged were you at President Trump’s Mexican border policy of separating children from their parents? Outrage is right. Yet week in and week out, those working in private law may be involved in something almost as traumatic for the children involved.

What happens with children’s Attachment when their parents separate is not as simple as a child’s terror in a store where reunion occurs in minutes.

And of course when parents separate well, children can safely continue their Attachments with both parents with little interference or disturbance in their pre-separation relationships. In other words, the Attachment is never broken.

But where separation goes badly, one or both Attachments is disturbed or broken – often for months or years in our family law system. … It’s the willingness of private law to become involved that inadvertently creates the conditions for some parents to interfere with or even destroy their own child’s Attachments.

What goes wrong with Attachment is often like this more complicated example which I know rather well … it’s my own story:

Adverse childhood experiences

Age five and the eldest, my Mum took me on a long train journey in India to start a life-time of boarding school. There was no going back at this point because I had panicked when introduced to a local school. I sensed my parents weren’t good at talk or emotions; that my Mum would slip away so her upset wouldn’t upset me. So I’d manned up in advance. Decades later I wept and wept when it finally dawned on me that my Dad had never been there to see me being brave.

School Punishment Log

What I hadn’t calculated on when arriving at the new school was the ritual tin bath in public. I could never rage at my parents – internally I had to protect them from my rage because they were the only Attachments I’d got. Instead my newly grown up self wailed with rage at the indignity of the public bath. I redoubled my self control so I could cope on my own. Which I did.

School rules were clear. Holidays didn’t make any more sense of things. You might say I survived and you’d be right: I did man up. But I became a pseudo-mature child; in effect my childhood was taken from me

Note that my Attachment experience was desperate, but that I couldn’t have known or voiced that if asked at the time. If anyone had asked, I would have said “I’m fine” because I knew I had to be fine for my parents’ sake.

Mine was a three-monthly loss of both parents three times a year. The loss of a parent by death is more straight forward. We know it’s less disturbing for children than separation and divorce, which feature prominently in the list of Adverse Childhood Experiences that directly stack up to cause lifelong mental and physical ill health. And we have ample evidence pre and post separation that having both parents in your life is best for children.

Even children who have been abused by, or who fear, a parent, do not need or want that parent to be evaporated from their lives as so many people righteously assume. Those children need someone to work out how to understand what happened, to help repair and sustain as safe an Attachment as is possible with the only parents they have. Or to help them work through their loss if that’s the truth.

And of course abusive adults will have been abused themselves and can benefit from help on the way to better Attachments for their children. It’s the perspective of the vengeful mob that it’s best for these children if an abusive parent is evaporated.

To sum up

Children whose Attachment to one parent is lost or shaken by separation, may man up or break down. They may work harder to secure their remaining Attachment. They may worry and take extra responsibility to look after their remaining parent’s needs and stress. They may grieve and worry and feel guilty for the separation, the stress and for their missing parent. They may be unable to bear the strain of being placed in the middle; so they may split it off completely in 100% loyalty to one parent and that parent’s views. Their fear and rage may be unwittingly or purposely shaped by the remaining parent.

Children may not be screaming in fear; they may look fine. But in fact they may have lost BOTH their safe Attachments.

So Attachment may be straightforward. Or held together by less effective or disturbed strategies. Attachment may be fine in awful-looking situations. Or awful in fine-looking situations.


Old and new ways to mess children up

Strangely, parents in the more privileged social classes still do extraordinary things with their children’s Attachment. In a remarkably ignorant or cruel but well-meaning way, these parents – Bowlby’s and my parents – delegate the loving and the childcare to (interrupted) nannies or ayahs, and to boarding schools. It’s not hard to see the parents’ own disturbed Attachment patterns as their way of coping with their own childhoods.

Nannies and boarding schools may make a kind of sense in the circumstances. They can be done well with care. But only Attachment comes with the guarantee to ‘crawl over broken glass’ for your own. Interrupted or delegated Attachment is liable to hand the misery on down the line.

In more modern times, thanks to Bowlby and his successors, the benefits of a less privileged way to do Attachment have become clearer. But now all social classes face new kinds of harm to children’s Attachments. In particular the disturbance may be amplified and dragged out through the best intentions of the helping and legal professionals who have the power in our systems of social service and family law.

Attachment remains the safest base to work from.

Nick Child, Edinburgh

Find out more about modern Attachment:

Pat Crittenden: Dynamic Maturational Model of Attachment and Adaptation, Raising Parents, DMM (Free Book)

Dan Hughes: Dyadic Developmental PsychotherapyPACENeurobiology of Attachment-Focused Therapy

Sue Johnson: Emotionally Focused Therapy, Hold Me Tight, Love Sense: from infant to adult

Alexandra Stein: Terror, Love and Brainwashing: Attachment in cults and totalitarian systems.

Ed Tronick: Still Face Experiment

About Nick Child

Retired child and family shrink and family therapist living, working and playing in Edinburgh.

9 comments

  1. The Bowlby Theory of attachment was twisted, having viewed geese, into rationalising the fact that women who had worked in Factories and other tradional men’s jobs needed to stay at home as men were now returning from the war and as a result of the bad social planning post WW1 it was used to re create the traditional role of men going to work and providing for a family whilst the partner/wife stayed at home in the ‘nuclear vision’ of how society should function. His theory has been used by social workers and the linking with the Duluth model to ensure that in separation issues children went to the mother and the father went back to work and paid taxes to a Government that had a judiciary that perverted a notion that fathers could not look after children as easily as a mother.

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    • Luckily, suffragent, you’ve got hold of a very limited, mistaken, misapplied, and old story about Bowlby and about Attachment. Do read the links suggested if you’re interested in learning more.
      Nick

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  2. Thank you for the response. Like many situations there are many international academics who have varying opinions on attachment theories/sciences. I see the despair in my grandchild’s eyes when his father is not immediately present and hear his comments about not returning to his mother when his time with his father is ending. Attachment theories are ‘educated’ into social workers and simply put they are informed that men are bad and cannot have the same love for a child as a woman and this I fiercely disagree with. I know from my own behaviour with my sons that I was their protector equally as the relationship they had with their mother to whom I have been happily married for many years. Attachment theories are subjective dependent on who has the ‘power hand’ in an argument. The arguments that are used in Family Courts are all driven by Theories/Sciences that are biased in the favour of women and men are relegated to being tax earners and payers, being allowed contact at the discretion of many mothers who frequently break Contact Orders made by Family courts. I have friends who have been educated in universities in Social Sciences and woe betide them if they raise questions on the needs of children to have meaningful relations with their fathers. So I suppose we have to agree to disagree in the spirit of mature discussion.

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  3. You’re describing the battle between what is common experience with those in your network and the common experience of those who are in the other networks. Each will find and interpret ideologies and facts and theories to suit their gendered cause. Gender is important, but PA cannot be explained primarily by gender because it happens to mothers as well as fathers. So, to repeat, where Attachment is used to support the destruction of Attachments, then it is not being used correctly. My short summary makes that clear.

    If you read further, you will find that Attachment is the friend of children and their Attachments. Where it has become their enemy, then it is plainly a misapplication of Attachment ideas. When someone misuses facts and ideas, it is better to stand up to them, not to give power to the misuse. Children going through family courts and stretched social services need all the support they can get. Attachment approaches properly understood are part of that support. Join me in that cause please!

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    • I believe that PA is mutual. The problem stems from a misuse of the belief that women have a greater attachment to children than men. The relationships are equally strong but manifest in different ways and behaviour. Unfortunately it is the mis education of most Social Workers and others who support the fact that any children in a relationship are in 90% of cases handed to the woman and as such, by definition, she controls contact.

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  4. Bowlby nailed the dynamics of PA. He described how one parent can coerce a child to align with him or her in a type of triangulation called a cross-generational coalition. Cross-generational coalitions where a child rejects the other parent are always pathologic.

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  5. Alienated Parent

    I agree with you, Nick, on the importance of Bowlby’s Attachment Theory (I think we now have evidence it was more than just a theory). From my reading and personal experience, I would say that Attachment has a great deal to do with many human emotional problems, from childhood through adulthood. I often wonder why it is not better known. Secure Attachment at an early age seems to be the crux of a healthy and happy life, but we don’t know well enough yet what to do about those unfortunate individuals whose Attachment was not secure, through no fault of their own. Sometimes not even through the conscious fault of the parent(s); the hurt just keeps being inherited and replicating onwards in the generations.

    Targetedmom, I fully agree with you as well, that Bowlby nailed the dynamics of PA. Yes, indeed! I think of John Bowlby and George Orwell as having brought us equally vital insights about our human nature; my hat is off to both of those amazing men for their contributions. Like many great insights, however, Attachment is often misunderstood or partially understood, and then twisted in mis-applications.

    Attachment really has very little to do with actual gender, and I hate to see such an important concept hijacked in the horrible gender wars. It has more to do with a parent validating the child, early-on. Stay-at-home mothers can fail at it (if they have no personal validation to pass on). Emotionally healthy fathers can excel at it, and vice versa. Go back and read my comments on Ryan Thomas, for instance. There are many alienated mothers out there, as well as fathers. I feel for all of them. Trouble with most social workers (Suffragentsorg) is that they get hold of various concepts in their undergrad years, never fully understand them, and then mis-apply these to real flesh-and-blood people on the subsequent job. The power those poorly-trained social workers are given to ruin people’s lives! Many of them begin with their hearts in the right places, but half-understood ideas combined with the latest social propaganda can do terrible things.

    I find that Pete Walker, American Psychotherapist, has had some very good insights about the intersection of Attachment Disorders/Trauma/Complex PTSD. See “Complex PTSD: From Surviving to Thriving.” He describes at length the reactions to childhood trauma in the forms of Fight/Flight/Freeze/Fawn. According to Mr. Walker’s interpretations, Narcissistic Personality Disorder is a form of trauma-reaction which takes the Fight form. If triggered to the original traumatic wound of childhood, the NPD-individual is going to Fight the person who triggered him/her. They are, in effect, fighting back against the early-childhood caretaker who failed to give them validation through unconditional love. Only, as an adult, they can do a great deal of damage this way to their proxy enemy. See also Stephen Porges’ book, “Pocket Guide to the Polyvagal Theory” for some further explanation of the human Fight/Flight/Freeze/Fawn reactions to trauma.

    Yes, yes, and yes!! Attachment Disorders are the very basis of Parental Alienation. Behooves us to thoroughly understood Attachment as per Bowlby, and not to mis-interpret it.

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  6. Alienated Parent

    Sorry — meant to write, “Behooves us to thoroughly understand…..”

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