What Is Attachment?

This entry was posted in Attachment, For Clinicians on by .

For children, internalizing a feeling of security helps them interact with the world as a relatively safe place, seek others in times of crisis, resolve problems rather than being immobilized by them, and find the courage to take appropriate risks in order to grow emotionally.

Attachment what a strange word! It sounds like a vacuum cleaner accessory, but it is fundamental to the development of a healthy emotional life. We are born from our mothers, the product of the union of two individuals. For survival we are — we must be — attached to our mother’s (or another caretaker’s) body for protection. That is how we stay safe from predators when we are small and defenseless.

For children, internalizing a feeling of security helps them interact with the world as a relatively safe place, seek others in times of crisis, resolve problems rather than being immobilized by them, and find the courage to take appropriate risks in order to grow emotionally. Attachment what a strange word! It sounds like a vacuum cleaner accessory, but it is fundamental to the development of a healthy emotional life. We are born from our mothers, the product of the union of two individuals. For survival we are — we must be — attached to our mother’s (or another caretaker’s) body for protection. That is how we stay safe from predators when we are small and defenseless.

Photo by Jean-Philippe Delberghe

Adult Attachment and Intimacy

The Adult Attachment Interview is an assessment to evaluate an adult’s attachment strategy in relationships. Our present attachment strategy was formed in childhood, often remaining unchanged into adulthood. It is largely unconscious and can develop into a mishmash of complex and contradictory patterns. Every child has vulnerable emotions. Children encode attachment depending on what happens when they take these vulnerable emotions to those all-important attachment figures, the parents. How do the parents respond? Do they reject the attachment attempt? Do they ridicule? Ignore? Or are they accepting and validating? Do the parents help the child to regulate his or her emotional state through modeling and touch? Are the parents consistent or unpredictable?

The parent’s response dictates the child’s reaction to and subsequent belief about his or her emotional experience. The response is the key that ultimately locks the child’s understanding of love, acceptance and self-worth. Children are likely, through this modeled behavior, to treat themselves and others in the same way or if the response was hurtful or rejecting, vow to “not treat my children the way I was treated,” and overreact in the opposite direction.

What we learn within our family determines many things, such as:

  • What will I do when I feel afraid or alone?
  • From whom (and how) will I learn to regulate my emotions?

The human brain learns through experiences. It adapts to relational issues in the family and then takes that learning into the world to navigate the present and future relationships. For instance, early fear that is not worked through with a loving and attuned caregiver becomes internalized and can progress to anxiety in adolescence and adulthood.

Trauma (any experience that is too difficult to handle) has a similar outcome. When no one helps you feel the feelings, talk through the experience, and make sense of it (which could take a long time), the experience is suppressed and may even be hidden from conscious memory. A compassionate “talking through” after a traumatic event, can serve as a “feeling through” to allow the traumatized person to safely experience the traumatic feelings until they subside.

This process “moves” the event in the brain from an emotion (feeling) to cognition (thinking) and transforms it into a narrative memory. The individual can recall the event without feeling as if an emotional dam is collapsing, and access the meaning of the event. This also provides evidence that although painful events take place, they can be worked through. The person returns to a state of mental health.

Without this processing, trauma can become a highly-charged, suppressed emotional state. Our brain may link subsequent experiences to the event to increase the charge. A trigger in the present can unleash an extreme overreaction, as all that is suppressed explodes through a hole in the dam, allowing the past to pour into the present. Clients often explain a post-traumatic stress experience as “being back there again.’

What does all this mean? For children, an internalized “felt sense” of security helps them approach the world as a relatively safe place. They are securely attached. They can reach out to others when there are difficulties and traumas, work through them to resolution (instead of being immobilized by them), and gain the courage to take appropriate risks in order to grow. Risk-taking, by definition, is to become vulnerable in some way.

When failure is experienced as an intolerable devastation, risk-taking and vulnerability will be avoided at all costs. Why would anyone want to be vulnerable, if they learned earlier that it was extremely dangerous? They’d have to be crazy! But vulnerability is the best way to live in the present moment and experience life to the fullest. When a lack of success is seen only as a temporary setback, vulnerability is possible. This is a core difference between securely and insecurely attached individuals. Securely attached individuals are willing to risk being vulnerable to experience love and intimacy.


“Children with secure attachment histories scored higher in every area, from ego resiliency, to self-esteem, to independence, to the ability to enjoy themselves and respond positively to other children. They were seen as having superior social skills — initiating more interactions with other children, sustaining them for longer periods, and, when approached, reacting with positive feelings. They had more friends.” — Robert Karen