Attachment styles can be seen from the perspective of the two rules of development mentioned earlier: stress, trauma, or abuse will get individuals stuck at or regress to those earlier stages of development of those experiences; and developmental energy that has been denied or diverted will reassert itself at later stages until it is satiated. Attachment styles can be categorized into secure attachment and insecure attachment styles. Proximity and nurturing are the two issues in attachment. Proximity- is there a caregiver nearby if I have a need? Nurturing- will the caregiver nurture my need when I have it? Secure attachment styles develop as a result of the caregiving adult- normally a parent is both appropriately available (proximity) and appropriately nurturing when the baby or child has some need. The need which may be physical or having to do with hunger for example, also is an emotional, psychological, and social need that needs the caregiver’s availability and attention.
Babies, children… teenagers and adults with secure attachment styles have confidence that someone (a caregiver) will be available (proximity) and attentive with nurturing when there is a need. An infant with secure attachment separates readily from the primary caregiver and actively seeks out the caregiver when she or he returns. What is more is that if someone is not immediately available to nurture that one can sustain him or herself through self-soothing. And that eventually, one will access or find someone who deems one worthy to be around and nurture. Babies and children with secure attachment styles are calmer and bond more readily to new people such as peers, classmates, teachers, coaches, and other adult authority/mentoring figures. Teenagers and adults with secure attachment also are more likely to have successful mutually beneficial intimate partner relationships. This includes them being less likely to tolerate unhealthy romantic partners, since they have confidence that upon terminating the poor relationship they will eventually be able to find another healthier relationship. In other words, although saddened with a failed romance they are less likely to be desperate when alone and lonely to the point of making bad choices such as remaining in an unfulfilling relationship. With secure attachment styles, teenagers and adults feel worthy of having and thus, willing to look for healthier partners. In simple terms, they are less likely to feel stuck in staying when staying doesn’t make sense.
Insecure attachment styles include anxious, avoidant, ambivalent, and disorganized attachment styles. An infant with avoidant attachment style rarely cries when the primary caregiver leaves and avoids contact on his or her return. In adolescence and adulthood, the individual will often be limited in his or her willingness to be completely vulnerable to another. Romantic intimacy may have a boundary that the adult avoidantly attached person will not go beyond. Full transparency or openness of feelings and thoughts are not available. The avoidant person does not trust him or herself to be fully invested in another person for fear that he or she will be let down. He or she fears being betrayed again by absent caregiver proximity and nurturing- that is, poor availability and attention. He or she thus, protects him or herself from being hurt by not investing unconditionally in romance. The avoidant style person offers limited intimacy and is limited in soothing or nurturing a romantic partner. A securely attached person, even a teenager without a lot of romantic experience would more than likely find the avoidant style person to be not worth the trouble eventually. The securely attached teenager has a reasonable expectation of reciprocal mutual vulnerability, nurturing, and attention and would seek that from another person.
However, someone with some anxious attachment style may stay in a relationship with an avoidantly attached fellow teenager. An infant with anxious attachment style cries whenever the primary caregiver leaves and often when the caregiver is around. Although the caregiver is physically available, the infant’s experience is that the caregiver may become unavailable, or if available (proximity) is inconsistent as to whether he or she nurtures, soothes, or attends to the infant’s needs. Since proximity does not assure being soothed, the infant is likely to be very clingy with the caregiver. He or she is likely to get very distressed if there any indication of the caregiver leaving or becoming unavailable. If attended to or nurtured by the caregiver, the infant has difficulty calming down as he or she anticipates the caregiver leaving or cutting the infant off again. Another variation of insecure attachment called ambivalent attachment is when the infant becomes anxious before the primary caregiver leaves but both seeks and resists contact on the caregiver’s return. There is also disorganized-disoriented attachment style in which an infant shows contradictory behaviors, and seems confused and afraid.
Fear of Abandonment
As a teenager or adult, the anxiously attached person is more likely to put up with an avoidant or otherwise emotionally unavailable or erratic partner because of deep fear of being abandoned again. Poor partner choices include the jerk, alcohol or drug addict, bum, abuser, philanderer, liar, paranoid, and sociopath among others. The person who finds, accepts, and keeps such poor partners has not learned how to be alone without being lonely, lonely without becoming desperate, and most critically desperate without making bad choices. In this case, the anxious attached teenager makes the bad choice of staying with someone who has proved over and over that he or she is not consistently or deeply emotionally available or nurturing- if not actually abusive in some form or many ways. This adolescent scenario, also occurring with some adults has the anxiously attached teenager being hurt by the avoidant or otherwise unhealthy partner and then, either requesting greater and consistent attention and nurturing or breaking up. With being denied the request or having broken up, the alone-lonely-desperate cycle kicks in, and from a place of desperation the teenager begs to resume the toxic relationship.
This drama repeats itself several times to the despair of the anxiously attached teenager and to the dismay of friends who recommend getting rid of the jerk. Finally, the teenager leaves the jerk when he or she finally does something so egregious that there is no other option, OR the jerk leaves the teenager. After another alone-lonely-desperate cycle, the anxiously attached teenager falls in L-O-V-E again! In essence, the teenager does not fall in love but attaches to some available candidate out of desperation from being lonely and alone. Flaws and unmet needs for healthy attachment from the earlier critical periods of infancy and early childhood leave the anxiously attached teenager unable to experience mature love. The quantitative experiences of frequent, intense, enduring, resonating, and beneficial nurturing were either skipped, rushed through, or distorted by stress, trauma, or abuse. Without these initial sequence and progression of caregiver attachment (proximity and nurturing), the qualitative changes in fidelity, identity, and intimacy do not occur. Yet, the anxiously attached teenager’s developmental energy to find an available and attentive intimate figure continually reasserts itself however with poor choices for candidates. Despite repeated and compulsive attempts, the need for attachment will not and cannot be satiated by these emotionally unavailable or erratic intimacy partners.
Breaking the Cycle
What breaks this cycle of anxious and desperate attachment leading to repeated toxic partner choices? The first intervention or strategy is to be available and attentive- proximity and nurturing in the beginning and throughout infancy and childhood to create a healthy secure attachment style in children for the teenagers and adults they become.
Characteristics of caregivers of securely attached babies:
- most sensitive to babies demands in first year of life;
- observed “demand” feeding;
- responsive to cues to stop, slow down, or speed up feeding;
- more likely to soothe babies when they cried- to answer babies sounds;
- more likely to talk to babies when they looked into caregiver’s face;
- tend to hold them closer to their bodies;
- more responsive and skilled in caretaking;
- had positive feelings about themselves.
Characteristics of caregivers of avoidant attached babies:
- angriest of all caregivers;
- lacking in confidence;
- seemed uninterested in their babies;
- trouble expressing their feelings;
- shied away from close physical contact with their babies.
Characteristics of caregivers of ambivalently attached babies:
- well meaning but less capable;
- tended to score lower on IQ tests;
- understand less how to meet their babies’ needs.
Personal growth… personal health of the parents or adults in important relationships with babies, children, and eventually teenagers predict the capacity to develop and maintain the characteristics of securely attached children. Do your part. It’s the foundation for the children and teenagers.
Resiliency and Reparative
If it is past time for that formative experience, then change can come from a reparative experience. Another rule of development related to repair is that of resiliency. Resiliency allows for skipped, rushed, incomplete, stalled, regressed, or suppressed development to be re-stimulated in the organism. The original reparative experience should also had been a formative experience during childhood- learning out to be alone without being lonely, learning how to be lonely without being desperate, and learning how to be desperate without making bad choices. Adults and parents who intervene so that children do not experience these difficult feelings keep them from practicing how to handle them. Allowing children to experience being alone, loneliness, and even desperation is important to their development. They cannot grow stronger and skillful without the practice and experience. Watching your children be alone can be relatively tolerable, but seeing them be lonely is difficult. And knowing that they slide into despair is agonizing as a parent or caring adult. However, that is the only way they learn how to deal with the real feelings and experiences.
What enables a child, teenager, or adult to feel the pangs of desperation and not make bad choices? Resiliency and more opportunities to learn anew and to be re-stimulated to self-soothe. At that last moment when despair permeates the person’s mind and soul, the child, teenager, and adult needs to be able to self-soothe. So, the desperation is addressed… nurtured enough, so that bad choices however tempting do not become how I deal with horrible feelings. When the teenager’s heart aches with longing to be romantically involved, it is his or her ability to self-soothe that ache that keeps him or her from dating the next available warm body… or going back to the toxic ex-partner. When the teenager feels doomed to be different and never fitting in, being able to self-soothe keeps him or her from betraying his or her true self to be one of the gang. When confused and hurting without a sense of purpose, it will be self-soothing that stops him or her from using alcohol or drugs to self-medicate his or her spiritual vacuum.
Three Things to Learn
Why do you pick up a baby who is crying? In the baby’s voice, as the teenager and adult he or she will become… “Why do you pick me up when I am crying?”
“So, I will learn three things:
- That someone is, will, and can be there to care for me because I am worthy.
- How to soothe and nurture the important people in my life, because that is what builds intimacy and relationships.
- How to self-soothe, because there will be many times no matter how many loving supportive family and friends I have that will try to support me, I will be alone, lonely, and desperate sometimes; and I will need to self-soothe so not to make bad choices.”
From infancy through adolescence into adolescence towards adulthood, behavior and character are not isolated but come from developmental processes. Parents and adults can benefit from understanding the rules of development at ALL ages. Why do you pick up a baby who is crying? Because…
Basic Rules of Development
Development happens in Stages.
There are Critical Periods in development when the person is more vulnerable to harm or available for growth.
Quantitative changes lead to Qualitative change.
Development is Sequential.
Development is also Progressive.
Skipping or Rushing development doesn’t work and/or causes harm.
Excessive Stress, Trauma, or Abuse will get people stuck at or to regress to the stage of those experiences.
Developmental Energy that is denied or diverted will eventually reassert itself.
Resiliency allows for skipped, rushed, incomplete, stalled, regressed, or suppressed development to be re-stimulated in the organism.
Satiation of development needs allows movement on to the next developmental challenge