Attachment Theory and Adolescence

This week I had a postgraduate student write to me asking if I could recommend any readings on the topic of attachment and adolescence.

This is an interesting question because ‘attachment’ tends to be associated with the early years. When we use the term ‘attachment’ these days, we are typically using it as shorthand for ‘attachment theory’. This theory was established by John Bowlby, a psychiatrist and developmental theorist who wrote extensively between the 1950s and 1980s.

His ideas about the child’s emotional dependence on a primary caregiver have had an immense impact on our understanding of child development. They apply to a whole range of real life issues, such as how to set up high quality nursery care, how to respond to a toddler’s temper tantrum, and even how a parent handles nipping out to the loo.

Bowlby used an evolutionary perspective to help us understand that when babies are separated from their caregiver, they feel scared and alone. Their sense of safety is grounded in being able to ‘reach’ someone that they know will protect them. The human mammal cannot walk for a whole year after birth! This means that baby humans are totally dependent on another person to protect them from predators and threats. It is this total dependence on others that, in part, has welded humans into such a social species.

It is not too strong to say, then, that a baby who cannot ‘find’ their parent when they are feeling scared begins to worry that they might actually be in danger of dying. Their physiology steps into line with that belief, and the child becomes more and more anxious. Stress hormones will be coursing through their body to help cope with that fear. Their breath and heart rate will be increasing. If this goes on for any length of time, that child is going to be real need of a trusted someone to help them calm down. They have been living in terror for a moment, so they need to be reassured, through cuddling and a soothing voice, that that fear was noticed and heard. The comfort is a kind of apology; it tells the baby that their parent hadn’t meant to scare them like that.

A baby’s need for reassurance can sometimes feel demanding and insistent. Since not all parents are able to respond to that demanding anxiety in an emotionallyreassuring way (largely due to their own early attachment patterns), babieslearn, by the age of 1 year, whatthey need to do to keep their parents close to them. Should you cry even louder or should you shut up? If you get too demanding, is your parent likely to ignore you because they get tired of all this fuss? Might they even tell you, in a harsh voice, to ‘knock it off!’? Or do they rock you and rock you, until you’ve caught your breath and your heart isn’t thumping so fast?

Babies are very demanding. Its easy to imagine an exasperated parent thinking: “For heaven’s sake, I only went to the loo, I only left you in this strange room for a moment, I only went to work. Do you have to make such a big deal of it?” So attachment theory can help to make us more compassionate. It helps us to understand just how fragile is a baby’s sense of safety really is — especially in that first year of life, when they can’t yet do anything to keep themselves safe in the face of a predator.

The exasperated baby is thinking: “What were you thinking, leaving me alone? What if a saber tooth tiger had come through that door while you were off in the loo!? Don’t you know how scary this was for me? Please tell me you didn’t mean to scare me like that!? Please rock me and tell me you’re sorry, and that you aren’t mad at me because I couldn’t cope with my fear very well.”

The baby has to learn whether his or her parent is able to cope with all the baby’s strong feelings of upset, doubt, fear, anger, distrust. If the parent can’t cope, and, say, ignores the baby when they cry, or is willing to put up with the demands for only a short while, then the baby learns to push down their negative feelings. This ‘pushing down’ (or repression) is hard for them, but they can learn to do it. They can look calm on the outside, but physiological monitoring studies show an increased heart rate.

Babies are quick learners. They work out what to do to in order to keep Mummy or Daddy or whoever is the primary caregiver close by, so that that person can keep them safe from any scary, roaming predators. Those behavioural strategies are what is meant by ‘attachment styles’, or secure and insecure attachment patterns, which later theorists, such as Mary Ainsworth and Mary Main, went on to explore. In short, we could say that attachment theory helps us to think about babies’ love skills: they work out how to get their parents to stay in love with them.

So what does all this baby stuff have to do with adolescence? On one hand, the answer can seem to be: not a lot. One of the problematic consequences of the popularity of attachment theory is that we have kind of come to think of it, in professional circles, as about the early years. This is the period that Bowlby’s innovative theory focused most heavily on. So when students are taught about Bowlby’s theory, that’s what they learn about: the ages between birth and 3 years.

On the other hand, though, the answer is: everything. This baby stuff has everything to do with adolescence. The real point of Bowlby’s theory is that these early love strategies set up the foundation on which we base all future relationships. It is the standard by which we interpret and respond to later experiences of love. Neuroscience is teaching us that attachment is not a case of simply ‘learned behaviour patterns’. Rather, these early experiences of love are being knit into the synaptic connections of our brain. We humans carry our personal sense of love’s safety or fear within our very physiology.

So, we would be well placed to start to think about attachment in a wider, longer-term sense. There are a number of theorists and writers who are helping us to do that. Here are three of those whom I recommended to my enquiring postgraduate student.

1. Dr. Patricia Crittenden is adevelopmental theorist and researcher who has extended the theory of attachment into adulthood. She has developed what she calls a Dynamic-Maturational Model of Attachment and Adaptation. This can sound a big mouthful, but basically it means that she wants to stress how relationship change vs. continuity affects our development over time. Her website patcrittenden.com is full of information about her theory, and its organized around some great cartoon images that make it easy to navigate.

2. Dr. Claudia Gold is a pediatrician whom I have mentioned in previous blogs (see value-emotional-regulation-aka-keeping-your-feelings). In 2011, she published a book called Keeping Your Child in Mind, in which she explores the way that relationships can be used to respond to and reduce children’s ‘challenging’ behaviour, including tantrums and defiance and ADHD. Her book traces this theme throughout all stages of childhood — right up to adolescence.

3. Dr. Sarah-Jayne Blakemore is a neuroscientist focusing on adolescent brain development. She has provided fascinating insights about how the teenage years are affected by relationships, including why adolescents become so easily embarrassed by their parents. I love the videos that capture her public lectures. Once we understand that ‘attachment’ really means ‘relationship’, then we aren’t so fixed on the early years, because we aren’t so fixed on traditional ‘attachment theory’.

These are only three of the many thinkers who are extending our understanding of attachment. They provide a starting point for students and professionals out there who need some formal paths to pursue.

I hope these recommendations might be of interest to the rest of us, as well. That is because they help us to think in richer ways about how we have each been influenced by our very earliest relationships – even before we have any conscious memories of those people.

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