You probably already know that relationships with the people around you are important in your life. For instance, your parents, friends, and partner… but why is this? Why’s the attachment bond so important?
Here, you’ll be able to delve into the attachment relationships that we all establish in childhood and why they’re so important in our development.
The importance of the attachment bond
The English psychoanalyst, John Bowlby, (1985) claimed that attachment is any form of behavior that results in an individual getting close to another person they consider important.
During childhood, the priority for any human being is to maintain the bond of attachment with their reference figures (father, mother, or another important person) at any cost.
If this bond is broken, the child will have to develop balancing strategies to allow them to regulate themselves emotionally.
When they reach adolescence, their priority isn’t only to maintain the attachment bond with these figures but also to look for similar companions and choose sentimental partners (Crittenden, 2015).
Depending on how they learned to regulate themselves in childhood, they’ll exhibit a certain tendency to repeat certain patterns of behavior when it comes to interacting in adolescence and, later, in adulthood.
We learn to regulate ourselves based on our primary relationships and attachment figures.
What role do these figures have?
The functions of attachment figures
As a rule, the functions of attachment figures during childhood are aimed at obtaining feelings of worth and security.
This means exercising the role of a secure base. In effect, being there for the child as a safe base from which they can explore the world. If a parent isn’t emotionally well-regulated, the child is likely to feel unsafe in exploring their environment and learning.
But, how can you be a safe base for your child? Here are some of its characteristics: (Vargas and Chaskel, 2007)
- Empathy. Understanding your child and putting yourself in their place. It’s extremely important that they feel seen.
- Sensitivity. Adequately interpreting what your child needs. Do they need to eat? Are they thirsty? Has something happened to them while you were gone?
- Responsiveness. The ability to respond adequately to their needs, without going to extremes.
- Availability. Providing the assurance that you’ll be present, both physically and emotionally, when your child needs you.
- Emotional validation. The ability to emotionally support your child and, when necessary, to administer certain sanctions. Of course, any extremes aren’t healthy.
A safe haven
Another important function of the reference figure is to provide the sensation of a safe haven. In effect, to be someone they can turn to for protection if they feel they’re in danger.
For example, Mark is Elena’s father. Elena remembers that, when she was little, her father was always really angry when he came home from work. When she asked for help with her homework, her father often reacted by yelling at her and getting angry with her.
If parents are threatening figures or don’t help their child to calm down, they’ll have to look for other figures or strategies to regulate themselves.
The function of the safe haven is to allow the child to explore and gradually move away from their caregivers. In this context, playing is really important. In fact, through this along with exploration, the child learns to create fundamental resources for their emotional and physical autonomy at later stages. However, if they feel afraid or threatened, exploring and playing becomes impossible.
The consequence of not having a secure base and shelter
When a child learns that their parents aren’t safe protective figures, they experience the need to search for alternative emotional regulation mechanisms. For example, other people, material things, or activities that help regulate them (Hilburn-Cobb, 2004).
Depending on the interaction they’ve had with their caregivers, the child develops a series of internal operating models (Bowlby, 1995). They contain the memories, beliefs, objectives, and strategies created based on past experiences (Botella, 2005 ).
These models will be the base on which the child builds the house in which they’ll live for the rest of their lives, both as a teenager and an adult. However, if the foundations of the house are weak, it might get damaged and need repairing. It could even collapse. Indeed, with weak foundations, in the face of any vital setback, the individual might collapse. Or, their adaptation mechanisms won’t fulfill their functions.
However, what happens when the mother acts one way and the father another? In this case, the attachment relationship established with each figure may be different. Therefore, operating models can vary from one caregiver to another.
For example, a child might feel extremely secure in the relationship with their mother yet feel afraid of their father. They could also have different attachment models and relationships toward other important figures. For instance, an uncle, a grandmother, a teacher, etc.
In light of the above, you might wonder if this can be modified. The answer is yes. In fact, internal models aren’t rigid and inflexible. They can be modified based on the attachment figures we meet throughout our lives.
Of course, we must mention that, occasionally, the ways we relate to others and to ourselves, along with our beliefs and regulation strategies can be sources of conflict and discomfort. If this is the case, it’s advisable to undergo psychological therapy to learn alternative ways of managing the situation.