Attachment theory is the most significant theory of human relationships in the last century. It’s become a bit of a buzz word, and is used by psychologists, psychotherapists, social workers, teachers, nurses and parents, among others.
But it’s often oversimplified or incorrect (as is often the case with buzz words…). When understood correctly, attachment theory can help explain how and why we manage our emotions, pay attention, think, reflect and interact when it comes to close relationships throughout our lives.
So, what’s it all about? One of the most important ideas is that, as humans, we’re predisposed to turn to Someone Important when we’re hurt, worried, upset or scared. As a child, this might be a parent, relative, teacher or neighbour – and the nature of that relationship can have a massive impact on our development and adult life.
Ideally, this Important Person would be there for us when we need it. By ‘there for us’, I mean being emotionally and physically available, but also willing and able to comfort and protect us. Then, when they’re there for us again and again and again, we start to trust that we have a safe haven. This is called ‘security’.
Once we have that trust, we can use our Important Person as a ‘secure base’. This means that we can venture off into the world to explore and learn, safe in the knowledge that if we need help, we will get it.
But for some children, the experiences they have with their Important People mean they don’t fully trust that they’ll have a safe haven when they need one. This is called ‘insecurity’. Around half of us are classified as insecure.
Insecurity can take different forms. You might try to hide your upset, hurt, worry or fear. You might try really hard to get your Important Person’s attention – and keep it. Or you might seem apprehensive around them.
These ways of behaving may seem very different, but they may all reflect the same thing – an uncertainty about whether Someone Important will be there for you and to what degree. And these ways of behaving might be the best you can do as a child to get Someone Important to be there.
Imagine you have a parent that gets annoyed if you hurt yourself or get upset. If you avoid asking for their help, you can avoid being told off. While at the same time, because you haven’t annoyed them, you can stay physically, albeit not emotionally, close to them. And that’s better than nothing.
That strategy might be the best option for you as a child. But it might be something that creates distance in your important relationships as an adult. And worse, because it’s a pattern you learned when you were little, you may have no idea that you’re doing it or why.
What does all this mean in terms of parenting?
According to attachment theory, we need to provide our child / children with a safe haven when they are hurt, upset, scared or worried. That doesn’t just mean being physically available (although children do need hugs when they’re upset) – it also means being emotionally available. And when we do this on repeat, they will learn that when they need help, they will get it – they will develop attachment ‘security’.
Some researchers would argue there’s a little more to it than that. One of the founders of attachment theory, Mary Ainsworth, thought it was about being sensitive (and responsive) to your child’s needs. Whereas another researcher, Peter Fonagy, thinks it’s about helping a child understand their own minds as well as the minds of others. Attachment theory is nuanced. Big time. But thankfully most researchers agree on this core idea of a safe haven.
Why does it matter if you child has a safe haven or not?
Secure attachment (or trusting that Someone Important will be there for you when you need them) has been linked with numerous life-changing benefits, including better relationships and mental health and wellbeing. And insecure attachment with worse.
That doesn’t mean attachment insecurity always leads to negative things later in life – or that people with secure relationships are immune to sadness. But it’s often relevant.
Are children with an insecure attachment pattern doomed?
The attachment patterns we develop in childhood can last for a long time. But that doesn’t necessarily mean those responses are fixed forever.
If our Important Person changes the way they respond to us, our expectations can change. And the same is true if a new Important Person emerges who can provide us with a safe haven.
As parents, we can consciously choose to change our path or transform how we behave as an Important Person. Although that change probably won’t be instant. We might change by learning about relationships, seeing a therapist, or developing a close relationship with someone who has a secure attachment pattern themselves. And changing in this way can have huge repercussions for our child/children.
Our upbringing isn't a blackboard that can be wiped clean, and old patterns can flare up in times of stress. But if you think the patterns you learned in childhood aren’t helping your own children – or you – you can choose to change them.
As Elija, who I interviewed for my audiobook, Please Find Attached, and was classified as insecure, explained: 'I couldn’t express emotions growing up… There’s a pattern in my family that parents shirk their duties at the most critical time. I’m doing everything I can to break that pattern. That pattern stops with me.'
You don’t need to be an expert in attachment theory to appreciate the importance of having a safe haven in times of crisis – and to try to provide that as a parent.
As Lily, who was classified as secure, explained: 'My dad always said we can talk about anything any time and I’ve always found that really comforting. And now I know that’s something really important to impress on [my] children.
'The best way of synthesising my upbringing is… that I was wrapped up in love with an absence of worry. I had permission to be free or happy, rather than fearing that someone may not be there when I needed them.'
Laura Mucha is a poet and Author-in-Residence in the Department of Public Health & Primary Care, University of Cambridge. Her Audible Original, Please Find Attached, How Attachment Theory Explains our Relationships is available here.