Clients often come to me confused and hopeless about themselves or their child. They may say things like “I just don’t know what else to do,” “it’s just so hard to trust people,” “behavior interventions don’t work for my child.” I have found through working with these clients that attachment theory is often their missing link. It’s the thing that makes it click for them and understand why they (or their child) think/act/feel the way they do. If you relate to this (or even if you don’t) keep reading. We are all effected by attachment. Today, I will be discussing how attachment impacts us on a biological level.
The human brain is wired to search for cues of safety and danger. This innate survival mechanism is one of the many reasons babies form attachments to safe people. When we are born, our brains have not yet created connections that will lend a hand to healthy attachment relationships throughout our lives. However, our brains are typically ready to make these important neural connections as soon as we enter the world. Of course, there are exceptions to this rule, but today we are talking about neurotypical brains. Let’s look at a child with a loving caregiver who attunes to the baby’s emotions, meets their needs, and is available when the baby is in distress. These loving and nurturing interactions will help the child form neural connections in their brain’s limbic system in ways that allow the child to feel safe in their world and with those around them. The brain has three levels: the brain stem, the limbic system, and the pre-frontal cortex. Our limbic system is the part of the brain that handles attachment.
Without nurturing experiences with a secure and safe attachment figure, however, these connections will not happen, and the brain will ultimately cease to develop naturally. A healthy limbic system sets babies up to begin developing their pre-frontal cortex. The pre-frontal cortex is the part of the brain that handles planning, organizing, empathy, etc. These are skills that are often required of children to be perceived as “successful” when they begin school and socialization. So, to summarize, nurturing children and creating secure attachments with them, is a building block to their success as they move forward in life.
Let’s look at a child who does not receive the care and nurture that every baby requires for healthy development. In this example, the parent may have a hard time understanding and attuning to the baby’s emotions, therefore they may struggle with knowing what the baby needs in times of distress. This child learns that their needs will not be met by their attachment figure, and their brain does not develop the neural connections needed for healthy brain development. Each of us has what is called a threat activation response that causes us to seek proximity to attachment figures when we feel distressed, fatigued, threatened, or fearful. This response is even more activated when our fear is related to losing our secure attachment figure. For people who grew up with healthy attachments, this response will likely turn off when the threat goes away. However, for individuals, such as the baby in the example above, who have experienced attachment trauma (i.e., loss of a caregiver through adoption, foster care, death of a parent, divorce, neglect, etc.), it may be harder to feel that the threat is ever neutralized. They may consistently live with the feeling that people are going to leave them or fail them because that is all they have ever known.
So, as you can see, attachment is a huge deal for healthy development in all human beings. Healthy attachment comes from nurturing, attuned, and reciprocal relationships with caregivers during early childhood. It is important to note that just because someone has experienced attachment trauma, does not mean that they cannot heal and function normally in society. It may just mean that they need extra help and healing, and that is okay. Only you know your journey! I will be discussing more about attachment as I move forward in this series. Listed below are each of the sections I will be releasing regarding the topic of attachment. If you, your child, or someone you know is struggling with issues related to trauma, attachment, etc., please contact me, Madison Slinkard, LCSW, through Psychology Today, or schedule an appointment at Little Rock Counseling and Wellness. I would be happy to talk more with you about treatment options!