Skills for meaningful attachments

Today, we’re starting a blog series based on the book, The Connected Parent, to give caregivers support as they raise youth who have experienced trauma. Written and researched by communications intern Emma Lehman, the first post highlights the various types of attachment and their significance when it comes to relationships and parenting.

As a faith-based foster care agency, our mission is to cultivate healing for children who have experienced trauma and neglect. Our therapeutic approach follows the Trust-Based Relational Intervention (TBRI) as prescribed by Dr. Karyn Purvis of Texas Christian University. This method of intervention follows a holistic philosophy of healing as the harm these hurt children have experienced affects the child’s development as a whole.

One strategy Dr. Purvis advised was to examine the heart of relationship attachments. Parents long to have a deep connection with their children. There is lasting emotional damage in disconnection and rejection from those they love. This strategy is used to understand the impact of the broken relationships these children experienced early in their life. It’s also an invitation for caretakers of foster/adopted children to “go back to the beginning” of their life for their own childhood experiences. Emotional education is important for intimacy and relationships. Parents who use their story as an example can help their children to better understand themselves and the world around them.

In her book The Connected Parent, Dr. Purvis provided four skills, outlined in Jude Cassidy’s article “Truth, Lies, and Intimacy: An Attachment Perspective.” These skills are developed to create meaningful relationships and attachments into adulthood. Dr. Purvis then prompts parents to actively, and honestly, reflect on their strengths in these areas. By doing this, parents can discover which skills come easier, and which ones may need improvement.

Receive and Seek Care

The ability to seek care is what attachment theorists call the “attachment behavioral system.” It’s thought to have evolved from individuals’ closeness to attachment figures when threatened, ensuring a greater chance of survival. In prime development, this area of attachment occurs within the first two years of life, as a child learns that their caregiver is safe and their needs are met.

For children who had secure relationships with their caregivers, studies show a strong correlation between children’s ability to recognize an attachment figure for security and the attention they received. This attention also connects to worth. A caregiver who responds to their child’s needs with attentiveness lets their child know they are safe and that their needs matter.

People learn about themselves from seeing how others view them. When youth have a positive, mental representation of others caring for them they are viewed as worthy of care. There is then a greater capacity for comfort in seeking care. This can include caring for sensory needs, emotional needs, and physical needs, for both adults and children.

Unfortunately, not every child receives security in their early life. Insecure relationships can appear in three ways: avoidant (dismissive care), ambivalent (inconsistent care), and disorganized (unpredictable care). Studies showed that individuals who grew up in an insecure relationship with their caregiver[s] are less likely to seek attachment later in life. This can interfere with care-seeking and intimacy in future relationships. Without a stable base for being cared for, it’s more difficult to view a connection as safe.

The outcomes of how a child received care while growing up can be demonstrated through how they react to receiving genuine care later in life. Do they push away the caregiver? Do they ignore their own individual needs? How difficult is it to admit they need help or accept kindness from others?

Give Care

The ability to give nurturing care sprouts from how someone received care. It means being available to others – children, spouses, romantic partners, strangers, etc. – in times of trouble. It’s the ability to recognize another person’s needs and respond lovingly and respectfully. It’s becoming an attachment figure for someone else, so this skill develops while being cared for.

Studies show that adults who experienced secure, childhood attachments will be more sensitive to giving that same responsive care to their children. Likewise, adults who received negative experiences in attachments may be more likely to project that same care. Selma Fraiberg (et al.) called this predictor the “ghosts in the nursery” in her research on the cycle of attachment dynamics between adults and their children (“Ghosts in the Nursery: Psychoanalytic Approach to the Problems of Impaired Infant-Mother Relationships”).

Be Autonomous

Autonomy, the ability to find contentment in solitude or with others, is crucial for intimacy. It allows oneself to truly be close to another person. It also requires the confidence in understanding oneself to make choices based on needs. Secure attachment must be established for autonomy to flourish. This security provides a safe base to explore from and return to.

A lower level of autonomy during exploration can be experienced by children who didn’t grow up with secure attachments. With uncertainty about their caregiver’s availability, children who experienced insecure/ambivalent care often turn their attention toward their caregiver instead of exploring. This decreased autonomy occurs because they are focused on finding stability in their relationships.

Comfort with one’s autonomous self also results from the caregiver’s responsiveness to their child’s interest in exploration. For example, if caregiver ignores a child wishes for independence, the child may feel guilty when they explore. Caregivers who have difficulty with their self-intimacy may even abandon their child in retaliation for requesting more freedom. In contrast, if a child who learned that being close to another person is dangerous, that child may become suspicious of intimacy.

Negotiate Needs

Finally, there is the ability to negotiate needs. For children from hard places, this is an important skill to help guide them toward correct behaviors. However, this is also a skill that is important for everyday life when interacting with other people. Intimacy relies on the ability to negotiate closeness, not in the closeness itself.

This is another skill that is learned through child-caretaker relationships. The caregiver and child must negotiate one another’s needs day-to-day to give and receive care. This skill also plays a part in autonomy as it requires the individual to trust in others, and trust in themselves to know and receive what one wants, in relationships, or in meeting other needs.

For relationships to be smoothly functioning, negotiation must be involved. Studies on relationships between adult couples reported that those who grew up with secure attachments are good at negotiation within their relationship. In another study by M. Carole Pistole (“Attachment in Adult Romantic Relationships: Style of Conflict Resolution and Relationship Satisfaction”), secure attachment couples were more likely to use integrative, win-win negotiation strategies to maintain the wishes of both individuals in the relationship.

The echoes of one’s childhood are reflected in the skills used day-to-day when building attachments, as well as how one parents their children. Empathy is key for strengthening connections. Using one’s own experience as a tool can help both the child and that individual heal from past traumas.

While parenting children from hard places, one’s own past struggles frequently come to light and create barriers in caregiving. TBRI encourages reflecting on them with a therapist, mentor, pastor or mature friend. There is no shame in admitting the need for help.

Attachment affects our relationships including the caregiver-child relationship. For more support in this area, we invite you to connect with one of our counselors at Encompass.

Works Cited
Cassidy, Jude. “Truth, Lies, and Intimacy: An Attachment Perspective.” Attachment and Human Development, vol. 3, no. 2, 2001, pp. 121-136. EBSCOhost, http://ezproxy.uakron.edu:2048/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=psyh&AN=2001-11895-001&site=eds-live.
Purvis, Karyn, et al. “Know Yourself.” The Connected Parent. Harvest House Publishers, 2020, pp. 47-60.