The way we connect with each other as humans influences every aspect of life, from our daily interactions with people around us to the health of our intimate relationships and view of ourselves. Each of us has an attachment style that typically falls within four general categories: secure, avoidant, resistant, and disorganized.
The ways we attach to primary caregivers in early life is a predicting factor of our attachment style. As a “tabula rasa”, or blank slate with no conscious awareness or expectations, infants respond to the reactions of caregivers. Infants who learn that others are not likely to meet their needs consistently sometimes develop attachment problems during their lifespan. This can mean the difference between an infant who knows their needs will be met and one who learns that their needs are a burden or illicit hostility or unpredictable responses. Data from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study indicates that out of 14,000 kids that participated, 40% had insecure attachment. If the challenges are profound enough and negatively impact a child’s life, it could indicate the presence of an Attachment Disorder, and may warrant mental health intervention.
What is Attachment Disorder?
Attachment Disorder is a diagnostic term used by mental health professionals that explains a range of emotional and behavioral symptoms related to an individual’s inability to establish trusting, loving relationships. In children, this may look like behavioral outbursts and attention seeking behaviors, resistance to connection with parents and others, or conversely, indiscriminate attachment and limited boundaries with others.
Often when we think of Attachment Disorder, we envision scenarios that may contribute to difficulty trusting others, such as negative early childhood experiences. While it is true that disordered attachment usually stems from early interactions, it is important to consider that some issues related to attachment are not as easily explained, and in some cases, it may feel like a complete mystery.
Parents who adopt are often provided with information about attachment issues prior to adopting, to help identify potential signs for early intervention. People who have adopted from infancy, however, may feel as though their child is protected from disordered attachment, since they have been the primary caregivers since day one. Even with adoption from infancy, attachment disorder can sometimes manifest, leaving adopted parents feeling confused, riddled with guilt, and deeply saddened about their child’s emotional suffering.
Neurological Factors in Attachment
The ongoing study of the attachment process has shown that the way we connect with others and establish trust in human relationships is complex and deeply rooted. Attachment is influenced by a variety of factors, including but not limited to the way caregivers respond to infant needs. Babies who are adopted from birth can still have attachment problems unrelated to any experiences out of the womb. This phenomenon shows us that attachment is more than just having one’s needs met at crucial times in our lives. It also happens at the microscopic level, in utero, and is impacted by neurological and genetic factors that are beyond what we can control in an infant’s world.
We have known that trauma changes our brains for decades, but the in-utero impact of trauma on the attachment of unborn babies is relatively new information. A 2017 study of maternal lifetimes stress, cortisol levels during pregnancy and infant reactivity showed significant findings. Mothers who have experienced a greater amount of traumatic experience during their lifespan are more likely to have infants with negative affective reactions.
The maternal Hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal-axis (HPAA) impacts infant and toddler affect, increasing the likelihood of distress, fear, and behavioral issues. The results of this study show that the impact of maternal stress over the lifespan influences maternal neurobiology and even impact the way unborn babies develop. These changes also compromise attachment wiring in the brain. In short, attachment problems can become intergenerational and hard-wired, even when the infant is raised in a safe, loving home. It is no one’s fault. Fortunately, there is help for addressing attachment issues.
Managing Attachment Disorder in Children
Attachment disorder that is hard-wired may feel futile and hopeless to manage, but it can be addressed with the right tools and support. Professional therapists offer attachment therapy to parents and children as a means of helping to mend some of the barriers that can influence attachment. Early intervention is best, but older children can also benefit from attachment work.
Helping children and parents connect is the focus of attachment therapy, and it is done with careful planning and in consideration of the unique needs of specific families’ circumstances. Parents who have children struggling with attachment issues can experience growth, connection, and greater attachment with a little help.
Talley Webb, MA, CRMC