Understanding Attachment and Children with Insecure Attachments

by Annette Kussin M.S.W., RSW

Attachment is a deep and long lasting relationship that develops between an infant and primary caregiver, usually a mother, in the early years. Infants are born with the instinct to survive and from birth onward signal their needs to a caregiver. Caregivers often instinctively respond to these signals with nurturing and comfort. Not responding to the signals leaves infants very vulnerable. Without their physical needs being met infants will die. Without their needs for nurturing and comfort met infants will not thrive.

When caregivers respond to the infant’s signals with the appropriate response, empathy and caring, infants learn to trust that the caregiver will be available and understand their needs and desires. Such infants develop secure attachments. When caregivers are inconsistently available or unavailable and rejecting infants develop insecure attachments. When caregivers are neglectful or abusive, infants develop severe disorganized attachments.

As infants interact with their caregivers over time these attachment patterns become internalized and stabilized in the brain and act as templates for relationships for life, operating at an unconscious level. Such templates hold expectations of relationships, beliefs about oneself and perceptions of others. As children move out into the world and continue to interact with others they operate from these internalized beliefs, unconsciously encouraging others to treat them similarly to their caregivers. As other people treat such children in uncaring, angry, rejecting or inconsistent ways the belief that they are unworthy of care and that relationships are untrustworthy is confirmed.

For example, children who experience physical and emotional maltreatment from their parents or caregivers will perceive caregivers as dangerous and believe that they have to protect themselves. They may do this by avoiding closeness and controlling others or responding to innocent or accidental slights by other with threats and aggression. Their perception that others will hurt them is distorted by their early harmful relationships but very real to them. As they become more aggressive and controlling, others avoid these children, reject them or punish them which feels similar to the treatment they received from their caregivers.

If insecure attachment templates are entrenched neurologically how can they be changed? Therapists who work with children with severe attachment problems have been struggling with this issue for the past few decades, particularly after so many East European orphans were adopted in the 1970ties. Therapy focusing on attachment became the model to understand such disturbed adopted children and to treat them. Attachment Focused Therapy has evolved over the decades and with today’s understanding of Attachment Theory and Brain Development certain core elements now underpin Attachment Focused Therapy:

  1. Therapy includes the child and primary caregiver(s), whether adopted, foster or birth
  2. The elements that constitute a secure attachment relationship are incorporated into the
    therapy. These include:

    • creating safety and predictability, by providing limits, routines and expectations only
      as benign elements to create a safe environment
    • empathy and atonement by connecting with the underlying emotional state of the child
    • demonstrating pleasure and affection in the interaction with the child, despite the
      anger and rejection presented by the child’s behaviour
    • nurturing
    • Encouraging rational processing by reflection, curiosity and thoughtfulness.

The challenge for parents who have adopted or are fostering children with severe attachment issues is to retain a calm detachment from the harmful and self-harming behaviour while remaining engaged and caring. Parents may need professional help to better understand the effects of the hurtful early history and learn effective interventions to live with and help their children. If adoptive and foster parents are able to provide a secure loving environment for their children, not be provoked regularly by the challenging behaviour and help their children reflect on their feelings and behaviour, children with insecure attachments can redevelop attachments that allow for greater self-worth, trust in others and an ability to manage their feelings and behaviour.