Attachment: What It Is and Why It Matters

Neuroscientist Curt Thompson is fond of saying that when each one of us comes into this world, we enter it looking for someone looking for us. Our deepest desire and highest hope is that there will be someone looking for us, and that this person will always be there for us and will pursue our heart with a genuine desire to truly know us.

Deepest Need: To Be Known

Our greatest need as human beings is to be known, and to know that the person who knows us will be there for us when we need them. Human beings are created in the image of a triune God—a “we,” not an “I.” Each member of the godhead intimately knows the other two. God’s intention for humanity is not that we would merely live our lives next to each other, but that we would be increasingly known by one another. 

Attachment Basics

Attachment refers to the emotional bond that you develop with a person who will be there for you, and who truly knows you.

We are biologically driven to attach to others in order to survive. When we perceive threat or danger, we are hard-wired to seek protection from—and maintain proximity to—someone who will be there for us, and who truly knows us.

Attachment Needs As A Kid

As a child, your most important attachment was your connection with your primary caregiver. This one relationship shaped your brain more than anything else. Specifically, your relationship with your primary caregiver shaped your: 

>    ability to regulate your emotions (calm yourself)
>    ability to be aware of your emotions
>    ability to rebound from distress, harm, or tragedy 
>    style of relating to others throughout your life. 

The Big Six

As a child, you needed the following six things from your parents.

1. Attunement

Were your parents so attuned to you that they knew what you were feeling? A parent that is distracted by their own needs, wants, emotions, and personal pain cannot be attuned to the child’s needs.

2. Responsiveness

When you were distressed (mad, sad, afraid), did your parents respond to you? Did they offer comfort, care, and kindness?

3. Engagement

Did your parents have an internal intention and genuine desire to truly know you—to know your heart? Were they willing and able to engage with you on a heart level? Were you pursued by your parents?

4. Ability to regulate your arousal

Arousal refers to the bodily sensations you feel inside of you during moments of distress. If your mother was attuned enough to you and willing to respond to you and engage with you, then she was able to effectively regulate your arousal. In other words, she was able to soothe you when you were anxious or scared, and stimulate you when you were shutting down. As an infant you had absolutely no ability to regulate your own arousal. However, if your mother was able to regulate your arousal, then she enabled you to learn how to regulate your own arousal—to calm your own anxiety and spring to life again when you were going numb. A child cannot regulate his or her own arousal—the child is utterly dependent on their mother’s ability to regulate it for them.

5. Strong enough to handle your negative emotions

Did your parents welcome your anger, sadness, and fear?

As a child, you needed to be free to express negative emotions—to cry, rage, or fall silent—knowing that you would be responded to in a loving, meaningful way. You needed to know deep down that your emotions were accepted and allowed.

Did your parents communicate (verbally or nonverbally) that these emotions were somehow “bad”? You needed to feel the freedom to say, “I hate you” or “you don't love me” knowing that you would not be met with "Go to your room!" or “How can you say that?” or “Don't you know that hurts mommy's feelings?”

6. Willingness to repair

When your parents hurt you, did they own and rectify the harm done? A healthy, trusting attachment is not built on the absence of failure but on the willingness of the parent to own and rectify failures when they do occur.

No parent gets it right 100% of the time. Parents get tired, distracted, and frustrated. They get stressed out trying to do a hundred things at once. There are times when even the best parents are not attuned or responsive. The parent-child connection ruptures frequently. But the mark of a ‘good enough’ caregiver is that these ruptures are repaired through a process of reattunement and re-engagement with the child.

What mattered to you as a child was not that your parents got it right each time, but that they recognized when they missed you or hurt you and responded in a way that brought comfort and reconnection.

If your parents were attuned to you, responsive to your needs, engaged with your heart, able to regulate your arousal, strong enough to handle your negative emotions, and willing to repair failures, then the result was a secure attachment. If your relationship with your parents was not marked by these things, then you likely developed an insecure attachment—which means that you have experienced some measure of abandonment, betrayal, and powerlessness.

There are two types of insecure attachment: ambivalent attachment and avoidant attachment


copyright © 2016 Adam Young