Attachment Theory: The Science of Totally Freaking Out

(this is post 3/100 of my #100days of writing. It is not polished. But I did it.)

Imagine a kid crying uncontrollably and then running straight at their father or mother and jumping, landing on the parent spread-eagle and letting themselves be hugged and held until the crying stops. That kid is sane. The rest of us? Less so.

In 1965 Dr. Mary Ainsworth invited mothers to bring their year-old children to a room in her laboratory to play. She would then have a stranger enter the room and start talking to the infant. The mother would sneak out of the room. The kid would panic.

Later on this same study was repeated with heartbeat monitors on the infants to detect stress levels.

Infants reacted in four different ways. Most kids explored the toys when the mother was present, got nervous with the stranger and then cried and let the mom soothe them when she came back. This is called a secure attachment style and it’s what we do when we’re at our best.

But some kids didn’t play much at all. They just sat in the room with the mom and the toys and then the stranger came in and the infant acted like they were fine. The mom left and they were fine. They weren’t interested in the toys but everything was fine. The heartbeat monitors showed otherwise — the infant was very distressed throughout, regardless of who was in the room.

This is called ‘avoidant’ attachment and it happens when the infant learns really, really early that if they express a need it will consistently not get met. This can happen if a set of parents practice overly tough parenting or if a parent has mental health issues or if a family trauma occurs at an early age. The little one builds a hyperactive mental system for working through their emotions independently, not expecting other people to meet their needs.

Some kids not only didn’t play but were anxious right from the start. They might have acted resentful or passively helpless. The whole situation was too much for them from beginning to end. This is called ‘ambivalent’ attachment and it happens when the infant learns that their needs can be met by the caregiver but in a totally unpredictable way. Sometimes everything is fine but other times it’s like the caregiver isn’t even there and there’s no pattern that the infant can figure out that would allow them to predict whether it’s worthwhile to express a need.

Ambivalent attachment can happen when a parent has a substance abuse problem or any number of other issues that could prevent them from being consistently available for their child more than at least half the time.

The final set of infants are like the avoidant or ambivalent ones except that, for them, the fear they experience is dramatically heightened. When presented with the stressful situation they’d move their bodies in jerky motions or they’d freeze in place. For them this minor discomfort was torture. This type is called the ‘disorganized’ attachment style. In both the original study and follow-up studies there’s a very strong correlation between infants who act this way and mothers who’ve suffered a severe trauma right before or around the birth of the child (like the loss of a parent).

Over two-thirds of middle class babies appear to have ‘secure’ attachment styles. Which is awesome. But unless you’re both middle-class and in that 70% you might be the type to respond to relational stress by hiding your needs, by feeling resentful or helpless about your relational needs, or by feeling generally scared in relationships.

For me there’s comfort in knowing that, regardless of what my instincts teach me, the best, healthiest way to relate to a loved one who wants to care for me is to run at them with my arms open and to let them love me until I feel better. And the best way to allow my loved ones to be healthy is to let them run at me and jump into my arms, too.

(sources can mostly be found starting here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Strange_situation)

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