Part One: Foundations of Attachment

by Jessica Jo Stenquist, TRS, MSW, LCSW

Our brain wants to make sense of things, we are driven to create order out of chaos. And, often, it is through making connection (mentally, emotionally, or physically), that we are able to create and find meaning within a situation, concept, or even relationship. We are wired to find connection. By understanding attachment we are better able to address the core of many issues our students face as they are entering Outback.

This three part series on attachment will help you understand the foundation, the ramifications, and what you can do to help address and develop attachment with your student.

Distinguishing What is Important

There are many who subscribe to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs to help understand and describe the basic needs shared by all of us having a human experience. The model titled “A Theory of Human Motivation,” (1943) endorses a strict adherence to the sequence starting at the lowest level identified as our Physiological Needs; these are biological requirements for human survival (i.e. food, drink, shelter, clothing, warmth, etc). It is posited that if these needs are not satisfied, the human body cannot function optimally. However, what this model overlooks and based off of what we know about the development of humans, we can not obtain any of these items when we are born without first having an attachment figure through whom we satisfy these needs. As we grow and develop, we are better able to provide the basic physiological needs for ourselves yet that only comes with time. 

Attachment as Our Primary Motivation 

Through the years we have continued to build our understanding of not only the function of attachment but also the role it plays throughout our life cycle. Taking a walk down the path laid by those who contributed to our current knowledge base helps us understand the origin of our personal and societal ideas around attachment.

The Backbone of Our Understanding of Attachment

John Bowlby (1958) was among the first to give us a clear view of the characteristics of attachment. He outlined four attributes:

  • Safe Haven (Safety is paramount)
  • Secure base (Provides a place from which to explore)
  • Proximity Maintenance (Confidence in consistency)
  • Separation Distress (Emphasis on staying connected in some way)

Harry Harlow (1961) conducted the famous studies in which he placed monkeys in various conditions of separation. This led to the concept that infants will seek comfort and connection over food every time. The importance of the affectional bond with an attachment figure has since been supported by many other studies.

Attachment Styles

Mary Ainsworth’s studies (1970) did some digging into what it looks like when the bond with the attachment figure is disrupted or unpredictable. Her work has led to what is widely known as the Attachment Theory, which standardized the paradigms developed through the Strange Situation Tests. These attachment styles are still very much talked about today in popular culture and are referenced in almost every parenting guide, book, or workshop. These patterns of attachment styles will sound familiar:

  • Secure Attachment Style
  • Ambivalent Attachment Style (Adult presentation = Preoccupied/Anxious)
  • Avoidant Attachment Style (Adult presentation = Dismissing/Fearful)
  • Disorganized Attachment Style (Added after the first three by using the Adult Attachment Interview)

The Unintended Harm That Comes From Stopping Here

The emphasis of Ainsworth’s work rests on the behaviors and responses of the attachment figure. The type of attachment style you developed was due to your caregiver and their abilities and/or availability, or lack thereof. Knowing this information about ourselves can help us understand why we hold some of the views and beliefs we do (positive or negative). 

However, as the saying goes, there are two sides to each coin. The other side to this coin is that when viewing our own attachment style from this lens we can unintentionally place ourselves in a position of helplessness about what we can do to change our own negative responses to stress within an attachment bond or our own paradigms about connection. If I am only ever allotted a certain way of approaching things because of how my caregiver responded to me as a child, then that is pretty limiting and does not take into consideration my own abilities to right the situation and develop better ways of responding within relationships. 

Using the Lens of the Developmental Model for Attachment

In 2004, Dr. Gordon Neufeld presented his model about the Development of Attachment. Just as we hit our developmental mile markers as we grow physically, he outlines mile markers we can look for to be able to determine if we are on a positive track for developing healthy attachments. And just like we can learn large and fine motor skills (throwing a baseball, writing with a pencil, etc), we can also learn these attachment skills as our brains and emotional understanding develops. 

There are six stages an individual can go through when developing the capacity for attachment. Attaching through:

  • The SENSES
  • Recognizing or creating SAMENESS
  • Understanding one’s SIGNIFICANCE within a relationship
  • Feeling and giving LOVE

It is also worth noting that out of the development of attachment come the three components or abilities of maturation: emergence, integration, adaptation

Growing Attachment

As we consider this approach with the teens we work with at Outback we can determine where an individual may feel “stuck” or where they may have some skills or understanding missing. By looking at each stage of attachment development we can begin to help in building understanding, capacity, and abilities around attachment gaps and identify what would need to come next in an individual’s attachment development to grow into an adult with the internal strength to build positive connections. 

Neufeld breaks down the concepts by walking through the first six years of life and how children grow in their capacity and abilities to connect.

1. Senses/Proximity

An infant begins the journey of attachment to the parent or caregiver through Proximity by touch, contact and closeness. They behave in ways that bring us closer to them to help them meet their physical needs. This creates the strong connection between the caregiver’s proximity and the level of safety and comfort a child feels. This is where the secure base begins to develop. Adolescents who must have proximity to their peers or risk the uneasy feelings of instability have need of deeper attachment development. 

 2. Sameness

Around the age of two, we see a child’s desire to be like us is an especially important element in things such as their acquisition of language. It is not unusual to see a child wanting to wear mom’s shoes or carry dad’s keys. It also helps the growing child, and adolescent, continue to feel connected to us when we emphasize interests or inclinations that we share with them. At times we see adolescents utilizing this stage as they are seeking for identity. In their efforts to individualize they inadvertently become like those around them (i.e. sameness in dress, speech, actions, interests, etc) due to seeking acceptance. They see a deviation from being the same as their peers as a threat to their safety.

3. Belonging or Loyalty

Around three, a child’s connection further develops through Belonging or Loyalty. They begin to see that people can be “on their side.” Children of this age are possessive of their parents, pushing siblings off Mommy’s lap or saying things like, “I want to marry you, Daddy.” With bonding through loyalty, the child also begins wanting to do what we ask of them.

4. Significance 

Connection deepens even more with the next stage of Significance. By letting our child know how he or she is special to us, we fortify the sense of closeness between us. Often this stage and level of understanding of their own significance is still very weak within adolescents and they seek for, and easily find, significance within their peer group–in both positive and negative ways.

5. Love

The child moves into the fifth stage of attachment, Love, at approximately at five years old. This is where the whole range of emotions begin to help deepen attachment between parent and child. The understanding of being able to have and hold mixed emotions at the same time is deepening. For example, “I am mad at mom but I know I still love her,” or vice versa, “Mom seems mad at me but I know she loves me.”

6. Being Known

And finally, the last stage — Being Known — is where, if all has gone well, the child from six on up tells us their secrets so they can be known by their caregiver. This plays a critical role as we guide our pre-teens and teens through adolescence safely towards a healthy adult life.

Jessica Jo Stenquist, TRS, MSW, LCSW
Adolescent Girls Group: Primary Therapist
-Please Continue To Join Us for Part 2 & Part 3 Of This Series On Attachment-


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