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Attachment and Trauma

Bowlby’s Attachment Theory: when we talk about it and what are the different attachment styles

Published: 6 Maggio 2022


In Psychology, the term attachment is related to the child’s psycho-physical development in the context of the relationship developed with the main nurturing figure, i.e. the caregiver.  

The core idea of the Attachment Theory is that, to ensure the child’s healthy social and emotional development, the latter needs to develop at least one significant relationship with a caregiver. 

John Bowlby: the pioneer of the Attachment Theory 

The pioneer of the Attachment Theory was the British researcher and psychiatrist John Bowlby, who was the first to study this subject more in depth, by exploring the motivations underlying the mother-child bond besides the latter’s natural drive to be nourished. Bowlby noticed that the child’s needs went beyond nourishment and realized that attachment originated from the need of protection, serenity and love. 

Building on these ideas, the British psychiatrist started to wonder about the consequences of the different attachment styles and made a distinction between secure and insecure attachment. His research studies led him to explore the mechanisms within the mother-child relationship as well as the best ways to provide children with secure attachment. 

Early attachment styles  

Mary Ainsworth, a Canadian Psychologist who worked with John Bowlby, can be considered as the pioneer of the Strange Situation paradigm, the first tool aimed at assessing the different types of early attachment. 

In the Strange Situation procedure, the child enters a room full of toys together with the mother or caregiver.  Then, at different times, the child is either left alone or remains in the room with a stranger before finally being reunited with the attachment figure. 

The study of the child’s reactions and behaviors upon the reunion with the caregiver has allowed researchers to identify four attachment styles: secure, insecure-avoidant, insecure-ambivalent and disorganized. 

Secure attachment: how to identify it? 

Children energetically protest when separated from the caregiver and promptly calms down after they are reunited with the attachment figure. In this case, children are determined to reconnect with the attachment figure and are confident that the latter will sooth them when they are finally reunited. 

Thanks to a secure attachment style, children can build a series of skills that are essential for their development. In particular, children: 

  • Learn the basics of trust and reciprocity, which will shape their close relationships in the future; 
  • Explore the environment with confidence; that promotes a healthy cognitive and social development; 
  • Develop self-regulation abilities, thus being able to control their impulses and emotions effectively; 
  • Lay the foundations for the development of their identity; 
  • Will be protected from stress and trauma thanks to their resilience and their ability to actively seek resources. 

Insecure-avoidant attachment 

Children with an insecure-avoidant attachment style react with apparent indifference to the attachment figure. When they are reunited with the parent (or caregiver), these children not only continue to show this apparent lack of interest, but also tend to avoid physical contact and, sometimes, even eye contact.  

Sadly, not all the children develop a secure attachment based on love, safety and protection. The attachment disruption often leads them to become impulsive, aggressive, violent and to lack empathy. 

Insecure-ambivalent attachment 

In this case, children are highly distressed when separated from the attachment figure and even show anger or cry inconsolably. When they are reunited with the caregiver, they cannot be soothed and have hostile or, in some cases, passive responses. 

Insecure-ambivalent attachment identifies the attitude shown by those children who, on the one side, seem to long the connection with the attachment figure but, on the other side, also seem reluctant to reconnect, or even refuse to be soothed by the parent.  

Disorganized attachment 

Children with this attachment style behave in highly disorganized ways, both when they are separated from and when they are reunited with the caregiver. Children develop a disorganized attachment style when they experience the attachment figure as highly neglecting or threatening. 

Children with a disorganized attachment react to separation and reconnection by showing simultaneous (or a rapid sequence of) contradictory behaviors that range from franticly seeking contact to clearly avoiding connection.  

“Attachment and Trauma”: the major advances in Psychotherapy and Psychology  

The ninth edition of the “Attachment and Trauma” Congress, titled “Attachment and Trauma: Effective Clinical Interventions and Research”, hosted by the Institute of Cognitive Science (ISC), will be held in Rome, at the Auditorium Antonianum, from September 30th to October 2nd, 2022. 

The event – which will also live streamed online – will be a unique opportunity to integrate the most innovative findings of neuroscientific research studies with the most effective clinical interventions. Furthermore, the recordings of the Congress will be on sale on ISC website and made accessible without time limits.

Click here to find out the details of this digital event.

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