Our brain and way of being are shaped from the cradle: the 4 attachment styles

Who I am
Elia Tabuenca García
Author and references

The mother-child relationship determines the attachment style in the first year of life. A need, that of attachment, which lasts "from cradle to grave".

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Our gaze on the world, our way of being with others is strongly "conditioned" by the type of "attachment relationship”That we lived from very young, in the first place with the mother.

The first to discover the importance of attachment was the American psychologist John Bowlby: in 1951 he presented a report to the World Health Organization pointing out how, adequate maternal care was essential for the mental and emotional health of each child and subsequently developed his study in a more articulated way, coming to clarify that not only is the attachment bond not connected to nourishment (the newborn does not look for the mother because he is hungry) or to social learning but it is an innate predisposition to contact, a primary need for physical and emotional closeness that, in each individual and in a frame of development, lasts "from cradle to grave".


The 4 stages of attachment

Each child establishes - in the first year of life - his own personal “attachment style” based on the quality of the relationship with the mother figure; basically four phases can be identified:

  • from birth to eight to twelve weeks: although not yet able to discriminate the people around him, the newborn is able to recognize - through smell and voice - his own mother; he begins to implement ever more specific ways of relating, especially with her;
  • from the sixth - seventh month: the child is increasingly attentive towards the stranger, the people with whom he comes into contact;
  • from the ninth month: the attachment relationship with the "caregiver" (the most important person with whom he interacts, which in this period is normally the mother) becomes stable and visible
  • from about three years old, the child learns to feel calm and safe even in an unfamiliar environment (as long as in the company of secondary reference figures), having the certainty that the reference figure will return soon.

The style of attachment that develops depends, in essence, on the ability of the "caregiver" to respond "in a sufficiently good way" to requests for presence, closeness, support in times of stress; from being able to be both a "basis"(From which the child can move away to explore the environment, with confidence) that a"port"(To return to, to refer to) secure, able to ensure a adequate physical and emotional nourishment, made of protection, a sense of security, understanding, warmth, listening.

The Strange Situation

Thanks also to the contribution of the studies and the structured observation of the Strange Situation, elaborate yes Mary ainsworth, which analyzes the behaviors of separation and reunion of the child with the mother, in the presence of a stranger and in the exploration of the environment, we can today recognize four types of attachment:

Secure attachment

sure (made possible by a mother capable of welcoming and responding to the needs expressed by the child), in which the child moves with confidence in the environment, expresses discomfort at the separation (but tolerates it) and then welcomes the mother back with a smile;

Insecure avoidant attachment

insecure avoidant (the child tends to "deactivate" attachment: not finding maternal answers to his requests for help, he must become autonomous and, for this reason, he over-activates his exploration system, does not fear strangers and does not express discomfort or happiness when mother leaves or returns);

Ambivalent insecure attachment

insecure ambivalent (it emerges when the mother has unpredictable behaviors, at times she accepts the child's requests, at others she ignores them or becomes intrusive), characterized by a hypervigilant attitude of the child who can develop excessive attachment because he is unable to stay calm in the environment, he is taken from distress at the moment of separation (even when the mother returns, it takes him a long time to calm down).

Disorganized attachment

Finally we have thedisorganized attachment: consequence of situations of maltreatment, abuse (or unresolved trauma of the parents that are expressed in the interactions they have with the child).

The type of attachment that the child "builds" with his mother is important not only as it is the fruit of the quality (perceived by him) of his life at that time but also because he defines what Bowlby calls "internal operating model”(MOI): our representation of ourselves (as a person who deserves or not attention, trust, positive and constructive responses, satisfaction); of others (as people on whom you can, in principle, count or not and to what extent) and how you can relate to them.

In short, the overall relational quality of the first year of life will play - then, throughout existence - a fundamental role in choices, behaviors, expectations; will determine self-esteem and security in oneself and in others, trust in life, the way we approach and relate to the partner and of course it will then also have an impact, as parents, in the way in which we will take ourselves care of their children.

By the way: although stable enough, each internal operating model can be modified / integrated both with will and good personal work and (in childhood or adulthood) thanks to other significant and positive affective experiences. In short: whatever our starting point, that is the style of attachment that characterized our childhood, our ability to love and love and respond adequately in an appropriate, safe and trusting way, can always grow. And this is our personal responsibility: towards ourselves and the world.

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