childhood attachment to mum

How does ‘secure’ or ‘insecure’ childhood attachment to mum affect the quality of our adult relationships?

What is ‘attachment’?

Attachment can be described as an emotional bond forming between infant and primary caregiver – who is often, but not always, the birth mum. This relationship starts to develop upon birth and progresses throughout each and every day by way of the regular daily routines of caring for a newborn. The infant’s immediate needs are, of course, mostly physical (e.g. hunger, tiredness, discomfort), but reliable and appropriate responses to a baby’s demands supports not only physical growth but the development of secure emotional attachment. Thus, the attachment process may occur naturally and in due course, as new mums often instinctively nurture emotional security through their loving responses to baby’s physical needs. In doing so, the infant begins to learn that mum can be trusted. Simultaneously, the emotional bond is strengthened by means of communication, both non-verbal and verbal, for example, when mums cradle their babies, hold them close, stroke their faces or gently rub their backs, and when they look into their baby’s eyes, all the while smiling, talking and singing.  

Why is attachment so important?

Attachment theorists John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth pioneered research into the importance of secure attachment, explaining that it helps children develop emotional resilience, optimism, confidence and self-esteem, personality traits which support the future development of relationships that are both fulfilling and constructive. Conversely, if secure attachment is not achieved during childhood, children may go on to develop negative behaviour traits that persist into adolescence and adulthood, and which may jeopardise their ability to build stable and meaningful connections with people in their lives.

What is ‘attachment’?

Is ‘secure attachment’ the same as ‘attachment parenting’?

Child-rearing practices that correspond to a style known as ‘attachment parenting’ as advocated by Dr William Sears suggest that parents observe seven ‘Baby Bs’: birth bonding, breast feeding, baby-wearing, bedding close to the baby, belief in the baby’s cry, balance and boundaries and beware of baby trainers *. While each of these seven practices may help to create an emotional bond between infant and caregiver, we should remember that rigid adherence to the seven ‘Baby Bs’ does not guarantee secure attachment. It’s also important that a new mum doesn’t feel as though she has failed if she is unable to observe the full set of attachment parenting guidelines. For example, a mum who is hoping for a home birth with few medical interventions but ends up having an emergency c-section may feel she has missed out on the birth bonding process of a normal delivery. Or if she becomes unable to continue breastfeeding she may feel disappointed with herself by giving the baby formula milk instead.

A ‘good-enough’ mum

A loving, capable mum doesn’t have to be perfect; however, she does need to be kind to herself as well as to her baby and remember that the development of secure attachment is not dependent upon strict adherence to the attachment parenting style. When mums become highly anxious and self-critical about their own competence, it can have a negative effect on their self-esteem, which in turn, snatches away any precious moments of joy and wonder that can be found amid the exhaustion of caring for a newborn.

Furthermore, anxiety and lack of self-esteem might also reduce a mum’s confidence in her ability to ‘read’ her baby’s communication cues; a continual failure to acknowledge the infant’s signals could lead to insecure attachment. However, a ‘good enough’ mum is one who is responsive enough: she is sufficiently attuned to her infant’s needs so that the occasional minor misinterpretations of baby’s communication cues remain insignificant to their strengthening bond.

A ‘good-enough’ mum

How does insecure attachment affect adult relationships?

Insecure attachment can be described according to three categories: ambivalent, avoidant-dismissive and disorganised.

Ambivalent attachment

Adults who demonstrate ambivalent attachment (also known as ‘anxious attachment’ ‘anxious-preoccupied’ or ‘ambivalent anxious’) may seem needy, anxious and indecisive, lacking confidence and self-esteem. They strive for emotional connection and a sense of belonging but are continually fearful of being rejected by others.

Those who show signs of ambivalent attachment may have been raised by a mum whose parenting approach was inconsistent, sometimes responding attentively and at other times becoming distracted and disengaged. Inconsistent responses to the child may lead to an adult who feels anxious as to whether his or her feelings or needs will be valued or understood.

Avoidant-dismissive attachment

Unlike ambivalent attachment, those with avoidant-dismissive attachment do not crave closeness. Instead they avoid all intimacy, dependence on others and being depended upon.

The possible reasons for avoidant-dismissive attachment suggest a mum who was absent (physically or emotionally) or who showed an attitude of rejection towards her infant. As a result, the child learns to self-soothe and to maintain emotional distance from others, and he or she may remain wary and avoid any close relationships during adulthood, too.

Disorganised attachment

Adults who display behaviours associated with disorganised attachment (sometimes known as fearful-avoidant attachment) may have experienced some kind of trauma, neglect or abuse during childhood. As a consequence, the world may seem a frightening place where no one can be trusted. Sadly, insecure attachment of this kind also leads people to believe they do not deserve to receive love or to feel any emotional connection with others.

For a person with disorganised attachment, it’s possible that during childhood, the mum neglected her infant’s needs or behaved in erratic or chaotic ways. It’s also possible that the mum’s behaviour was at times comforting and then frightening; this confusing incongruity bewilders the child and may lead to lifelong confusion about relationships during adulthood.