When kids hurt, parents hurt. We talk to parents every day who are suffering as they watch their children struggle with mental health challenges or substance abuse. No parent we've ever spoken with wants their son or daughter to be in pain—yet parents' behavior early in their child's life can create the conditions that eventually lead to crisis or to chronic mental illness.
We all know anecdotally and from experience that how we're raised deeply influences who we become. But according to the increasingly respected psychological approach known as attachment theory, what happens in our very first year of life sets us up for how we'll relate to others for the next 80 years or so.
Attachment theory was conceived and studied some 50 years ago by the British psychoanalyst John Bowlby and the American developmental psychologist Mary S. Ainsworth. They posited that, depending on our experiences in those first 12 months when we are at our most vulnerable, we will make our way into the world somewhere along a spectrum that runs from securely attached (confident in our ability to form relationships that will meet our needs) through the attachment styles known as insecure anxious, insecure avoidant, and insecure disorganized. The theory has been gaining extra traction recently, amid growing concerns about the ways in which technology interferes with human interaction.
Research indicates that some 40 to 50 percent of babies are insecurely attached—which is, perhaps not coincidentally, the same as the rate of divorce. Along with affecting our overall psychology, where we fall on the attachment spectrum can be the main indicator in how we'll act with our significant others. According to psychiatrist Amir Levine, author of Attached, "The science of adult attachment predicts, with a great deal of accuracy, how people will behave in romantic relationships and whether they will be well matched—on the basis of their attachment style."
The two parental behaviors that result in insecure attachment:
Two types of parental behaviors typically result in insecure attachment: enmeshment and/or neglect or abandonment.
Enmeshment happens when the parent is too involved in the child's life and the child feels suffocated—or when the roles are reversed: The child takes on the role of the parent and feels responsible for the parent's emotional needs.
Then there are the parents who inconsistently meet or cannot meet their child's needs because they are unavailable emotionally or physically. This might be true of a parent who is struggling with addiction or other mental health issues or one who is dealing with work demands, divorce, or death.
The one symptom that's almost always associated with attachment disorder is low self-esteem. The child's inherent self-worth has been compromised. Insecurely attached teens, the population we work closely with, may exhibit symptoms ranging from oppositional-defiant disorder and generalized anxiety disorder to depression and even suicidal tendencies. They may seek to cauterize their pain and fill the void created by the attachment wound through a range of unhealthy behaviors including substance use, promiscuity, eating disorders, and cutting.
What does attachment disorder look like in adult relationships?
There are two types of insecure attachment in adults. They're either avoidant or anxious/ambivalent.
Adults who fall into the avoidant category demonstrate these symptoms, among others: Hostility, suspicion of others, belief that they are unlovable (or too good for others), compulsive self-reliance, and a fear of intimacy.
Anxious/ambivalent attachment disorder manifests instead as compulsive caregiving, over-investment in romantic relationships, heavy reliance on their partner, sensitivity to rejection, jealousy, and possessiveness.
The key to healing attachment disorder:
There are ways to heal, no matter your age. If you struggle with any of these issues in your relationships, it can help to speak with a qualified therapist. They'll be able to help you determine whether an attachment disorder is the cause of your difficulties and, either way, be able to assist you in creating an action plan to heal.
The key to healing attachment disorder is learning to build self-esteem and self-love from within rather than depending on the feedback of the external world. One of the main goals in treatment for attachment disorder is to establish authentic connections with others and with oneself, based on trust, stability, safety, reciprocity, vulnerability, compassion, and respect.
This can happen through clinical therapy, as well as experiential modalities such as yoga and meditation, art therapy, mixed martial arts, adventure therapy, and EMDR—all of which have been shown to build these healthy connections over time.
Ultimately, inherent worth and self-love must be behaved into rather than talked or thought into. The journey begins with moving away from self-harming behaviors that mask traumas and attachment wounds. Once these underlying causes are brought into their conscious awareness, people begin to heal by learning and practicing new self-affirming behaviors that lead to a change in the way they see themselves, what they deserve, and who they believe themselves to be and to be worthy of.
When we act out of fear, we begin to think out of fear and feel out of fear—and the same can be said for love. It is challenging and arduous, but with the right support and treatment, anyone absolutely can recover from attachment disorders and learn to love themselves.