Attachment is a psychological term describing the nature of the emotional relationship shared initially between a child and their primary caregiver(s) and later within important adult relationships.
In childhood, healthy or ‘secure’ attachments are characteristic of children whose physical and emotional needs are adequately met by their primary caregivers; they develop a general sense of safety, security, and feel loved. Through these early interactions, they learn that the world is a relatively safe and predictable place and that they can rely on people who care about them for support and reassurance during times of stress.
Attachment also provides a context for regulating emotion. In healthy relationships, we learn that emotional distress (e.g. fears or feelings of sadness) can be shared with people who care about us. Through their eye contact, familiar tone of voice, and comforting touch, we feel less alone, supported, and validated. Our emotions become co-regulated with the help of other people.
If our experiences during childhood involved interactions where we may have experienced emotional neglect or abuse, or if our parents just did not know how to respond to our emotional needs in an empathetic and attuned way, we may develop characteristics of an ‘insecure attachment.’ In these situations, children will generally adapt by suppressing or minimizing their emotional needs, or by being excessively anxious or cautious about trusting others, requiring continuous reassurance. While these alternative ways of coping may have been adaptive during childhood, they can continue to operate outside of our awareness, become overgeneralized, and cause significant problems in our present relationships.
Therapy can often be helpful to explore implicit attachment dynamics that influence the ways in which we regulate distressing emotion and how we relate to significant others. During the therapeutic process, the client and therapist may collaboratively explore the degree to which unresolved emotions tied to early attachment relationships, could be influencing some aspect of the client’s current life. Thus, our therapists will sometimes use an attachment-focused therapy approach to make sense of these early experiences and challenge tenacious emotional reflexes tied to the past.