Saturday, February 20, 2016
Attachment Insecurity: Not Nearly As Scary As It Sounds
To speak of someone as “insecure” is one of the great vague negative comments of the 21st century. Insecurity is thought to be the cause of all kinds of problem moods and behaviors like jealousy, backbiting, and oversensitivity to criticism. When children seem insecure, Americans are often disturbed by the idea that they won’t grow to be independent and self-sufficient, as our national values have long stressed. Such children are supposed to be forced to become “not insecure”-- the classic example is this dialogue: “He’s always carrying that blanket around. He must be insecure.” “Yeah, we’d better take the blanket away from him.”
All this concern about insecurity is amplified when the reference is to insecure attachment. Attachment is important, and (as above) insecurity is important, so insecure attachment must be extra important. Judges making child custody decisions may ask questions about it even if expert witness psychologists have not mentioned the issue.
But, when you come down to it, insecure attachment is well within the normal range of development. It may be not be ideal, but it’s okay. Insecurely attached kids grow up, go to school, have friends, get jobs, get married, etc. Any problems they have may be related to temperament, learning difficulties, socioeconomic status, or the continuing effect of whatever it was about their families that made them insecurely attached to begin with, just as much as it is related to the insecure attachment specifically.
When Mary Ainsworth, John Bowlby’s colleague, did her original work with toddlers tested on the Strange Situation, she assigned 65% of them to Group B (later called securely attached), 20% to Group A (insecure-avoidant), and about 15% to Group C (insecure-ambivalent). The Group A children responded to brief separation and then reunion with their mothers by avoiding or snubbing the returning mothers; Group B actively sought contact with the returning mothers and were easily comforted; Group C were anxious while the mother was gone, and when she came back they went to her but pushed her away or resisted her. (Ainsworth did not use the disorganized/disoriented attachment category, which was created later).
What if Ainsworth had never used the terms insecure-avoidant, insecure-ambivalent, or secure? Would we be so worried about a child placed in Group A or C by a trained observer if we didn’t use the word security to describe what’s going on? I would speculate that we might not have so much concern if we didn’t already associate insecurity with undesirable mood and characteristics, especially the American bug-a-boo, lack of independence.
Ainsworth did not create her classification plan by following the children, seeing what characteristics they later developed, and retrospectively labeling the toddler behaviors in terms that depended on demonstrated childhood or adult characteristics. No—she started her work with Bowlby with an existing assumption about security as a foundation for personality. While a graduate student in Toronto in the 1940s, Ainsworth worked with William Blatz, who did not publish much but who had formulated a theory of personality that stressed early development and the basic need for exploration and learning. (For interested readers, I should point out that I am using only a small amount of the information about Blatz provided by van Rosenmal, van der Horst, and van der Veer in their 2016 paper “From secure dependency to attachment”, History of Psychology, Vol. 19, pp.22-39). Blatz defined security as “the state of consciousness that accompanies a willingness to accept the consequences of one’s own decisions and actions”, or occurred if someone else could be depended on to help with the consequences. Young children experience an immature, dependent security, but when they are sure an adult will help them, they can explore and use the adult as a secure base. Confidence and movement toward independence come with exploration and learning about the world. Initially, Blatz felt, a stable mother/caregiver was essential, but as the child explores further, a whole social network comes into the picture. People who do not have a stable caregiver or who do not learn successfully from exploration have to depend on defense mechanisms like rationalization to deal with the discomfort of insecurity.
In the first work that Ainsworth and Bowlby did together, they referred to the positive relationship between mother and child as one of “secure dependency”. Not much later, however, they substituted the term “attachment” for “secure dependency”—“attachment” having been used for a long time to mean something like “devotion” in adult relationships. Thus, “attachment” and “security” developed the connection that is now so well known, leading many people to assume that an insecure attachment is no attachment at all.
Am I suggesting that early attachment has no significance at all? No, of course not. Early attachment behavior is a reasonably good proxy measure for how caregivers act toward the child, and how caregivers act toward the child will help shape development throughout childhood and adolescence. Certainly, the small proportion of children who show disorganized attachment by freezing or falling to the floor when reunited with the primary caregiver are showing us that there are problems in the relationship (often associated with traumatic experiences the caregiver has had). These parents and children need help to improve their situations.
However, most ways of caring for children are “good enough”, whether or not they are associated with insecure attachment behavior. Their outcomes are adequate for development of adults who can take normal places in society. Insecure attachment is not the cause of horrible outcomes, for the individual or for the rest of us. In any case, children who appear insecurely attached may well move toward secure attachment over time. Decisions about child custody or placement should not depend on whether attachment is assessed as secure or insecure in the toddler period. That may appear to be a scientific use of data about child development, but instead it is just one more effort to detour around the complexities of family issues and to define that difficult concept, the best interest of the child.