Bonding: How Attachment in Childhood Affects Adult Relationships

Attachment theory, developed primarily by Mary Ainsworth and John Bowlby, describes the nature of bonding patterns developed between caregivers and the children they raise. Caretakers are not just parents. Uncles, aunts, teachers, ministers, daycare providers, and grandparents often assume major influencers in a child’s life. It takes a village.

Bonding is so powerful that babies die if not touched or comforted during their first 6 months of life. They linked failure to thrive to the incidence of a mother’s physical interaction with them (Polan, 1994). Some studies show the release of powerful chemical release in the brain from this bonding, such as oxytocin, supports brain development due to increased sleep and relaxation.

When a child bonds with the people that assume most of that child’s rearing, that child forms a style of interaction with another, carrying over to how he or she will continue to be relational with others into adulthood. Termed attachment theory, this study of how individuals form adult friendships and romantic ties has rooted itself in many psychological treatment modalities, such as cognitive-behavioral and emotionally focused psychotherapy. Though the relationships an individual holds in childhood differ from their adult relationships, the core principles remain the same. Maladjustment or psychological disorders can result from insecure forms of attachment early on.

The four attachment styles are secure, fearful-avoidant, dismissive-avoidant, and anxious-preoccupied. Secure attachment results when someone feels calm and safe in the presence or absence of the other to whom he bonded to. This results from the timely response that a major caregiver has to a child’s emotions, and the capacity and availability for responding to that child’s needs. With an adult who can properly regulate both their negative and positive emotions, the child learns how to do the same. This attitude looks like “I’m okay, you’re okay.”

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The dismissive-avoidant attachment comprises a bonding pattern, where the individual possesses a positive view of oneself and a negative view of others. Within this insecure bond, the individual perceives emotional intimacy as threatening and works to distance oneself from others, views relationships as unimportant, and suppresses and hides their feelings. They present as exceptionally independent and seek less intimacy through attachment. Their view of a relationship is “I’m okay, you’re not okay.”

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Through anxious-preoccupied attachment, a person connects with others in an engulfing manner. People with this style of attachment seek high levels of approval, emotional enmeshment, and responsiveness from others. The anxious-preoccupied attached often feels others cannot connect as close as they prefer. This person perceives the self negatively and others positively. When the figure of their affection is not present, they become anxious, dysregulated, blame themselves for perceived rejection, and doubt their worth as an individual. It is the “I’m not okay, you’re okay,” relational perspective.

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The fearful-avoidant do not trust the intentions of those they connect to. The person with this insecure attachment style wants to have emotionally close relations but distrusts the intentions of others. They fear being hurt, humiliated, and being used by those whom they also wish to be emotionally close to. Like the anxious-preoccupied, this person represses or rejects their emotions and is not comfortable displaying affection.

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Those traumatized in early childhood will form insecure attachment styles. Usually, this contributes to their difficulty forming relationships in adulthood. Resiliency, the ability to withstand unstable periods, builds through enhancing relationships of at-risk youth. The ACES study spinoff, Kauai longitudinal study, showed that positive, stable relationships with supportive adults improve the outcomes of vulnerable children through adulthood (Arincorayan, 2017).

Attachment and bonding are the cornerstones of any child’s development. The affection demonstrated by caregivers determines with whom and how those close connections will form. This ultimately affects the quality of relationships in adulthood, and their overall sense of community. Part of breaking the cycle of abuse includes an outright effort to relate to a child in a healthy and balanced manner.

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This knowledge was imperative for me, a survivor of childhood abuse. In order to break the cycle for my own, I actualized this knowledge. Bonding is a constant effort that takes great attention. Too much or too little can have drastic effects on my children’s sense of wellbeing. It also can be taxing to my own mental state after a long day at work or during tough times (Corona virus). However, it is 100% worth all the time and effort involved. Awareness is the most crucial factor. When one recognizes issues, they have the power to influence outcomes.

Arincorayan, COL Derrick, et al. “Resilience-enhancing relationships: what we can learn from those with a history of adverse childhood experiences.” U.S. Army Medical Department Journal, July-Sept. 2017, pp. 25+. Gale Academic OneFile, Accessed 11 Sept. 2021.

Polan, H J, and M J Ward. “Role of the mother’s touch in failure to thrive: a preliminary investigation.” Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry vol. 33,8 (1994): 1098-105. doi:10.1097/00004583-199410000-00005

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