Why Attachment Theory is Important in Counseling
By Kristen Dammer
With all the possibilities of new and exciting therapeutic information out in the world, as a Therapist and Clinical Supervisor I find I am pulled in several directions. I want to learn Brain Spotting, IFS, and I could always learn more about perinatal mental health and ADHD. You get the idea. We can’t be an “expert” at everything and sometimes we could use a brush up on information that we have already learned. This blog is an attempt to synthesize information on Attachment Theory to help new and experienced therapists remember what it is and why it’s important, especially because 90% of our clients struggle with relationships in some form.
Where Does Attachment Theory Come From?
Developed and explored by John Bowlby (1969) and Mary Ainsworth in the 1970’s with The Strange Situation Test. Attachment Theory used to be thought of only developing from how early childhood caregivers responded to babies’ needs. If mothers were sensitive and responsive, then babies developed a secure emotional attachment in relationships.
But now we know there are other factors in developing attachment such as:
o Easy temperament (because parents are more responsive to easy baby)
o Low stress and depression in home
o Positive maternal conditions
o Fewer hours with non-parental figures
o Social supports available and utilized
o Mother’s sensitivity to child’s needs
o Genetic component
Why Does Attachment in Childhood Matter?
- As a clinician, it is a quick predictor of future relationships and patterns of relating to others with your clients
- Insights and understandings of why relationships are challenging for clients
- For clients to understand and take ownership of their “parts” in the relationship
What Clinicians Should Understand and Consider About Attachment Theory
- Every person is unique within their attachment style. Attachment style is not meant to box someone into a type, or to label or contain anyone
- Attachment style is fluid, changing in response to different partners and life circumstances, and even your partner’s attachment style
- Co-dependency is not a “bad” word. We are wired to connect. We need one another. It is not healthy when stuck in the drama triangle.
- We find partners that are familiar to the environment we grew up in: “When children are inconsistently responded to, abused, or neglected or have “scary” depressed, angry, addicted or dissociated parents, their brains grow neural pathways for interacting with those kinds of people. Kids that have scary parents develop reflexive opiate responses to abusive people, thus experiencing a comforting rush of good feeling around people who are inadequate, spaced out, or abusive like the folks at home. (Which explains how an otherwise sane person can pick horrible partner after horrible partner).
- Our brains are wired to think and feel: “I know what has happened in past relationships, so I anticipate that it will happen again.” Example: If your ex hurt you, future partners will also hurt you
Types of Attachment
- Secure Attachment Style: Natural tendency to be loving in a relationship. Communicate effectively, take things in stride, not easily upset by partner, share openly
- Insecure Attachment Styles:
o Dismissive Avoidant: Crave intimacy but once it gets too close, pulls away, fears losing independence, keeps people at arms length, also called an island
o Preoccupied Anxious: Crave deep intimacy, Fear that your partner does not want to be as close, Sensitive to small changes in the relationship, also called a wave
o Disorganized: Comes from severe childhood abuse, can be both Dismissive Avoidant and Preoccupied Anxious
Common Themes in Insecure Attachment Types
Dismissive Avoidants: “I knew I wasn’t meant to be in a relationship.” Tends to feel like others are taking over my life, feel suffocated, like you have the “ideal” person that you are searching for, criticizes and judges small things the partner does, avoiding physical contact, not saying I love you, flirting with others, Deactivating Strategies
Preoccupied Anxious: Thinking about partner all the time, only seeing good qualities, feeling anxious unless in contact with partner, believes “If they leave me, they’ll be good for someone else, I”ll never find anyone like them, I’ll be alone forever if they leave”, protective behaviors of texting often, keeping score, threatening to leave, manipulating
Possible Interventions for Insecure Attachment Styles
Parts work: (Robin Sharpio’s Easy Ego State Interventions). Finding the “adult” part that can avoid an inappropriate partner and find a healthy partner
o Example: soothing the younger part that is attracted to unhealthy men. Having this younger part sit by the adult part.
- Two handed approach, part that wants to leave and part that wants to stay
- On the lookout for Anxious Avoidant Traps (deactivation, activation)
- Working on finding a sense of safety and security within themselves
- Relationship Inventory to help with insights and patterns
- Working on communication, communication, communication
- Identifying when within the window of tolerance and working on communication skills in session,
o deactivating strategies first. Keeping it short
- Motivational Interviewing: Connecting to why it matters to work on communication within relationships and take ownership. Why are they together or why do they want a healthy relationship?
o “Is it in your best interest to be difficult or avoid in your communication with both ways create conflict” (find name)
Of course there is so much more with attachment theory and work. This blog just provides a brief review to help us remember during our busy clinical lives. Much of the information in this blog is from Attached by Levine M.D and Rachel S.F. Heller, MA, which is a wonderful easy read for clients and clinicians.
How can we help
If you are seeking clinical consultation regarding attachment theory, childhood trauma or relationships, I provide individual consultation and group clinical consultation and you can Schedule a Free 20-minute Phone Consultation with me so we can discuss what type of consultation would be best for you.
Kristen Dammer is a clinical supervisor, therapist, and blogger with Firelight Supervision and Catalyss Counseling. Kristen specializes in trauma, ADHD, and perinatal counseling with adults and is trained in EMDR. Kristen enjoys providing clinical supervision and consultation to beginning to advanced clinicians in private practice, hospital, and agency settings.