For years psychology students have been bombarded by the dozens of competing theories that form a rather unstable foundation for the overall field. Navigating these theories by students, or just interested laymen can be like walking through a minefield. Freudian theory, Gestalt, Adlerian, and psychoanalytic theory on one end, with radical behaviorism, rational emotive and reality therapy on the other end, just to name a few.
Some practitioners insisted that you pick a theory and stick with it, warts and all, kind of like a rocky marriage. Others became fond of calling themselves "eclectic", meaning they simply picked and chose (sometimes randomly) from whatever appealed to them from some theory at a given moment. Continuing with the marriage analogy, I suppose this would be the equivalent of an "open marriage". You can guess the potential problems.
Finally some practitioners, of which I am one, have chosen to use the term "integrative" rather than eclectic. Rather than picking and choosing at random, we systematically choose the best and most useful parts of each theory and assemble these ideas, techniques and tools in a precise way. More work but more effective: leading to a purposeful, balanced and healthy marriage, to conclude the analogy.
New "Integrative Friendly" Research
Us integrative practitioners have been gifted some very timely and much needed recent research, helping us to see psychology, human behavior, and therapeutic practices in a much more holistic way. This cutting edge research has come on two fronts; the very recent and constantly expanding understanding of neuroscience, and the slightly more advanced but still relatively recent research on attachment.
It is on attachment research that I will focus on for the remainder of this article. Now attachment theory, introduced by John Bowlby, has been around for a few decades now, but as it started from merely observing infant/mother interactions, it was, for many years seen as interesting but not meaningful in working with any population other than mothers and their infants. Bowlby however knew otherwise. Trained in psychoanalytic theory (a spin off of Freudian theory) but discontent with the theories ability to explain what he was seeing in his work he began to search for something else. Eventually he became inspired to study infant/mother interactions from working with a group of juvenile delinquents in a behavior modification type setting, though this predated B. F. Skinner and modern behavior modification. Bowlby realized that almost without exception these delinquent adolescents had come from abusive and neglectful mothers. He wondered, what could be the connection? His initial research gave him hints, but it wasn't until he followed those infants into adolescence and adulthood that he realized the true significance.
The Attachment Revolution
As a result, attachment research has absolutely exploded over the past twenty to twenty five years, revealing some of the most profound truths about human beings and their relationships! Combined with the findings of neuroscience, integrated with the original untainted research of behaviorists like B. F. Skinner, validating a portion of Freud's view that one's initial relationship with their mother formed the basis for all subsequent relationships, and confirming Erik Eriksson's theory that trust was the most important initial factor of human development, we now have a single solid framework with which to understand a great percentage of human behavior, emotions and relationships!
Was that a run on sentence? I guess it was. Oh well, I'm just really excited by this attachment revolution! And if that makes me a bit of a geek, so be it.
Unfortunately with the research being relatively new, if you took a psychology class just ten years ago, with a textbook that was probably published ten years before that, attachment theory was probably only briefly mentioned and most students passed right over it because it certainly wouldn't have been on any tests!
What Bowlby found and subsequent research has repeatedly verified, is that the attachments or bonds we build from our earliest moments in life (in fact some evidence suggests it begins in the womb) ends up significantly impacting our relationships for the rest of our lives!
This critical "attachment window" seems to be from birth to about three years of age. This age window, known as a "critical period" in developmental research has been thoroughly confirmed by multiple studies in both attachment and neuroscience. This means that children who are abused, neglected or experience other significant and extended trauma during these first three years will likely have a difficult time in relationships, with a marked inability to trust, for many years to come. Without effective treatment it may impact their entire lives!
The clinical diagnosis for children who experience these significant relationship and trust deficits as a direct result of extended trauma is called Reactive Attachment Disorder. It is one of the most serious and difficult to treat of any childhood diagnosis. But it can be treated! I have personally worked with a couple hundred children with this diagnosis, sometimes individually, but primarily within a treatment center setting. Due to excellent training from experts in the field, and an outstanding team of committed individuals, I have seen at least some improvement in approximately 85% of those we've served, significant improvement in 50-60%, and nearly full recovery in probably 10%. It should be noted that those with full recovery are usually those we begin serving by age two or three.
Symptoms of attachment problems in children may include: defiance, aggression, lying, anxiety, lack of empathy or remorse, emotional manipulation, obsession with being in control, indiscriminate affection (this refers to a child craving and seeking affection from strangers, as opposed to well attached children who tend to be shy and cautious around strangers until a trusted adult signals that the new individual is safe) and obsessive attachment to and collection of inanimate objects.
These all stem from a basic lack of trust, and are the child's attempts to maintain a sense of control and order in their lives. Their experience has wired them to believe that they are not safe if someone else is in control!
When Reactive Attachment Disorder is not properly treated during childhood it often leads to severe relational problems as adults. In women it often leads to Borderline Personality Disorder, and in men it often turns intoAntisocial Personality Disorder or Narcissistic Personality Disorder, which are very closely related. It should be mentioned that personality disorders are distinguished from all other mental health diagnoses, because rather than affecting a portion of one's life, personality disorders are all encompassing. Of course skilled therapists can treat and have success with these adult versions of attachment disorders as well.
As an interesting side note, the renowned author J.K. Rowling seems to have understood much of this in her development of possibly the most famous fictional psychopath of all time: Voldemort from the famous Harry Potter series. He meets the criteria perfectly!
Growing up in an orphanage he did not have the opportunity to develop secure attachments or relationships of trust. As a result he became obsessed with collecting inanimate objects as mentioned in the symptoms above (if you can't attach to a person, apparently the mind still seeks something to attach to). He continued to be unable trust anyone including Dumbledore, leading him to seek power and control in order to feel safe. He used emotional manipulation to gain followers and he never felt any empathy or remorse!
If you're interested in a more in depth discussion of Voldemort's attachment issues, check out the YouTube link below.
Great authors always seem to have an uncanny ability to grasp human nature. This is probably what makes them so successful. I should make the disclaimer however that adults with the personality disorders mentioned above almost never turn out anything like Voldemort! Rather they typically go through life, sabotaging relationship after relationship until they get help.
Conclusion and Application
Obviously in light of this information it is incumbent upon all of us who have any interaction with children in our lives to make sure those interactions promote safety, security and trust. All children deserve to feel loved, cherished, valued and protected!
But perhaps on a more personal note, we should all realize that while few of us meet the criteria for an attachment disorder or personality disorder, attachment is not all or nothing- either you have it or you don't- rather it could be more accurately described as a spectrum. We all may want to consider where we would fall on that spectrum because it will influence the quality of our relationships. Some questions you could ask yourself:
- how insecure am I in relationships? (Insecurity is directly related to attachment)
- how hard or easy is it for me to trust those who are closest to me and love me?
- how comfortable am I in situations where someone else is in control? Do I feel compelled to take it back?
- do I emotionally manipulate others to get what I want?
- have I ever placed more value on an inanimate object that I'm attached to, or on an idea that I'm attached to than on a person I care about? (we all have objects of sentimental value and ideas that are important to us, this is healthy. What isn't healthy is ever making things or ideas more important than people!)
If you are honest with yourself in this little self awareness exercise, you will probably learn something that will help you in your relationships. Self awareness is a critical relationship skill.
I hope you have enjoyed this and maybe even learned something about yourself as well. Good luck!