"Look at how a kid behaves and you'd know how his/her parents are like."
"What an unbelievably rude person! He must be raised in a barn!"
We can often be too quick to attribute a person's behaviour to their upbringing. We wonder what the parents must be like when we see a child acting spoiled and throwing a tantrum in a toy shop. Equally, when a child does well in school, wins a competition or does something their parents consider commendable, we hear proud comments like "That's my girl!"
How a child turns out is often deemed to be a reflection of the parents. This is unfortunate because many factors shape an individual’s personality, including genetics, upbringing, wider culture, family habits, peer influence and traumatic experiences among many more.
In counselling or psychotherapy, we often talk about the importance of a secure attachment between a child and their parents and how it impacts a child or an adult when it comes to expressing needs and emotions, learning how to trust others, forming relationships, and learning how to deal with distress and other emotions.
We see situations such as a child crying in an unfamiliar environment, an adult feeling anxious on their first day of work, a little girl crying after not completing a quiz in time or a man breaking down in a meeting after failing to act confidently, as a lens through which to determine how our clients view their sense of self.
Attachment and its Impact on our Sense of Self
Newborns are astute observers and have an innate capacity to capture faces, voices and psychological changes around them, and they are sensitive to movement and incipient events. In order words, they get "in sync" with their surrounding environment. These abilities are believed to be a product of evolution and essential for their survival. Hence, the biological instinct to attach to a parent.
When a baby feels unsafe and cries, the parent usually carries, gently rocks and calms the baby and the baby learns that this is the response to crying. This leads to a secure attachment. However, if the parent cannot meet the child's impulses and needs, it is possible that an insecure attachment forms and this can impact the baby’s sense of self throughout life. On some occasions, the reverse can also happen, with an attachment pattern forming where the child takes care of the parents and fulfils their emotional needs instead.
A secure attachment is depicted by a consistent pattern of care from a responsive and attentive parent. In theory, this lays the groundwork for the child's sense to develop and helps them feel more secure and self-assured. This secure groundwork also helps the child relate to others.
Application of Attachment Theory in Adults
A dysfunctional sense of self affects our perception on our self-worth. We feel unloved, unwanted, abandoned and disconnected. Carrying this core belief throughout our lives, we might struggle to accept affection and intimacy and constantly seek validation from others to "tell" us who we are and to make us feel our existence is worthwhile.
On the flip side, when an attachment becomes excessive and children are expected to meet their parents’ desires and standards of how things "should be", the child might feel that they can earn acceptance and love only by being or doing what their parents want. These children grow into adults with a stifled sense of self and find it hard to think about what they really want for themselves and can struggle to make decisions on their own.
While the effect of attachment in the early years of life can persist until adulthood, it is important to appreciate that our development as an individual is never linear and many adult life experiences can change an individual's sense of self throughout their life. On a side note, most parents can agree on this - it is nigh impossible to provide a 100% secure attachment to a child. No one is born knowing how to be a parent and it is all the more difficult for those who are struggling with their own mental health issues.
"A securely attached child will store an internal working model of a responsive, loving, reliable care-giver, and of a self that is worthy of love and attention and will bring these assumptions to bear on all other relationships. Conversely, an insecurely attached child may view the world as a dangerous place in which other people are to be treated with great caution, and see himself as ineffective and unworthy of love. These assumptions are relatively stable and enduring: those built up in the early years of life are particularly persistent and unlikely to be modified by subsequent experience." - John Bowlby, The Attachment Theory