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Did your parents really mess you up?

Last updated on May 15, 2021

In Dynamics of Individual Differences course, students acquire in-depth knowledge on how and why personality traits and cognitive abilities change across life and how they interact with each other at different stages in life. Students learn different concepts of change and stability, and how to interpret empirical findings on change. In addition, students learn about the relevance of personality traits and cognitive abilities for various relevant outcomes at different stages in life (e.g., health, job success) and how interventions can improve these outcomes by targeting the psychological constructs. Finally, students learn about the relevance of (changing) personality traits and cognitive abilities for work outcomes.

The assignment was to write a short text for the ReMa-IDA Blog "Character Studies". The students choose one of the session (sub-)topics, but are also encouraged to choose a subject on their own.

Sharing common childhood experiences has become somewhat of a trend on social media, and in most cases, it refers to very specific foods, school experiences, or miscellaneous misconceptions about the world around us. The last one can be particularly entertaining sparking a hint of nostalgia but also inspiring self-reflection in terms of what we have achieved throughout years and how far along we have come. However, there is also a rising trend of trying to explain how our childhood experiences have shaped us later in life, most often with a negative connotation. One of those posts took a rather pessimistic turn. In bold, capital letters it read “Did your parents really mess you up?”. As a future researcher, and a psychologist you can imagine it has sparked great interest in what this person had to say, especially because it was so boldly capitalized. I decided to dive deeper into it. The post was alluding to child-parent relationships and how crucial those are in terms of our view on future friendships, romantic relationships and general well-being later in life. It noted that if we did not feel love as children, all of our future interactions were destined to be bad, “toxic” and basically had no future. Regardless of the sensationalist approach taken to write that bold statement, ultimately with a goal of increasing interaction on the platform, some of the points made in the post itself were not totally off mark, so I decided to break it down and take a more academic approach in explaining what was really meant by this.

This person was referring to John Bowlby’s theory of attachment[2]. He considered attachment to be a “lasting psychological connectedness between human beings”. In plain terms, attachment refers to the emotional bond we form with other persons. Bowlby held a stance that the earliest bonds children and caregivers form, creates a blueprint for emotional bonds formed in the future[2]. Early infant attachment, from an evolutionary perspective also serves a purpose of keeping infants in close proximity to their mothers, providing them with a higher chance of survival[2].

Sometime after Bowlby’s theory of attachment gained traction, Mary Ainsworth conducted one of the most influential studies in this field called “Strange situation” [1]. In this study, she showed the effects of attachment on ones’ behaviour. She observed children 12 to 18 months old and their responses to situations in which their mothers left them briefly with a stranger in the room, and the responses after they returned. Based on her observations, Ainsworth was able to identify three styles of attachment; secure attachment, avoidant and ambivalent or anxious attachment[1]. Secure attachment is characterized by dependency on primary caregiver. They show stress when separated and joy and relief when reunited. Even though distress is present, children do feel assurance in the caregiver coming back and are comfortable seeking comfort in their caregiver[5].  Those who show avoidant attachment do not show any preference between a caregiver and a complete stranger and tend to avoid their caregiver all together. Those who show this type of attachment will tend to not seek help in the future and will not seek out comfort in their caregivers[5].  Lastly, we have ambivalent or anxious attachment, which is characterized by inconsolable behaviour when the attachment figure leaves, and even when they return, they do not feel comfort or safety. They cling onto their caregivers but do not find the comfort that is present in the secure attachment[5].

A lot of research has further supported these described attachment styles and have shown their impact on various behaviours later in life. The processes responsible for forming emotional bonds between infants and their primary caregivers are similar to the way we form emotional bonds later in life with our friends and romantic partners, and as such these processes motivate our future behaviours, emotions and cognition.

Hazan and Shaver took this concept further and were among the first researchers to study the impact of early attachment styles on romantic relationships[6]. They managed to identify similar patterns of attachment to those of Mary Ainsworst; secure, anxious and avoidant attachment. Securely attached adults tend to show higher satisfaction with their romantic relationship, they feel secure yet not possessive and they recognise themselves and their partners as individuals. They are able to offer support to their partners and receive it, their relationships tend to be filled with intimacy, honesty, openness and equality[4]. Anxiously attached individuals tend to from something called the fantasy bond. This implies they are looking for their partner to complete them, and even though they are looking for safety and security, they tend to act in a way that is pushing their partner away. The name anxious or ambivalent attachment reflects itself in the fact that those people, when feeling insecure, will cling onto their partners, act very demanding and possessive all in fear of being broken up with[4]. And finally, avoidant attachment is characterised by emotional distance from the partner, and fear of being too close to someone. People with this style of attachment tend to keep their emotions hidden and are balancing between the fear of being intimate and being alone[4].

From what the theory proposes, our parents definitely had something to do with our adult attachment styles, and in that aspect the original Instagram post that motivated this article was correct. Our childhood experiences are extremely impactful and can shape the way we see any future interaction and relationship we form. But is it really that dark? Is there really no way of changing our attachment styles later in life? Are we really destined to have bad and “toxic” relationships for the rest of our lives? I would confidently and comfortably say no. Humans have an incredible capacity for change and particularly in this example, our attachment styles we form as children are not set-in stone. We have the ability to change and alter our attachment styles throughout our life. Granted, some people are reluctant to change and most likely have come to terms with their attachment styles and are comfortable with relationships they form throughout their life. However, if there are people aware that connections, they form with other people are not suitable for them and do not feel healthy, it is not a lost case and definitely not as dark as the Instagram post alluded. We can think of it as Lego blocks. Imagine you’re given a set of Legos as a child, and your caregivers work with you on building your first Lego house. Our first Lego house is the first bond we form in life. But as we get older, we might not like it anymore. The Legos are not glued together, so there is a way to take it apart and build it again, and again, and again. However, our attachment is more complicated than the Lego house, but it still is possible to change it and work on it until we are happy with what we have.

First and foremost, altering our attachment style is difficult because it takes conscious effort and self-regulation. It is crucial to identify current forms of interaction with our partners and determining what it is we want to work on and better ourselves in. It is important as well, to identify emotions certain interactions bring and consciously evaluate them; what are the situations that bring up a certain emotion, how we cope with it and how we want to improve[3]. However, it is easier said than done, because all of it requires a lot of effort. Thankfully, there are various types of therapy, like cognitive behavioural therapy and mindfulness that can help with changing our behavioural patterns, cognitive schemas and emotional reactions. And even though dramatic results are not guaranteed for everyone equally, it is a good step forward in the right direction of creating healthier interpersonal relationships with the current partner or later in life[3].

Secondly, our partners can help alter our attachment styles[3]. Our relationships and friendships as adults, have a similar capacity in influencing attachment as that primary attachment we develop as children. In events where one feels anxious or insecure about the relationship, if the partner provides reassurance, responds to our needs, and shows the willingness to make you feel more secure, over time, you are going to feel the relationship strengthen and your trust becoming stronger. However, if they dismiss your concerns and push you away, one might feel even more anxious and it can negatively impact the overall feeling the relationship as such provides. It is important to identify those response patterns and be able to assess how they influence your overall wellbeing.

With all of this in mind, and that bold statement from the start, there is a possibility your parents might have “messed you up” but that mess up is not irreversible and there is a way to change how we see ourselves and overall relationships as we know it[6]. We are in charge of how we act and feel, and as such we have the capability to change the patterns of behaviour, including attachment styles that we developed throughout our childhood.

Marta

[1]Ainsworth MD, Bell SM. Attachment, exploration, and separation: Illustrated by the behavior  of one-year-olds in a strange situationChild Dev. 1970;41(1):49-67. doi:10.2307/1127388

[2]Bowlby J. Attachment and loss: Retrospect and prospectAm J Orthopsychiatry. 1982;52(4):664-678. doi:10.1111/j.1939-0025.1982.tb01456.x

[3]Brogaard, Berit. (2015) “Attachment Styles Can’t Change, Can They?” Accessed from https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-mysteries-love/201502/attachment-styles-cant-change-can-they

[4]Fraley, R. Chris. (2010) “A Brief Overview of Adult Attachment Theory and Research.” Accessed from https://internal.psychology.illinois.edu/~rcfraley/attachment.htm

[5]Main, M. & Solomon, J. (1986) Discovery of a new, insecure-disorganized/disoriented   attachment pattern. In T. B. Brazelton & M. Yogman (Eds), Affective development in infancy , pp. 95-124. Norwood, New Jersey: Ablex.

[6]Shaver, P., & Hazan, C. (1987). Being lonely, falling in love. Journal of Social Behavior and Personality2(2), 105.

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