The attachment system evolved over time to ensure the survival of the infant. The attachment system is a biologically based system found in nearly all mammals. The attachment system operates in a manner similar to your home heating and cooling system. If the temperature is just right, nothing happens. Only when the temperature goes outside of preset bounds does your heating and cooling system turn on. The same type “homeostatic” process is at the core of the attachment system.
In its most simple form, the attachment system is a proximity seeking system. When the child feels some threat, the child gravitates toward the preferred caregiver, who is most likely to care for and protect the child. This is how the attachment system evolved as a means of ensuring the survival of the vulnerable infant and child. The attachment system and the exploration system operate like a see-saw. If one is activated, the other is deactivated. When the child feels safe and secure, the exploration system is active. When threatened, fearful, anxious, the attachment system is active.
Attachment behavior, which is proximity seeking behavior, is exhibited throughout the life cycle. The toddler, when threatened, will go to the parent, maybe grab the parent’s leg, hide behind the parent, or in some other way make contact with the parent. Once the child feels safe, the child will then go about exploring the environment (playing). An example of attachment behavior in a young adult can be seen in the actions of a young student away at college on 9/ll 2001. On that day the student called home several times during the day to give her parents “news updates” about the unfolding events. Her first call was to, “turn on the TV Dad, a plane just hit the world trade center.” Her second call was, “Mom, did you see, a second plane hit….” And so it went throughout that awful day. Something terrible was happening that was a threat to the girl, and so she felt the need to make contact with her primary attachment figures. For a young adult, the telephone worked fine; while for a toddler, physical contract may be necessary.
So, then, how does this system develop? Remember Erik Erikson’s stages of development? The first stage, Trust vs. Mistrust? During this stage the foundation of attachment and patterns of attachment emerge. Infants cannot easily regulate themselves and they need a caregiver to regulate them. The normally sensitive parent responds to the child’s cries, figures out what is wrong, and then responds to meet the need. When this happens is a fairly regular and consistent manner the child learns, experientially, several important things. The child learns that the world is largely a benign place. The child learns that discomfort will be remedied before it gets too bad; this forms the basis for impulse control. The child learns that its needs will be met in a timely manner. The infant learns that caregivers are largely reliable, good, and helpful. And the child learns that the child is valued, valuable, loved, and loveable.
During the toddler years, which are about shame, the child is ambulatory, exploring the world, and “getting into trouble,” largely because the child does not recognize dangers. As a result, the caring parent is saying “NO!” a lot; to protect the child. When the parent sets this sort of limit, the child experiences shame. The child may cry, hide, cover the child’s face, or in some other manner evidence shame. Shame is about who you are and when we feel shame, we hide. The normally sensitive parent responds by comforting the child while setting the limit. “It’s ok, sweetie, I don’t want you to grab that cup because it is very hot and you could hurt yourself.” The child looks at the parent, experiences that the parent is not angry at the child, and then the parent repairs the relationship and reconnects with the child. When this happens repeatedly, the child moves from shame to guilt. The child learns, experientially, that while the child is loved and loveable, it is what the child does, not the child, that is upsetting the parent. Guilt is about what you do; shame is about who you are. When you feel shame you hide; when you feel guilt you want to confess and fix it.