Attachment theory refers to the dynamic between mother and baby where the physical attachment to mother is perpetuated through an emotional attachment which is built through interactions with one another. This is most evident when a mother smiles at her baby and the baby smiles back. Through this type of interaction, the baby experiences positive feelings and increased levels of trust. This allows for the baby’s good enough sense of self to emerge and the ability to differentiate themselves from their mother. The mother’s physically holding the baby (.e. getting needs met) translates into the child reeling emotionally held and able to begin to play/explore in the outside world.
Infants become attached to individuals who are sensitive and responsive in social interactions with them, and who remain as consistent caregivers for some months during the period from a bout six months to two years of age (this is known as sensitive responsiveness). When the infant begins to crawl and walk they begin to use attachment figures (familiar people) as a secure base to explore from and return to.
Mothers’/primary caregivers’ responses lead to the development of patterns of attachment. These lead to internal working models which will guide the individual’s perceptions, emotions, thoughts and expectations in later relationships.
A baby who experiences secure attachment learns to trust that the world is a predictable and safe place. During the attachment phase, if the infant experiences warm, close and consistent care, the infant becomes ‘securely attached’ and begins to use the caregiver as a safe base from which to explore. Between 30 and 36 months securely attached children should be able to tolerate longer periods of separation with minimal stress.
If the caregivers are inconsistent, various, absent, or neglectful, then the child’s attachment is likely to be ‘insecure.’ Subsequently, the infant is often more clingy at 30-36 months, reluctant to more away from the attachment figure and explore his environment. Insecure attachment styles can be characterized as anxious, avoidant, ambivalent/resistant, or disorganized.
Consistent neglect and lack of loving care causes the infant stress and the production of the stress hormone, cortisol. Prolonged and uncontrolled exposure to cortisol can lead to permanent changes in the brain. This can lead to physical, mental, and emotional difficulties in childhood and on into later life.
Based on psychodynamic theory, the object relations theory suggests that people relate to others and situations in their adult lives as shaped by family experiences during infancy. Object relations theory describes the process of developing a psyche as one is growing up, in relation to others in the environment.
When a caregiver is able to meet the emotional needs of the infant, a secure attachment style is formed. This allows for a “good enough self” to develop and a healthy ability to relate to the world as a safe and secure place.
This ‘holding environment’ allows the infant to transition at tis own rate to a more autonomous position, (e.g. a toddler who can leave their mother’s side and begin to explore the playground due to having a secure base established from infancy).
According to Winnicott, the therapist’s context for intervention is to provide a holding environment for the client so they have the opportunity to meet neglected ego needs and allow their true self to emerge.
Psychoanalytic Theory/Ego Psychology
Freud, Heinz Hartmann, Eda Goldstein
Erik Erikson is a theorist who believed that every stage of life has an associated developmental task to accomplish for optimal development to occur. According to Erikson, the task of adolescence is identity formation vs. identity diffusion.
Ego Identity is the attainment of a firm sense of the self—who one is, where one is headed in life, and what one believes in. People who achieve ego identity clearly understand their personal needs, values, and life goals.
Erikson believed ego identity is the key developmental task of adolescence and sets the stage for meeting the next life challenge: achieving intimate, secure relationships with others.
In other words, we need to know who we are before we can reveal our true selves to others in the context of close, binding relationships. Some adolescents may fail to develop a clear sense of ego identity. They remain in a state of role diffusion, a confused and drifting state in which they lack direction in life.
Two important concepts in psychoanalytic theory are transference and counter-transference. Transference is the process whereby we unconsciously transfer feelings and attitudes from a person or situation in the past on to a person or situation in the present. Example: a student is experiencing the divorce of their parents and is crying during a mentoring session as feelings of sadness are being transferred to the mentor.
Counter-transference is the emotional response and/or associated thoughts that are elicited in the recipient (teacher/counselor/mentor) by the student’s unconscious transference communication
Mirror Neurons (Giacomo Rizzolatti)—the human brain harbors multiple mirror neurons systems, not only for mimicking actions but also for reading emotions and for extracting the social implications from what someone does.
Mirror neurons make emotions contagious, letting the feelings we witness flow through us, helping us get in synch and follow what’s going on. We ”feel” the other in the broadest sense of the word: sensing their sentiments, their movements, their sensations, and their emotions as they act inside us.
Mirror neurons ensure that the moment someone sees an emotion expressed on your face, they will at once sense that same feeling within themselves. And so our emotions are experienced not merely by ourselves in isolation but also by those around us—both covertly and openly.
Mirror neurons appear to be essential to the way children learn. As children watch others, they are etching in their own brains a repertoire for emotion, behavior, and for how the world works.
Oscillators—neural systems that act like clocks, resetting over and over their rate of firing to coordinate with the periodicity of an incoming signal, whenever we find ourselves in harmony with someone else. When we are with another person, these timekeepers put us in synch unconsciously, like when lovers approach for an embrace, or take each other’s hands at just the right instant when they walk down the street.
Neuroplasticity—the process by which experience changes neural structure. The applications of interpersonal neurobiology are based on the neuroplasticity find that how we focus our attention directly shapes the activity and the structure of the brain. This focus of attention can be within our internal world and in the relationships with one another. Recurring patterns can alter the way we connect with each other, how we experience our subjective inner lives, and even how we come to shape the architecture of our own brains.