Addiction Help: Learning About Your Early Attachments

It is well recognized now that the quality of attachment an individual has with his or her parents in early childhood determines how well that child will thrive. Early attachment is a core issue that has great influence on one’s mental health throughout life.

For instance, the first five years of life determines the success of that child in school, work, and in relationships. Those children who have had secure parental attachments are well equipped to go out into the world and are able to succeed. Those with poor attachments to their caregivers, due to trauma, neglect, or abandonment, will likely be anxious, fearful, and withdrawn. These children may be more vulnerable to developing an alcohol or drug addiction. Those who experience high levels of stress and anxiety will tend to self-medicate with drugs, sex, gambling, alcohol, or other types of addiction. Essentially, the child with a poor attachment with his or her caregiver may later use drugs as a way to manage the anxiety or other intense emotions and perhaps even develop a life-long struggle with addiction. And they may eventually find themselves in drug detox and substance abuse treatment facilities.

In the 1960’s, psychiatrist John Bowlby developed the attachment theory based on his study of the difficulties that homeless and orphaned children experience. The theory’s main premise is that an infant must develop a strong bond with at least one primary caregiver in order to appropriately develop socially and emotionally.

In order for this bond to become secure between infant and caregiver, the following must happen:

  • The caregiver must be responsive and sensitive in the way that he or she responds to the infant.
  • The child must be able to consistently rely on the caregiver for soothing in times of stress.
  • The caregiver must remain a constant in the child’s life from the 6 months to approximately 2 years of age.

Essentially, his research led to the understanding that infants will attach to parents who are consistent in their care giving throughout many months during early childhood. As children develop they will begin to use the attachment with their caregiver as a secure base from which they will move away to explore their environment and then later return. The way that caregivers respond to their children during this process can lead to distinct patterns of attachment, which in turn, lead to an internal model for that child, which he or she will unconsciously use in later relationships.

Later, in the early 1980’s, psychologist Mary Ainsworth applied this understanding to developmental psychology and theorized that there are four types of relationship patterns, which are described below. It is believed that certain components of all relationships have their roots in early attachment experiences. For example, those who did not experience a secure attachment with a caregiver may develop sensitivity to rejection in later relationships. This underlying issue of rejection alone can fuel an addiction and later lead one to seek addiction help and drug addiction therapy.

Ainsworth studied the behavior between caregivers and their infants, while observing how both reacted when they were separated and then reunited. Based on those reactions, she identified certain attachment types. These infant-parent attachment types are secure, avoidant, ambivalent, and disorganized.

Although there are many factors that contribute to a drug or alcohol addiction, recent advancement in psychological research indicates that the quality of an individual’s early relationships may have a great affect on his or her later life.  Recognizing the role that an individual’s primary attachment plays in life can perhaps facilitate the prevention of alcohol and drug use. Certainly, attachment theory can also be applied to drug addiction treatment, using information about an individual’s early life to facilitate insight and change.


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