A few years ago, American Counseling Association member Lisa Bennett took a trip to Southeast Asia. While there, she thought it would be fun to visit an elephant sanctuary where sick and injured animals had been sent to heal. What she saw fascinated her. The elephants engaged in attachment behavior.
Among herds, young elephants are raised not just by their mothers but by an older female who has already had babies and “retired,” moving on to another tribe. These older females return to their original herd, however, to serve as nannies to the young elephants. Bennett noticed that the nanny elephants seemed to be teaching the mother elephants how to connect with their calves.
“Nannies will literally push the mother toward the calf when the calf is in need and will model to the mother the actions to take to secure the calf’s safety and security,” Bennett says. The calves still viewed the mothers as their primary attachment figures but also displayed an attachment to the nanny elephants.
Of course, as a professor and director of clinical mental health counseling at Gonzaga University in Washington state, Bennett knows that attachment theory has even bigger ramifications for counselors and the clients they serve. All humans are born with the need for engagement with and responsiveness from other humans, says Bennett, who studies and gives presentations on attachment theory. People need to be touched, to be stimulated, to feel safe and to believe that someone — usually their primary caregiver or caregivers — will provide things for them. In other words, people need to be “attached.” If children don’t feel as if they have reliable attachment figures — a source for stability and safety — they are more likely to experience anxiety and have difficulties trusting others and forming relationships, Bennett says.
Bennett recently took a group of students from various programs, including clinical mental health, marriage and family therapy, and school counseling, to a wildlife park containing elephants. She wanted them to observe attachment in action in the animal kingdom and apply what they saw to human behavior.
Interestingly, Bennett’s group also observed that elephants can transfer their attachments to humans. In the park, there was no way for retired females to return to their old herds. As a result, there were no elephant nanny figures. However, whenever the human trainer appeared, the calves responded to him as if he were a nanny. Bennett believes that because human attachment is analogous to that of other animals, the elephants’ consistent attachment to a nanny figure showed that secondary attachment figures play an essential role in well-being.
Attachment theory is derived from the combined work of John Bowlby, a British child psychologist and psychiatrist, and Mary Ainsworth, a Canadian psychologist. The theory posits that infants have an instinctual survival-based need to form an emotional bond with a primary caregiver. This attachment provides a sense of safety and security. If children receive consistent attention and support from a caregiver, they are more likely to develop a “secure” attachment style. Children who do not receive consistent attention and support develop insecure — avoidant or anxious — attachment styles. Attachment style affects a person’s sense of self and shapes his or her ability to regulate emotions and form relationships.
Bennett notes that neurological research shows that humans are wired to make attachments, but these connections need to be reinforced, optimally between birth and age 2. However, children can become attached at an older age if they receive the right care and connection, she says. In addition, if a primary caregiver does not cultivate attachment in a child, another caregiver can provide that crucial link by responding to the child’s emotional and physical needs with “connection and delight,” Bennett says.
As children develop, they form a working model of the world and themselves, Bennett says. Children who have secure attachments tend to believe that they are lovable and likable and that other people are safe and kind and will meet their needs, she explains. Children whose needs are not being met generally develop one of two beliefs about themselves and the world. Those who have formed an avoidant style of attachment often believe that they are OK but that the world and the people in it are bad. Children who have developed an anxious style of attachment usually think that other people are generally benign but that they themselves are bad or unlovable, Bennett explains.
ACA member Joel Lane previously worked with children, adolescents and young adults and now supervises counseling trainees who work with this same population. He says that attachment issues often play a significant role in clients’ presenting concerns, either as the primary difficulty or as a complicating factor. With children and adolescents, much of Lane’s work consisted of helping these clients and their parents or caregivers understand one another’s needs better.
Attachment styles — and the interpersonal behaviors they engender — can form a lifelong emotional template. People with secure attachments know they can depend on those to whom they are attached to be available for support and vice versa, says Christina Schnyders, an assistant professor of counseling and human development at Malone University in Ohio and a frequent researcher and presenter on attachment issues. In contrast, anxious attachment creates fear that an attachment figure will not be dependable, she explains. In response to this fear, people with the anxious attachment style can become co-dependent and may also become frustrated or angry because their relational needs are not being met. People with avoidant attachment create distance from others to prevent having to depend on anyone or having anyone depend on them.
Each of these attachment behaviors affects how people function in crucial life areas such as family, peer and romantic relationships, Schnyders says. Attachment style can even influence a person’s career choice and interactions in the workplace.
Leaving the nest
Lane, an assistant professor in the counselor educator department and coordinator of the clinical mental health counseling program at Portland State University, studies attachment, particularly as it relates to the population known as “emerging adults” (those in their late teens to late 20s). Emerging adulthood is a time of tremendous interpersonal transition that usually involves an individual leaving the parental household, forming new friendship groups and getting more attachment needs met by peers — and particularly by romantic partners — rather than by family members or caregivers, he says.
Transferring attachment needs from parents or caregivers to peers is a process that typically begins in a person’s teens, says Schnyders, an ACA member and part-time college counselor at Malone. Parental attachment doesn’t become any less vital at this time; it’s just that peers are placed higher on the attachment hierarchy, she explains. In fact, having a secure attachment to parents or caregivers is critical to adolescents’ ability to make connections with their peers, says Schnyders, a licensed professional clinical counselor formerly in private practice.
“Attachment beliefs inform our sense of self and others, particularly during times of distress,” Lane says. For example, in stressful situations, people with attachment insecurity may believe they are incapable of dealing with the problem, he says. Stress may push those with anxious attachment to rely solely on other people rather than deploying their own problem-solving skills, whereas people with avoidant attachment may believe they cannot count on others to provide emotional support, causing them to withdraw from the support system and creating greater isolation, Lane explains.
In contrast, emerging adults who have formed secure attachments to peers and parents are more resilient and better able to handle changes, both good and bad, Schnyders says.
“Put simply,” Lane says, “attachment plays a major role in understanding our emotional needs and getting those needs met. And in emerging adulthood, it can be especially important since our emotional needs evolve, as do the groups of people whom we hope or expect to meet those needs.”
The question becomes, how can counselors help “fix” an attachment style that may be having a negative impact on multiple aspects of a client’s life?
Lane doesn’t believe it’s a matter of changing clients’ attachment styles. Rather, he says, counselors can help clients better understand and anticipate their attachment needs, which can lead to increased attachment security over time.
“I believe that the counseling relationship provides clients with corrective attachment experiences,” he says. “When we feel heard, seen and understood, insecure attachment beliefs are challenged, and secure attachment beliefs are reinforced. Over time, this can have a powerful impact on how we view ourselves and how we view others. We can also help our clients learn to better understand their attachment needs and communicate those needs to others.”
Schnyders uses psychoeducation to teach clients the differences between secure and insecure attachment. She then uses cognitive behavior therapy to help clients understand how their insecure attachment has created core, irrational beliefs. Schnyders and the client then work together to reframe and restructure these beliefs. This allows clients to acknowledge and address the insecurities and fears that drive their behavior, better enabling them to modify their personal interactions.
Schnyders says that narrative therapy can also be useful, particularly with emerging adults. She guides clients as they create a narrative riddled with problems connected to their attachment style. Once that narrative is constructed, Schnyders and the client work to create an alternative storyline that focuses on elements of secure attachment and talk about how to work toward that story.
Attachment and romantic relationships
“Attachment drives the way we experience ourselves and our significant others,” Bennett says. “It provides a lens for how we see and interpret them.”
There is no consensus on whether attachment styles influence the selection of people’s romantic partners, says Bennett, who works with couples in her private practice. At the same time, she can’t help but noticing the number of anxious and avoidant pairings in her office.
“Put simply, one keeps pushing or nagging at the other to be present, and the other is a great escape artist,” Bennett says. “Both [are] driven by their styles and both [are] really chasing the other off, even though that is not what either one wants.” The doubts and fears that drive such behavior are barriers to real intimacy, she adds.
To help couples identify and break the patterns that are sowing discord, Bennett teaches them about attachment theory and how their individual styles can affect the relationship. She then helps couples develop secure attachment behavior by teaching them how to be more available, accessible and responsive to each other.
Bennett says she often finds that couples don’t know what a nonsexual warm connection looks like, so she teaches them how to greet, touch and talk in nonsexualized ways that express love and care. Vulnerability is also a big issue. Couples need to be willing to be vulnerable with their partners and, conversely, to react gently, she says.
Bennett also frequently works with couples on how to change their “demands” to “requests” and how to respond to each other’s requests with warmth. In addition, relationship partners often need to learn how to apologize to each other, how to talk about their fears and anxieties with each other, how to listen to each other and how to turn to each other for support, Bennett says. Finally, she advises couples to get in the habit of immediately repairing any relationship “ruptures” rather than allowing them to fester and build.
People with attachment issues often have difficulty expressing themselves, which can lead to frustration and misunderstanding. Partly for that reason, Schnyders does a good deal of assertiveness training with couples to improve their communication. Learning to be assertive allows clients to communicate their needs without discounting the feelings of their partners.
When teaching assertive communication, Schnyders instructs clients to use “I” statements such as I want this. I believe this. I need this. In the process, she strives to change the way clients see themselves.
Schnyders tells the story of a 60-something female client with a pattern of insecure attachment. Schnyders had been focusing on self-esteem with the client, encouraging her to believe that she was a person of value and worth. The client was also having problems communicating with her husband, who had a habit of speaking at her rather than to her and treating her dismissively.
One day, the client came in and told Schnyders about a breakthrough. A recent encounter with her husband had devolved, as it usually did, to him speaking disrespectfully to her. All of the sudden, the woman found herself exclaiming to her husband, “You can’t speak to me like that. I am a person with value and worth!”
Her declaration stopped the husband in his tracks and, soon thereafter, their relationship dynamic began to change. With the client standing up for herself and beginning to believe that she was worthy of respect, Schnyders asked her to consider what she needed from her husband. The woman said she wanted to be able to hear and understand his needs without diminishing her own. Schnyders and the client then talked about how she and her husband could work together rather than following their previous pattern, which involved the woman placating him rather than standing up for herself.
Sometimes, just slowing down an interaction can improve communication. In couples and family therapy, rather than letting clients have rapid back-and-forth exchanges, Schnyders will slow the conversation and have participants tell their partners or family members what they need from them. Schnyders will then ask the partners or family members to repeat what they have heard because sometimes conflict arises from an inability to listen to what someone else is saying.
Attaching to a career
Like all areas of life that involve interacting with others, work can sometimes be tricky for those with insecure attachments. As Schnyders explains, if a person doesn’t trust their co-workers and can’t communicate and interact with them effectively, that person’s performance is going to be hampered, perhaps even putting them at risk of losing their job.
But attachment style can also play a role in the job search itself, says Stephen Wright, a professor of applied psychology and counselor education at the University of Northern Colorado. Wright, an ACA member, studies how attachment style affects career choice and decision-making in college students.
When it comes to considering careers, people who are securely attached have an advantage because they are less likely to perceive career barriers, according to Wright. In other words, they have more confidence in their innate strengths and their ability to cope with challenges. Those with secure attachment also are more likely to have a stable support system of people who bolster their confidence and may even have contacts that will assist in the career search, Schnyders says.
In contrast, those with insecure attachment are more likely to perceive many reasons that they will not succeed in a particular career field or in the career search itself, Wright says. These individuals are also less likely to have a support system in place.
That’s one area where professional counselors can come in. Counselors not only serve as a secure base for clients but can also boost their feelings of self-efficacy in various areas, which can diminish the effects of insecure attachment, Wright says.
By providing a strong sense of support, counselors may help insecurely attached clients perceive fewer barriers. Setting and completing specific goals — even small ones, such as researching a new profession — can help strengthen these clients’ sense of accomplishment and confidence, Wright says. If clients have shown interest in a particular career area, helping them learn more about it and explore the various jobs available in the profession can increase their sense of self-efficacy in that area, he says. If clients lack the required skills for a specific job, counselors can assist them in developing a plan to acquire those skills rather than let them perceive their current situation as an insurmountable barrier, Wright says. He also suggests that counselors use career models to assist these clients with decision-making and identifying their job-related strengths and weaknesses.
Recovering from child sexual abuse
Research indicates that people with secure attachment style find it easier to recover from child sexual abuse, says Kristina Nelson, an assistant professor in the Department of Counseling and Educational Psychology at Texas A&M-Corpus Christi who studies and works with survivors of child sexual abuse. Having secure attachment provides these individuals with a safe base from which to explore and process their experiences, leaving them better able to regulate their emotions, she says. The feeling of security from healthy attachment serves as a form of support in and of itself, adds Nelson, who was previously a private practitioner in Florida.
Survivors with insecure attachment styles have typically received inconsistent or limited support throughout their lives, and this leaves them feeling unsure of whom to trust, Nelson says. In addition, they often don’t know how to regulate their emotions or how to begin the process of recovery.
Counselors can offer the support that those with insecure attachment styles have lacked throughout their lives, Nelson says. “Counselors can actually serve as a secure base for a client. [They can] be that consistent presence by providing that constant positive regard, allowing them to explore and make sense of their experiences.”
Counselors can also help these clients learn how to regulate their emotions. Nelson often recommends deep breathing techniques to her clients and adds that some people find meditation helpful. She cautions, however, that because meditation involves closing one’s eyes in a dark room, it may be a trigger for sexual abuse survivors, so counselors should proceed carefully.
Psychoeducation about attachment styles can also help clients gain awareness about why they react the way they do and how they developed their coping mechanisms, Nelson says.
So, is everyone stuck with their childhood attachment styles for life? Not necessarily, say Bennett and Lane. Although attachment style is usually pretty stable, there are cases in which it can change.
“The idea here is that we have core perspectives that tend to drive core styles,” Bennett says. “I’d venture that friendships and workplace relationships can have an impact, but our primary home styles are more likely to set the tone.”
“If impacted by social and work settings, we can repair by going home, by changing up friendships, by moving jobs,” she continues. “If stuck in an unhealthy work environment or social setting without recourse or the capacity to go home and mend, it makes sense that we’d alter to a less secure base, sadly.”
This is also true in relationships, Bennett says. For example, if a spouse repeatedly behaves in ways that erode the person’s trust in the spouse or in themselves, then that person’s attachment style can warp into a less secure one, she says.
Lane says there is some evidence that insecure attachments can become more secure throughout adulthood. He believes this may happen as people shift their attachment needs to people of their own choosing rather than the families they were born into or the caretakers they were placed with.
“I think that important interpersonal experiences influence and are influenced by one another,” he says. “When we regularly experience our needs being met as infants, we are more likely to be able to form healthy interpersonal relationships throughout life. However, adverse life and interpersonal experiences can still disrupt our attachment system, especially after multiple significant adverse experiences. The reverse also seems to be true — insecure attachments in childhood decrease the likelihood of healthy attachment relationships later in life. However, when those healthy relationships occur, they can influence our attachment orientations toward being more secure.”
To learn more about issues related to attachment, read the following articles previously published in Counseling Today and available on the CT Online website at ct.counseling.org:
- “Viewing fathers as attachment figures” by Ashley Cosentino
- “Counseling babies” by Evette Horton
- “Counseling transracial adult adopted persons” by Susan Branco Alvarado
Laurie Meyers is the senior writer for Counseling Today. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Letters to the editor: email@example.com
Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.