NP0008 The Great Attachment Debate

This blog focuses on discussion regarding the course NP0008 The Great Attachment Debate.

NP0008, Attachment, Session 1, Alan Sroufe


Is Attachment Theory important to clinical practice today? Over the next few weeks, the Great Attachment Debate will present a variety of viewpoints from leading experts on the scientific foundations of Attachment Theory to answer this relevant question about its implications.

In this first session, you’ll learn the fundamentals of Attachment Theory—John Bowlby’s influence, the connection between attachment style and psychopathology, and why Attachment Theory is important to clinical practice—with leading researcher Alan Sroufe.

After each session, please take a few minutes to engage in the Comment Board, an important part of our learning experience and to create a community of learning between participants. Please feel free to comment about what you’ve learned in the session, to ask any questions you may have of the presenter or your peers, or to share any relevant experiences. We invite you to include your name and hometown along with your comment. If you ever have any technical questions, contact support@psychotherapynetworker.org.

08.08.2011   Posted In: NP0008 The Great Attachment Debate   By Psychotherapy Networker
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  • Not available avatar a listener 08.10.2011 13:09
    Dr. Stroufe was an excellent presenter. I would appreciate less talk time from the moderator and more time given to the presenter.
    Thank you
  • Not available avatar G. Douglas Ligon 08.10.2011 13:12
    Excellent presentation. Makes me want to learn more and more.
  • Not available avatar Wendy Belter 08.10.2011 13:14
    Hello Alan,

    I greatly enjoyed the first session. You mentioned that psychology texts recognize the importance of both genes and the environment, but often neglect the role of past development and/or attachment. Our cultural blind spot around the concept of attachment astounds me on a daily basis. Obviously, the sweeping influence of behaviourism during the last half of the 20th century had a huge impact on this. But do you have any other thoughts? Why are we so uncomfortable with this topic and why do we so often avoid talking about it?

    Wendy Belter
    • Not available avatar alan sroufe 08.14.2011 15:09
      Hi Wendy:

      Certainly, there are some people who are uncomfortable with aspects of attachment theory because it provokes examination of the parenting we received or that we provide to our children. But I think part of the problem also is that attachment security is a nuanced and complex concept. It is easier to say that a gene causes something or X proportion is due to genes and Y is due to environment and Z is due to the interaction. But attachment security plays its role in a more complex way across time. Development is complicated and textbooks aim to be simple.
  • Not available avatar jane 08.10.2011 13:15
    I am struck to see the timing of this recursive pattern in our our field- as if neuroscience saved Bowlby from being lost in the past by bringing his work back to center stage. Just as human development risked getting lost in the past due to concentration on the "inner child" and "victim-hood" that for a time reinforced early patterns and rendered them deterministic. This approach reminds us of our own agency in moving forward and risking new relational experiences such as therapy.
  • Not available avatar kharkins 08.10.2011 13:17
    I found the explanation about anxious attachment to be helpful, especially in connection with different temperaments. I had a clearer mental image of that presentation. I also found relevant the notion of the therapist as a secure base. Very informative.
  • 0 avatar Walter Mehring 08.10.2011 13:19
    Thank you Alan and Rick. The big piece I see from this in couples therapy, then, is the importance of our connecting in a strongly attached responsive relationship with our client couples. Then, to use that connection to help the couple respond to each other in a similar way. I think we can easily get so wrapped up in attempting to alleviate a couple's distress, that we neglect the first part of the equation, and as a result, don't connect well enough to have an impact.
  • 0 avatar Patti Carnevale 08.10.2011 13:19
    It was reassuring to note that intervention can occur at various points throughout one's lifetime through relationships that are safe and caring. I too enjoyed this first installment and look forward to the coming weeks, to hear more.
  • 0 avatar Karen Vedus 08.10.2011 13:21
    I am so glad that we are finally (?) getting around to explaining what I have always felt about humans, as Susan Johnson has stated, we are meant to be attached. I think this hasn't sat well with others because our American culture has been so focused on individual autonomy as the proper goal of a person in our society, i.e. ;lift yourself up by your bootstraps"
  • 0 avatar Denny McGihon 08.10.2011 13:29
    As an Early Childhood director I found the confirmation of the importance of the teachers role helpful and the capacity for change in all of us. Denny McGihon 8-10-2011
  • Not available avatar Gene 08.10.2011 13:36
    Thanks for an excellent presentation. Its breath and depth presented in a clear way. I appreciated the theme that Bowby's view/focus was about the quality of the relationship of the child and caregiver. And that this theme continues for therapists in that "change" in the treatment context is in the quality of the relationship.
  • 0 avatar Beatrice Zimmer 08.10.2011 14:20
    Dr. Sroufe alluded to a belief that we, in some part, play a role in determining our environment. Since this argument is often used in less-than-humanistic ways, I would like to hear how he explains this in the cautious and nuanced way in which he laid out the rest of his presentation. Too often this idea is used to simplify a complex analysis of social problems such as gender inequality, the abuse of power, class privilege (and its relationship to poverty) and institutionalized racism. How does he differentiate his more subtle point from these harmful ideas which are used to undermine humane social policy and empathy for people on the margins? Thank you for replying. I enjoyed your presentation very much and want to be able to speak about it with some clarity.
    • Not available avatar alan sroufe 08.14.2011 15:23
      Great question! This is not a deterministic theory, nor a theory that seeks to attribute blame. But how do we avoid blaming the child for the adaptation they have forged? My answer is that we keep a dynamic systems view in mind. A rejected child does come to expect to be rejected and because of this often interprets behavior of others as rejecting even when it is not, fails to turn to others when in need, and even behaves in ways that provoke rejection (for example, being aggressive or mean). In this sense they are, in part, creating their own environment. But we can disconfirm these expectations by seeking out opportunities to reassure and nurture this child (even when they are not directing asking for it), by being steadfast, and by guiding their behavior. (This is not the kind of child to punish with isolation—I advocate a “partnered time out”). In time the expectations can be altered.
  • 0 avatar Dalia Shiber Schlegel 08.10.2011 18:01
    Excellent presentation. Thank you. I am so happy that the field is focusing more on the role of attachments. Please, can you tell me how this wealth of knowledge is translating in clinical treatments? At the present time, we have numerous clinical orientations, such as the cognitive and psychodynamic views for example. Is there a movement in the Attachment Theory community to produce a clearly defined treatment modality? or will it instead inform the other existing modalities and influence them with time? Thank you.
    • Not available avatar alan sroufe 08.14.2011 15:27
      I think it has both informed other theories and is the basis for a unique approach. You might look at a book by Wallin. And you should ask this question to both Susan Johnson and Dan Siegel who have written on this topic.
    • Not available avatar Vanessa Roff 09.23.2011 15:08
      Dalia, ditto on your comment and good to run across you on PN. It is a welcome relief to see the field move toward a more encompassing way of understanding human development as it unfolds over time. I appreciate how Attachment theory makes room for how the complex interplay between genetic predispositions, environment, current context and the impact of cumulative, relational life experience with others shapes a person's level of function and happiness in life. And as I have had the pleasure to follow the work of Allan Schore (also a part of this series) I have learned that the real work.repair.growth takes place between the right brain to right brain attuned, resonant connection between therapist/client, mother/child, husband/wife, ...just chose your dyad. And many thanks to PN for doing this series.
  • 0.1 avatar Randi McAllister-Black 08.10.2011 18:46
    Alan mentioned art work that could be put up to illustrate...
    please include the art work. Psychologists who utilize art therapy will be interested. Thank you
    • Not available avatar alan sroufe 08.14.2011 15:29
      Hi Randi:

      I just don't have the kind of permission I need to post these drawings. But if you email me I will work something out with you (srouf001@umn.edu)
    • Not available avatar alan sroufe 08.15.2011 07:41
      There also is a published paper on the drawings that may be of interest: Fury, G., Carlson, E., & Sroufe, L. A. (1997). Children’s representations of attachment relationships in family drawings. Child Development, 68, 1154-1164.

  • Not available avatar Ishita Sangra 08.12.2011 10:28
    Very Insightful.. Dr. Stroufe explained Attachment theory with such simplicity!
  • 0 avatar Paula reeves 08.12.2011 10:36
    In valuing systems theory and practice this presentation is both enlightening and refreshing. The art and craft of Psychotherapy is capable of encompassing multiple perspectives and deepening insights into what it means to be human. Thank you.
  • Not available avatar judith schulman-Miller 08.12.2011 14:18
    Thank you for helpful overview. Could you comment on babies and sleep and Ferber method of letting babies "cry it out"? Would this effect secure attachment?

    Could you also comment on twin infant development and relationship development. Does unique relationship of twins impact secure attachment development?
    • Not available avatar alan sroufe 08.15.2011 07:59
      Let Them Cry?

      There is not an answer to this question that is always correct. With babies in the first months of life crying is not “intentional”; that is babies are not crying with a specific goal in mind. When you are cold, you shiver; when babies are overly aroused (for whatever reason), they cry. Thus, you cannot spoil a young baby. This is likely why Ainsworth found that when parents promptly responded to infant cries these babies cried LESS by the end of the first year (and were more likely to be securely attached). They did not learn to be crybabies. Rather, they learned over time that parents would respond to their signals. As their signaling capacities expanded (for example, being able to reach up their arms when they wanted to be picked up), they no longer were reliant on the more primitive signal. So, in general, in the first year of life it is best to treat crying as a signal (even before the infant knows that it is) and respond to it. Letting young infants cry a lot without response is related to anxious attachment.

      Is it then never OK to let a child cry? Consider the following situation: Your 18-month-old, who has been sleeping through the night with no problems, becomes ill. For a period the baby is awakening (or being awakened) for medical treatment during the night. The illness fades, but now the child has a habit of waking and crying at that same time. Reassurance has not worked. Likely if you let this child cry a couple of nights, the problem will disappear.

      On your second question I have little information.
  • Not available avatar hunter 08.13.2011 18:21
    Would like to learn more about how to assess levels of attachment in children after the early years: how can attachment be assessed and interpreted in school age and adolescents, especially if the therapist is not able to observe/interview parents.
    • Not available avatar alan sroufe 08.15.2011 08:02
      Alas there are not well validated measures of attachment for children, though this is an active area of exploration. With adolescents it is possible to use the Adult Attachment Interview with the teenage. I can direct you to training in this approach if you contact me (srouf001@umn.edu)
  • Not available avatar Ann Louise 08.13.2011 23:29
    I was impressed by the concept that our brains development, how we perceive and make sense of life all happens within the field or context of our experience.On another level the commentator had too much to say and used too much of the precious time. less commentator please.
  • Not available avatar naomi 08.14.2011 09:56
    I agree with many previous comments, Rick is really good but he could have talked a little less. The presenter was excellent and reiterated that, while early attachment experience is so important, later experiences can modify.
  • Not available avatar R. Gross 08.14.2011 14:10
    I very much appreciated the piece mentioned about the history of the parent themselves, their own secure or insecure attachment and their own expectations of parenthood being important factors in the ways that their children experience attachment. I know that we can see a parent tightly hugging their child when the child needs a break as indicative that the parents own needs are taking precedent over the child's and we address this with our clients when they speak about the many ways in which their parents have not been attuned to them and their needs, however, I believe it is important to revisit this understanding if only to continue to understand the many layers involved ie; environment, socioeconomic status, culture, religion, gender, societal bias or favor, temperament, attachment. The fact that not only do these factors affect our clients in the present but also affected their mothers, fathers, grandparents who carried their ways of thinking and being to our present clients brings to greater light the discussion about the relevance of relationships in relation to healing growth.
  • Not available avatar Karen Yborra 08.14.2011 20:21
    I wonder about the impact on attachment if an infant has neurological difficulty with normal developmental facial gaze, eye contact, and touch. The sensory overload that the infant experiences complicates the infant's ability to feel comforted or soothed by their caretaker who is trying to connect to their infant. Perhaps Alan Sroufe's research encountered some cases where this challenge was identified, and he could comment on the interventions provided or needed, particularly by health care providers. Is there a window of bonding in the post-partum period that needs special attention in these cases?

  • Not available avatar Kevin Johnson 08.15.2011 10:22
    Wonderful and nuanced explanation of the theory and its implications!

    The comment about other attachments offering opportunities to moderate the effects of insecure attachment supported what I ask my clients. I work with adults with trauma histories and this often takes place at the hands of caregivers. I always search for other attachment experiences they have had e.g. with at teacher, coach, friend, neighbor, other relative. I ask them to identify relationships where they felt they mattered to that person.

    One example stands out. A client from long ago identified her grandmother and had a warm childhood memory of hitchhiking with her when the grandmother was drunk. What was important to my client was that this relative had somehow conveyed to her that she mattered and was worthy and she did this in spite the obvious problems that the grandmother had in her life.

    I am sure that many therapists look for these attachments. I am glad the research supports this practice.
    Thanks for the interesting talk.
  • 0 avatar Clyde Tigner 08.15.2011 14:49
    Being both a parent and a therapist I have found your presentation very reassuring regarding possible positive changes in the lives of families experiencing these problems. I am interested in how influential adult individuals outside the family are capable of either supporting or detracting from successful attachment in a family containing a child with attachment issues.
  • Not available avatar Marcus Mackay 08.16.2011 05:34
    Very clear and helpful presentation of a subtle but powerful process. Thank you

    I am interested in what is known about the affect of multiple care givers particularly early in life . For example a situation when the mother as primary caregiver goes back to work and there is a live in nanny or au pair providing regular care to the infant or a grandmother who lives in or nearby.

    This interest was touched on by Kevin Johnson above.

    Thanks again.
    • Not available avatar alan sroufe 08.17.2011 17:43
      Alas, Marcus, the answer to your question is not simple. The scenario you describe could work quite well. To the extent we have answers, the following seem to be true: (1) waiting until the second year may be less challenging for the baby; (2) Quality of parental care and substitute care both matter; (3) stable and consistent out of home care is recommended.
  • Not available avatar Eddie 08.16.2011 08:48
    Fantastic .. some golden nuggets, "animals run to a place, people run to another person" , I liked the emphasis that you can continue to develop and change your attachment style, and how you are responsible for your context. Explaining an anxious attachment style also helps take the pathology of relationship issues that arise from it away through understanding.

    I hope we can hear more about how to move from an anxious to more secure attachment ... and what a relationship between 2 anxious people would look like (pros and cons and how to grow together into secure).
    • Not available avatar alan sroufe 08.17.2011 17:45
      You might want to see my book, "The Development of the Person". It covers these topics.
  • Not available avatar lupe 08.16.2011 09:36
    Very disappointed. I was able to see 16 minutes of the session and the signal went out. Is it possible to view it again?:
    • 0 avatar Psychotherapy Networker 08.18.2011 11:54
      Hi Lupe,
      We're sorry to hear about your technical issues. Please email support@psychotherapynetworker.org and they'll help gain access so you can make sure to see the rest of the session!
  • Not available avatar Joan Merlo, L.C.S.W. 08.16.2011 13:11
    I really enjoyed the presentation including comments of moderator. I appreciated reviewing the early significance,and also the continuing importance in later attachment relationships ( including therapy) of attunement in separations and re-unions,and in finding balance between safety and exploration. Thank You, Joan Merlo, L.C.S.W.
  • 0 avatar lou lipsitz 08.16.2011 15:08
    Overall, a very helpful and clear presentation. It would be valuable to me to hear more about connections between attachment styles and forms of psychopathology. Some of this is obvious, but examples and treatments could lead to important discussions.
    • Not available avatar alan sroufe 08.17.2011 17:46
      Hi Lou:

      There is a chapter on this topic in my book, "The Development of the Person"

  • 0 avatar Ana Luchtan 08.17.2011 13:32

    Great presentation! As a Psychologist from Argentina I notice how our clinical background is by far more influenced by the Attachment Theories. Why Donald Winnicott and his important contributions about this topics wasn't even mentioned? Thank You! Ana Mirta Luchtan.
  • 0 avatar Pamela Pitlanish 08.25.2011 15:30
    Dr. Sroufe mentioned some examples of child drawings that indicated attachment style. Would these be possible to post, and/or have a discussion about?

  • 0 avatar linda furbee 08.27.2011 11:38
    thank you for this wonderful review of theory, a great way to begin this debate
  • Not available avatar Laura Meyer 09.07.2011 09:51
    catching up on previous episodes! What really stood out for me was the connection to neurobiological mapping. Also, the discussion relationg to temperment and attachment was most helpful!
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