Early Attachment & Emotional Regulation

We all hear about the importance of parent-child attachment, but how much does it affect you in later life? Well...quite a lot, but usually in combination with other factors, such as socioeconomic background, lack of support, stressful life events and genetic predisposition.

Prolonged separation or attachment disruption from your main caregiver when young, may lead to initial insecurities and fears, which in later life may resurface when triggered by other stressors. For example, if you have just gone through a painful relationship break-up, the experience of loss and separation may trigger previous anxieties around separating from your primary caregiver, which may lead to heightened distress that may be attributed to the break-up. In fact, the ending of the relationship may be the tip of the iceberg, and the real feelings you are grappling with may be very early experiences that up until now, may have been tucked away in your unconscious mind.

As well as parental separation, the issue of maternal stress/mental health is important. If your main caregiver was preoccupied, stressed or experiencing mental health issues themselves, this is likely to have impacted on how much they were able to help you manage your emotions as a baby, toddler, child or adolescent. When a toddler is experiencing difficulty coping with the intensity of their feelings (commonly referred to as toddler tantrums), what they need is someone calm, safe and dependable to teach them how to put a name to what they are feeling.

If the caregiver can tolerate the toddler’s emotions and through 'mirroring', help the child manage their emotional world, the toddler learns over time, the art of what we call affect management. If however, the caregiver themselves are struggling with their emotions, the child finds little opportunity to learn what to do with feelings that make no sense to them. Sometimes, they learn to suppress their feelings although quite often this comes out in other ways, such as bed wetting. Other times, children 'act out' and behave aggressively, which for some children goes on well into adolescence and beyond.

In adulthood, children who learned to hide their feelings or internalise can become withdrawn, lacking in confidence, have low self-esteem or go onto developing chronic depression. Others who did not learn to manage their feelings appropriately can develop anger issues, have difficulty sustaining relationships themselves or can display personality disorder traits. For many people, unhelpful coping strategies can include alcohol dependence and drug misuse through distraction. 

What if you have experienced difficulties in early relationships that have made you more vulnerable to developing mental health issues? Are you someone who can’t show their feelings or someone who can’t stop feeling overwhelmed by your emotions? Are you unsure about how to name your feelings or do you 'switch off' from feeling anything at all? Do you find it hard to develop or stay in relationships?

The good news is despite whatever it is that you experienced, we can all re-learn things. Just as we can take up new jobs, new courses and learn new skills, we can also re-learn how to manage our emotions better. During the process of assessment and treatment, you can develop psychological insight into how you as a child learned how to cope with life and the survival techniques you used.

Whether you became a workaholic to manage your own fears of failure, or whether you moved from one relationship to another to avoid your fear of rejection, therapy will bring these realisations to life...and more. Not only that, CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy) can help you think differently about yourself and the world. It can help you learn new skills and drop previous survival strategies that you no longer need. Psychodynamic therapy can provide a ‘safe attachment base’ from which you can explore the world in a way that might not have been possible for you as a child. Systemic therapy can help if you are experiencing difficulties in your current relationship or as a parent yourself. 

Whichever therapy or clinician you choose, so long as you feel safe, comfortable and listened to, you will find that there is no end to self-discovery. If you are willing, you will find the amazing amount of re-learning that is possible and discover that even serious mental health issues that can be treated within the therapeutic relationship.

Whatever your background, however disrupted your early years, there is always hope of change because despite your vulnerabilities, you also have your unique strengths and resilience that has brought you here. Children have incredible potential for survival amidst the most hostile environments; however, as adults, we need to pay attention to the child part of us which needs nurturing in order for us to develop and grow into mature individuals with insight and control over our emotions.

Good therapy helps you to get in touch with your inner world, realise your own potentials and gives you the emotional freedom to be the adult that you wish to be. It can often be a journey characterised by pain, shock, fear, loss and joy. But somewhere along the line, you will develop a sharper perspective, see a colour that you had never noticed before, focus on a clearer picture of you that somehow makes sense.

Early attachment difficulties can be corrected. Have faith in yourself, and remain hopeful about the possibilities that lie ahead. 

Counselling Directory is not responsible for the articles published by members. The views expressed are those of the member who wrote the article.

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