We’ve known for a long time that what happens to us very early in life can powerfully shape who we become for the rest of our life.
Specifically, what happened for you pre-verbally—before you had language and could express your thoughts or feelings in words—will impact you profoundly as you grow up.
You can’t remember these experiences directly. But even though we can’t remember these events, the memories are still stored in our bodies. They live in the form of physiological reactions, emotions, and relational patterns.
For example, let’s say when you began to cry as an infant, your mother came in and hit you, then yelled at you to “Shut up!”
Let’s also say that she did this repeatedly.
Your body would have developed certain reactions to those encounters with your mom. As an adult, your body probably becomes tense and tightens up any time you feel angry. You probably feel very anxious and it’s likely that you withdraw from people when you feel this way, scared your anger will get you in trouble.
You feel that way because your body remembers the encounters with your mom from when you were an infant, even if your brain has long since forgotten.
One of the first researchers to articulate the impact of early relationships was John Bowlby. Bowlby talked about relational patterns that formed early in childhood, and he called these “attachment styles.”
3 Parenting Styles and 3 Attachment Styles
According to Bowlby, there are three types of parents:
1. Predictably responsive
First are the “good enough” parents, who provided predictable support to their young children during the first two years of their lives.
In a supportive environment, the child grows up viewing other people as safe harbors. For the rest of their lives, they’ll look to other people as a place from which they can launch into the world with courage. Bowlby called this a “secure attachment.”
2. Unpredictably responsive
Next is the unpredictable parent. In this scenario, the child never knows what the parent will do. The child doesn’t know if what he does will be rewarded with attention, and he doesn’t know if and when he’ll be seen.
Later in life, these kids will work hard to please other people out of the hope that one day they’ll get it right enough to earn positive attention. They believe that their parents’ failure to respond predictably is their own fault.
That’s why they work so hard to earn attention and favor. Bowlby described this style as an “anxious ambivalent” attachment style.
3. Predictably unresponsive
Finally is the parent who is not attentive to their child, who’s not there to soothe her when she cries out for help. These children end up withdrawing out of certainty that if they showed up in relationship, no one would be there for them. Bowlby’s term for this style was simply “avoidant.”
You Don’t Have to Be Trapped in Your Attachment Style
These attachment styles—formed so early in life—can be difficult to break, but there is such a thing as earned security.
Earned security comes from the hard work of taking the risk to be who we are in relationship and discovering we are loved. We can create a world for ourselves that feels safe and secure, complete with an internal sense of our place and belonging in the world.
Sometimes this can be in long-term therapy, but other times it means making the brave decision to be present, to not withdraw or avoid people when we feel angry or anxious, but reach out to find hope and comfort in the relationships we have around us.
In that way, we can begin to find an adult version of security, and the great news is that it’s possible for anyone to make the change, no matter what happened to you earlier in life.