According to Fonagy (2011), secure attachment is expected to be beneficial in terms of a range of cognitive and social competences. For example, when the fear system is activated by what Bowlby called natural cues to danger (e.g., unfamiliarity, sudden noise, isolation), the child instantaneously pursues a foundation of protection and safety, the attachment figure (R. Bowlby, 2008). For the child, attachment figures are objects of proximity and protection who provide a secure base and a sense of security from which the child can begin to discover the world and develop their own capacities and personality (Keren & Mayseless, 2013). The child’s primary focus is on the mother figure during early years of development. With age, according to Bowlby (1960), these attachment functions gradually shift from parents to other figures outside the family of origin (e.g., peers and teachers) as part of normative, healthy growth and development. When the mother and affectional figures have shown to be accommodating when needed, children are able to feel a sense of confidence in their accessibility, especially when comfort and care is flexible, consistent, and readily available (Sable, 2008). However, some children have attachment experiences of emotional or physical abuse, neglect, disconfirmation of feelings, or prolonged separation or loss, in addition to threats of being abandoned or no longer loved (Sable, 2008). In these painful relationships, some feelings and thoughts of attachment may be defensively erased from awareness, resulting in inflexible and inconsistent mental mechanisms (Keren & Mayseless, 2013). Without the support of a stable and consistent attachment figure, children might begin to have difficulty making sense of themselves, which can result in problematic affect regulation and reflective functioning capacity (Zucker, 2014). Children without a secure and healthy attachment system are susceptible to stress and at an increased risk of experiencing trauma, anxiety, depression, and other mental health disorders (Lander, Howsare, & Byrne, 2013). The quality of the attachment system that developed with child and mother during infancy can have a profound effect on the child’s ability to form healthy and secure attachments with their own children and with other adults (Zucker, 2014).
From an environmental perspective of attachment, emotional distress might cause internalization of past and present affectional experiences, especially those experiences that might have had an effect on personal feelings of self-reliance and insecurity (Fonagy, 2011). According to Sable (2008), ethological failures such as inconsistent or rejecting parenting can have a tremendous effect on healthy personality development, resulting in distorted internal working models that may continue to affect an individual into adulthood. Feelings of depression, anxiety, and anger are responses to distortions that might interfere with appropriate functioning and healthy satisfying relationships with others (Keren & Mayseless, 2013).
If a child can consistently experience the primary attachment figure as a product of support, safety, and security, the child is more likely to acquire a positive self-image and expect rewarding interactions from others (Zepf, 2011). In contrast, Green (2013) reported that a child who has experienced an abusive relationship might internalize a negative self-image and might also have deleterious expectations about relationships with others. According to Keren and Mayseless (2013), these consequences can continue across three generations in families. For example, Bowlby reported that the earliest internal models created by an individual were most likely to recommence because the experience remained in subconscious awareness (Bowlby, 1960). Persistent internal working models are not impervious to change given future relationship experiences (Keren & Mayseless, 2013).
Developing the ability to interpret others is an essential component of processing information during interpersonal interactions (Padykula & Conklin, 2010). Traumatic experiences principally imprint the internal working model with the nature of the traumatic incident that occurred with the individual who was presumed to be a trusted safe base and a protector (Padykula & Conklin, 2010). According to Padykula and Conklin (2010),
as a result of this distress, the trauma influenced internal working model provides a distorted filter used to decipher and consequently make sense of the incoming stimuli, attempting to metabolize it internally, and eventually send it back into the larger environment. (p. 355)
Essentially, the ability for reflective functioning interweaves with the use of defensive coping skills dispatched to protect the ego from overwhelming anxiety (Padykula & Conklin, 2010). This in turn results in the impaired attachment system generating cognitive processes that are distorted and defensively adopted whenever faced with the need to problem solve (Padykula & Conklin, 2010).