Brain behaviour - Run for the hills or cling on like a monkey?

Early attachments are crucial to our future security and ability to form happy relationships. Indentifying insecure behaviour can help you help pupils, and even yourself, says Oliver James
3rd October 2008, 1:00am
Oliver James


Brain behaviour - Run for the hills or cling on like a monkey?

Children and teachers almost instinctively smell the pupils who are going to be trouble. One way they do this is by unwittingly picking up signals of who is "secure" or "insecure" in the way they relate to others. This is known as their pattern of attachment.

Attachment Theory, devised by John Bowlby in the Sixties, is generally recognised as the single most important advance in developmental psychology of the last century.

Bowlby believed that the way you relate to other people is laid down by the kind of care you received between six months and three years of age. A mountain of evidence has proved that Bowlby was right. Genes have been proved to play little or no part in causing a child's pattern of attachment - nurture is all.

It's widely accepted that the "secure" make up about 65 per cent of children (falling below 60 per cent in adults). As infants and toddlers, they had carers who were emotionally responsive and accessible (physically close) and as a result, they feel confident that their need for a safe haven will be met in an emergency.

By contrast, the carers of the insecure left them nervous that at any moment they might be abandoned, rejected or maltreated. In their relationships, they are prone to clinging because they were abandoned, rejecting because they were rejected, or a messy mixture of these, combined with a tendency for emotional detachment because they were abused or severely maltreated.

When you're small, you're largely powerless to control your destiny. With minimal language and social status, you are at the mercy of your carer. Your experience forms a bedrock of assumptions which you bring to all of your relationships with others: Can they be trusted? Are they going to like you, or do you expect rejection or indifference? Can they be relied upon to meet your emotional, sexual and other needs?

If you are repeatedly let down during early childhood, either because the people you most rely on keep physically disappearing or because they are emotionally unresponsive when they are there, then this is what you tend to expect of people you depend on in later life, at work and in love.

Being insecure is not a mental illness, but an insecure pattern predicts a greater likelihood that you may fall victim to a host of psychological problems.

Toddlers with eating disorders, such as self-starvation and vomiting, are far more likely to be insecure than merely picky or healthy eaters. The insecure child has difficulties making friends and a tendency to be bullied or bullying.

They are at greater risk of being aggressive, hyperactive, depressive and antisocial. Their brains and bodies differ from the secure, with different electrical patterns in the right side of the brain, and differing heart rates and levels of the stress hormone, cortisol.

As adults, the insecure are far more likely to suffer from mental illness. When asked in detail about their childhood and adult relationships, virtually all schizophrenics emerge as insecure.

The depressed, neurotic, substance abusing and anorexic are also more likely to be insecurely attached. So are violent men and, intriguingly, three-quarters of fascists. The insecure are sexually kinkier and more religious. They are more likely to separate or divorce and, as parents themselves, to act in frightening, rejecting or abandoning fashion.

When evaluating pupils, it's always worth noting if the child is insecure - it probably explains why they are so surly or clingy. If so, at least you know not to mistake it for a cognitive disability.

But consider your own pattern too. Maybe you are prone to bullying, maybe you are too worried about whether your pupils approve of you, or perhaps you are febrile and unpredictable in the way you relate to pupils. Any of these could be because of insecurity. Seeking the right kind of therapy could make you a happier bunny, as well as a better teacher

Oliver James's latest book is Contented Dementia - 24-Hour Wraparound Care for Lifelong Well-Being, Vermilion

Are you well attached?

Which of the following patterns most closely resembles the way you behave in relationships?

1. "I am comfortable without close emotional relationships. It is very important to me to feel independent and self-sufficient and I prefer not to depend on others or have others depend on me."

2. "I want to be completely emotionally intimate with others, but I often find that others are reluctant to get as close as I would like. I am uncomfortable being without close relationships, but I sometimes worry that others don't value me as much as I value them."

3. "I am somewhat uncomfortable getting close to others. I want emotionally close relationships, but I find it difficult to trust others completely or to depend on them. I sometimes worry that I will be hurt if I allow myself to become too close to others."

4. "It is relatively easy for me to become emotionally close to others. I am comfortable depending on others and having others depend on me. I don't worry about being alone or having others not accept me."

One to three are insecure (One: Avoidant; Two: Resistant-Clinging; Three: Disorganized). Four is secure.


Goldberg S., Muir R. and Kerr J. (eds), Attachment Theory: Social, Developmental and Clinical Perspectives, (Analytic Press, 1995)

Mickelson, K.D. et al (1997) Adult Attachment in a Nationally Representative Sample, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 73, 1092-1106

Cassidy, J., Shaver, P. R., Handbook of Attachment, (Guilford Press, 1999)

See also Chapter 4 of Oliver James's book They F*** You Up, (Bloomsbury, 2007).

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