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4 Attachment Styles In Child & Adult – How They Affect Relationships

What Is Attachment

An infant’s deep rooted desire to remain close and connected to an attachment figure for survival is the source of child-parent attachment.

Unlike many other species, human beings are born without the abilities to move, feed or defend themselves. The need for prolonged care means that infants are born with behaviors that can keep them close to attachment figures for protection.

Over 50 years ago, psychologist John Bowlby proposed the Attachment Theory. Bowlby believed that it’s human nature for infants to seek and maintain contact with the primary caregiver. These proximity-seeking attachment behaviors form a behavioral system or attachment strategies that can increase the likelihood of infant survival​1​.

What Are Attachment Styles

Attachment Styles In Children

An attachment style is the pattern of behavior a child develops to maintain attachment with their caretaker. These infant attachment patterns developed in early childhood can be categorized into four main attachment styles:

  • Secure
  • Avoidant
  • Ambivalent
  • Disorganized

Attachment Styles In Adults

In the 1980s, social psychologists Cindy Hazan and Phillip Shaver found parallel attachment styles in adult relationships​2​ and proposed the adult attachment theory based on Bowlby’s theory. They found that individual differences observed in infant attachment are manifested the same way as those in adult attachment.

The four adult attachment styles are:

  • Secure
  • Avoidant
  • Anxious
  • Fearful

Related: Psychology & Parenting

Why Are Attachment Styles Important

A child’s attachment style is important because it represents the different ways one thinks about themselves, others and their relationships​3​.

Different attachment styles are formed through the infant-caregiver relationships. Through these relationships, children create representations of themselves and others.

These representations, called the internal working models, shape how they perceive themselves and the world around them. The models influence the child’s personalities, interpersonal styles, and how they handle their negative emotions in predictable ways.

Those who believe that the world is a positive place will be able to rely on other people to help them cope with their emotions. But those who believe the world cannot support them will feel left on their own to cope. Therefore, individual differences in perceptions will affect their behavior and mental health.

The adult attachment theory proposed by Hazan and Shaver states that attachment orientations in early childhood can affect one’s attachment style​4​ in adulthood.

Different styles of adult attachment can predict how adults behave and how they experience romantic love​5​. Adult attachment patterns can also affect the way they manage conflicts in intimate relationships​6​, mental control​7​, and relational experiences​8​.

Therefore, a child’s attachment style is paramount in affecting long term relationships when they grow up.

In other words, early attachment experiences with caregivers set the foundation for how a person builds relationships as an adult.

However, studies have found that attachment styles in the child parent domain are only moderately related to those in the romantic relationship domain. The stability of attachment can change over a child’s life given certain environmental changes​9​.

How To Determine One’s Attachment Style

There are three ways to determine a person’s attachment style, depending on whether the individual is a child or an adult.

1. The Strange Situation For Child

In the first year, an infant’s attachment styles can be detected through the Strange Situation experiment invented by Mary Ainsworth.

In this experiment, early attachment styles are identified through responses from young children to separation from and reunion with their mothers.

2. Adult Attachment Interview For Adult

Different kinds of adult attachment styles can be identified through the Adult Attachment Interview (AAI).

In an AAI, interviewees answer open-ended questions about their past experiences with their parents.

3. Self-Report To Two Dimension Surveys For Adult

Researchers found that people’s attachment styles are characterized by two dimensions – attachment anxiety and attachment avoidance​10​.

The degrees of anxiety and avoidance predict one’s attachment strategies in their relationships with others.

four attachment styles chart categorized by two dimensions

Attachment Styles Chart

There are two major secondary attachment strategies that involve either hyperactivation or deactivation of the attachment system​1​.

Self-report of these two types of strategies can be mapped to one of the four main attachment styles.

A hyperactivating strategy is the fight in the fight-or-flight response. It is a response to the frustration of attachment needs. In hyperactivating individuals, proximity-seeking does not cease. They anxiously escalate their attempts to coerce the parent’s support and love. These individuals are anxious and preoccupied with attachment.

A deactivating strategy is the flight reaction to the unresponsive parent. Deactivating individuals give up proximity-seeking efforts, deactivate the attachment system without reestablishing attachment security, and try to deal with distress on their own. These people are dismissive or avoidant of attachment.

Attachment can be categorized based on an individual’s relative levels of anxiety and avoidance.

Secure Attachment

Secure attachment style forms when the caretaker is often nearby, accessible and attentive to the child’s needs. The caregiver is emotionally available in times of need and responsive to the infant’s connection-seeking behavior.

Securely attached children feel loved, secure, and confident. These kids often explore the world freely while feeling confident that care and support will be available if they return to their secure base or safe haven.

In the strange situation experiment, secure infants tend to show distress during separation but then recover quickly and continue to explore the environment with interest. When united with mother, they greet her with joy and affection, initiate physical contact with her, and respond positively to being held. These mothers are the sources of security.

Except for secure attachment styles, all other attachment styles are insecure attachments.

Secure children generally have higher self-esteem than insecurely attached children​11​. They are also more emotionally self-regulated compared to those with insecure attachment styles​12​.

When they grow up, securely attached adults tend to have secure relationships with their romantic partners. They form emotional connection and expect the partners to be emotionally available and responsive. Secure adults interact with people in positive ways and feel comfortable in relationships. They tend to have more stable relationships. Their security is also positively correlated with their relationship satisfaction.

In AAI, securely attached individuals describe healthy relationships with parents in a clear, convincing, and coherent way, or describe negative relationships coherently with perspective.

The secure attachment type tends to agree with these statements:

  • “I feel comfortable depending on other adults and I can also provide support to others.”
  • “I don’t worry about being abandoned.”
  • “It is relatively easy for me to get close to others and I am not concerned about being too close​13​.”

In the two-dimension survey, securely attached people identify themselves as low in anxiety and avoidance. They have a positive view of themselves and the world. They feel secure and self-confident. Secure adults are comfortable with closeness in important adult romantic relationships. When they are distressed, they seek support from others and cope with stress constructively.

Ambivalent Attachment

Ambivalent (also known as anxious resistant or anxious-ambivalent) attachment style is an insecure attachment style. Anxious attachment develops when infants receive inconsistent care from their parents. They become unsure regarding the availability of their caregivers, particularly in times of need. Anxious children are characterized by high levels of attachment related anxiety.

In distress, ambivalent kids have approach-avoidance behavior towards their caregivers, mixing bids for comfort and support with withdrawal and strong expressions of anger. The doubt regarding the availability of an attachment figure leads to the development of an “uncertain maternal availability” working model of close others, or doubt regarding the behaviors of others in future relationships.

They seek intimacy but at the same time feel unsure about other people’s willingness to be close to them. Feeling unlovable is a common characteristics of these kids.

The equivalent attachment style in adulthood is called the Anxious Attachment or Anxious-Preoccupied Attachment Style.

In AAI, anxious interviewees are entangled in still-intense worries and conflicted feelings about their parents. They can easily retrieve memories about the relationship, but have trouble coherently discussing them without anger or anxiety. They adopt a hyperactivating strategy to seek caregivers.

Anxious grownups identify themselves to these statements:

  • “I would like to be close to others, but they usually don’t want to because my emotional closeness often scares people.”
  • “I worry about not being loved. I am so unlovable.”

In the two-dimensional survey, an anxious adult reports high in anxiety and low in avoidance. They have a negative self-image but a positive view of the world. An individual with anxious adult attachment style has a strong need for closeness, worries about relationships, and relies on hyperactivating strategies when seeking attachment in loving relationships.

Avoidant Attachment

Avoidant attachment forms when the attachment figure rejects an infant’s connection seeking behaviors. These parents tend to be emotionally rigid and they get angry at their infants.

Kids with insecure avoidant attachment tend to see others as uniformly cold, rejecting, or manipulative. They feel insecure in relationships. They are avoidant and maintain an emotional distance to protect themselves. They use deactivation as their coping strategy.

In the strange situation, avoidant kids are not distressed when separated from their mothers, and upon reunion, they avoid their mothers.  

The equivalent adult style is also called the Dismissive-Avoidant Attachment Style.

In AAI, avoidant adults dismiss the importance of attachment relationships or idealize them but provide no clear examples to support his or her characterizations. These individuals are dismissive of their attachment.

These individual are characterized by statements:

  • “I don’t feel safe close to others.”
  • “I have a hard time trusting people completely and it’s difficult for me to depend on others.”
  • “I get nervous when I reach a certain level of intimacy and others want to have more emotional bond with me.”

Avoidant style is characterized by low anxiety but high avoidance. People with attachment related avoidance tend to lack security, show compulsive self-reliance, prefer emotional distance from others, and rely on deactivating strategies. Some even believe they can become emotionally self-sufficient and live their lives the support of community or others. They may also appear hostile and show antisocial behavior toward others​14​.

Disorganized Attachment

Disorganized or disoriented attachment develops when the parent is also a source of threat or fear. This attachment style typically forms as a consequence of maltreatment.

These primary caregivers show a pattern of behaviors that are disorganized, unpredictable, discomforting and frightening. Parents who engage in these behaviors are more likely to suffer  from attachment traumas and unresolved losses of their own​15​.

During the Strange Situation, an infant with disorganized attachment style is characterized by awkward behavior during separation and reunion episodes. They fluctuate between signs of anxiety and avoidance.

In adulthood, an equivalent attachment is called Fearful Attachment or Fearful-Avoidant Attachment Style.

In the AAI, the narrative contains indications of unresolved traumas or losses and is classified as “unresolved”.

A person with fearful-avoidant attachment styles is high in anxiety and avoidance.


References

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