What Is Attachment
An attachment is a bond created between a caregiver and a child due to the infant’s deep-rooted desire to remain close and connected to the attachment figure for survival.
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, psychiatrist 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 survival1.
What Are Attachment Styles
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 in response to their caregiver’s behavior can be categorized into four styles of attachment2:
- Secure attachment style
- Avoidant attachment style
- Ambivalent attachment style
- Disorganized attachment style
In the 1980s, social psychologists Cindy Hazan and Phillip Shaver found parallel attachment styles in adult relationships3,4 and proposed an extension to Bowlby’s attachment theory. They found that individual differences observed in infant attachment are manifested similarly to those in adult attachment.
The four adult attachment styles are:
- Secure attachment style
- Avoidant attachment style
- Anxious attachment style
- Fearful attachment style
Child Attachment Styles
A child’s attachment style is important because the types of attachment during childhood continue to have an impact on that individual in adulthood.
The attachment between children and their caregivers represents the ways one thinks about themselves, others, and their relationships5. Differences in attachment styles result from the infant-caregiver relationships.
The representations created out of these relationships are called the internal working model. They shape how one perceives themselves and the world around them. The models influence the child’s personalities, interpersonal styles, and how children handle their negative emotions in predictable ways.
For instance, those who believe that the world is a positive place will be able to rely on other people to help them cope with their emotional needs. 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.
Therefore, a child’s attachment style plays a significant role in their long-term relationships when they grow up.
Attachment styles in adults
The adult attachment theory proposed by Hazan and Shaver states that attachment orientations in early childhood can affect one’s attachment style6 in adulthood. The style of attachment in adults can predict how they behave and experience romantic love7. The adult attachment patterns can also affect the way they manage conflicts in intimate relationships8, mental control9, and relational experiences10.
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 changes11.
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 attachment styles in adults 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
Attachment research shows that people’s attachment styles are characterized by two dimensions – attachment anxiety and attachment avoidance12.
The degrees of anxiety and avoidance predict one’s attachment strategies in their relationships with others.
Attachment Styles Chart
There are two major secondary attachment strategies that involve either hyperactivation or deactivation of the attachment system1.
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.
4 Attachment styles
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 their 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 children13. They are also more emotionally self-regulated compared to those with insecure attachment styles 14.
When they grow up, securely attached adults tend to have secure relationships with their romantic partners. They form an emotional connection and expect the partner 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 close15.”
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 style (also known as anxious resistant or anxious-ambivalent) 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 characteristic of these kids.
The equivalent attachment style in adulthood is called the Anxious Attachment or 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 with 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 anxiety and low avoidance. They have a negative self-image but a positive view of the world. An individual with an 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 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 their characterizations. These individuals are dismissive of their attachment.
These individuals 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 a 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 without the support of the community or others. They may also appear hostile and show antisocial behavior toward others16.
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 childhood trauma and unresolved losses of their own17.
During the Strange Situation, an infant with a 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.
Parenting styles and attachment
Parents’ attachment styles can influence their parenting, which in turn affects their children’s attachment styles.
Securely attached parents tend to have an authoritative parenting style, which is highly correlated with secure attachment type in the child18.
A parent with an insecure attachment style that involves avoidance or anxiety is more likely to show less sensitivity, support, and responsiveness, resulting in an insecure attachment pattern in their child19.
In general, attachment patterns tend to be transgenerational. Securely attached parents are more likely to raise secure children. Insecure parents tend to parent in a way that leaves their children with insecure attachments20.
Final thoughts on attachment styles
Despite the intergenerational transmission tendency, people’s attachment styles are not set in stone. With determination, help and support, an insecurely attached person can develop earned security from an alternative support figure21.
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