What Are Attachment Styles
There are child attachment styles and adult attachment styles.
As proposed by psychiatrist John Bowlby in the attachment theory, a child’s attachment style is the pattern of behavior developed in early childhood to maintain attachment with their primary caregiver. Child attachment styles can be categorized into four types1:
- Secure attachment style
- Avoidant attachment style
- Ambivalent attachment style
- Disorganized attachment style
Except for secure attachment styles, all other types are insecure attachment styles.
In the 1980s, social psychologists Cindy Hazan and Phillip Shaver found parallel attachment styles in adult relationships2,3 and proposed an extension to Bowlby’s theory of attachment. 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
How Does Attachment Develop
An attachment is an emotional bond between a caretaker and a child. The attachment theory suggests that attachment is formed due to the infant’s deep-rooted desire to remain close and connected to the attachment figure.
Unlike many other species, human babies need prolonged care because they are born unable to feed or defend themselves. Developing attachment behaviors that can keep them close to their caregivers for protection can increase the likelihood of infant survival4.
These proximity-seeking behaviors become the infant attachment style.
The process of adult attachment development, however, is less understood.
Although an adult’s attachment style is partially associated with early attachment, its stability can change depending on other life experiences5,6. Long-term studies show that early attachment does not consistently predict adult attachment7.
Why Attachment Style Is Important
Different types of infant-caregiver relationships lead to different attachment styles in children.
The attachment between young children and their caregivers represents how they think about themselves, others, and their relationships8.
The representations created out of the infant-parent attachment form the internal working model. This model shapes the child’s self-perception and understanding of the world, impacting their personality, emotion regulation, and interaction styles.
For instance, children who view the world as supportive can trust and rely on others to help them cope with their own emotions, which often results in developing healthy emotional regulation. Conversely, those who perceive the world as unsupportive or unhelpful may feel abandoned to deal with their emotional struggles on their own, which may lead to maladaptive coping.
As a result, differences in attachment experiences play a significant role in shaping children’s behaviors, mental health, and overall well-being.
Adult attachment theory suggests that attachment styles in adults can predict how they behave and experience romantic love9. Adult attachment patterns can affect how they manage conflicts in intimate relationships10, mental control11, and relational experiences12.
Therefore, attachment experiences in early years can potentially affect the foundation for how a person forms relationships in their adult life.
How To Find Out 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 Children
The strange situation is a test developed by psychologist Mary Ainsworth to categorize the attachment system in children.
An infant’s attachment style can be observed in the strange situation test during their first year. In this test, the young child is separated and reunited with their mothers, and their reaction is analyzed.
2. Adult Attachment Interview For Adults
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 Adults
Attachment research shows that the main attachment styles are characterized by two dimensions – attachment anxiety and attachment avoidance13. The degrees of anxiety and avoidance predict one’s attachment strategies in their relationships with others.
How Attachment Style Affects Relationships
Secure Attachment Characteristicsa
A secure attachment style forms when the caretaker is often nearby, accessible, and attentive to the child’s emotional needs. The caregiver is emotionally available 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.
Secure children generally
- Have higher self-esteem than insecurely attached children14.
- More emotionally regulated than those with insecure styles15.
Secure adults tend to16
- Have secure long-term relationships with their romantic partners.
- Form an emotional connection with partners.
- Believe partners are available and responsive.
- Interact with people in positive ways.
- Feel comfortable in relationships.
- Have more stable relationships.
- Higher relationship satisfaction.
- A positive image of themselves and others.
How To Find Out
In the strange situation experiment, secure infants tend to show distress during separation but 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 attachment security.
In AAI, secure people describe healthy relationships with parents clearly, convincingly, and coherently 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 close17.”
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 distressed, they seek emotional support from others and cope with stress constructively.
Ambivalent Attachment Characteristics
Ambivalent attachment style (also known as anxious resistant or anxious-ambivalent attachment) is an insecure style of attachment. Anxious attachment develops when infants receive inconsistent care from their parents. They become unsure regarding the availability of their caregivers, particularly in stressful situations. Anxious children are characterized by high levels of attachment-related anxiety.
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.
The anxious attachment types in adulthood are also known as anxious attachment, preoccupied attachment style, or anxious preoccupied attachment.
Anxious children generally
- Want to be close to others but are unsure about others’ willingness to be close to them.
- Feel unlovable.
Anxious adults tend to
- Desire emotional intimacy but have a fear of abandonment.
- Preoccupied with their relationships.
- Clingy and dependent on partners.
- Require constant reassurance.
- Have a negative image of themselves.
- Higher level of depression.
- Lower level of emotional well-being.
How To Find Out
In the strange situation test, ambivalent kids have approach-avoidance behavior towards their caregivers, mixing bids for comfort and support with withdrawal and strong expressions of anger.
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 Characteristics
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.
The equivalent adult style is also called the dismissive-avoidant attachment style.
Avoidant children generally
- See others as uniformly cold, rejecting, or manipulative.
- Do not believe others will meet the child’s needs.
Avoidant adults tend to
- Compulsively self-reliant.
- Avoid intimacy in close relationships.
- Do not trust others.
- Prefer to do things alone.
- Higher levels of loneliness and hostility.
- A negative image of others.
How To Find Out
In the strange situation, avoidant kids are not distressed when separated from their mothers, and upon reunion, they avoid their mothers.
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 without the community’s or others’ support. They may also appear hostile and show antisocial behavior toward others18.
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 abuse or 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 trauma of their own19. Their own attachment style tends to be insecure.
In adulthood, an equivalent attachment is called a fearful attachment or fearful-avoidant attachment Style.
Disorganized children generally20
- More likely to develop social and behavioral problems.
- Higher levels of depressive symptoms and shyness.
- Social anxiety, inattention, and cognitive problems.
- More displays of hostile, punitive, or controlling interactions.
Fearful adults tend to21
- Low self-esteem and assertiveness.
- Highly sensitive to rejection.
- Subservient to others.
- Perceive the world as harsh.
- Higher levels of anxiety.
- PTSD symptoms (posttraumatic stress disorder).
- Desire intimacy but do not trust others.
- Lower sociability and more loneliness.
- A negative image of themselves and others.
How To Find Out
During the strange situation test, an infant with a disorganized attachment style is characterized by bawkward behavior during separation and reunion episodes. They fluctuate between signs of anxiety and avoidance.
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 and affect their children’s attachment styles.
Securely attached parents tend to have an authoritative parenting style, which is highly correlated with the secure attachment type in their child. The authoritative parenting style is considered the best parenting style22.
Parents with an insecure attachment style involving avoidance or anxiety are more likely to show less sensitivity, support, and responsiveness, resulting in an insecure attachment pattern in their children23.
In general, attachment patterns are 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 attachments24.
However, the good news is that a person’s attachment style is not set in stone despite the intergenerational transmission tendency and can change over time.
Adults with insecure attachments can still change and adapt, as our brains can rewire and evolve. An earned secure attachment can be developed through a close, long-term relationship with a surrogate attachment figure who provides a stable foundation25.
With determination and support, insecure adults can learn to form secure relationships in a healthy way.
Also See: What Is Anxious-Avoidant Attachment
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