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Attachment Styles – How Your Childhood Affects Your Relationships & Parenting Now

What Is Attachment

The attachment between a child and their parent is a result of the infant’s deeply rooted desire to stay connected and close to the attachment figure as a means to survive.

Unlike many other species, human beings are born without the abilities to move, feed or defend themselves. The need for prolonged care and protection means that infants are born with an array of behaviors designed to keep them close to others who can soothe them.

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 In Children & Adults

Infant attachment styles are the patterns of instinctual behaviors children use in early childhood to maintain attachment with their caretakers. These infant attachment patterns found in early attachment experiences can be categorized into four different attachment styles:

  • Secure attachment
  • Avoidant attachment
  • Ambivalent attachment
  • Disorganized attachment

Later on, Hazan and Shaver found parallel attachment styles in the romantic relationship domain when the Attachment Theory is applied to adult relationships​2​. Adult attachment patterns, determined by the parent-child relationship in childhood and subsequent relationships with important attachment figures, affect the experience of romantic love​3​.

Why Are Attachment Styles Important

A child’s attachment style is important in child development because it represents the different ways one thinks about themselves, others and their relationships​4​. These views will affect the development of different kinds of personality, behavior, and conflict resolution in personal relationships as adults​5​.

Different styles of attachment formed through the infant-caregiver relationships create representations of themselves in relation to others in close relationships. These representations, called the internal working models, shape how they subsequently perceive themselves and the world around them. They also influence one’s personalities, interpersonal styles, and how they handle their negative emotions during stressful situations 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, while those who believe that 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.

A person’s attachment style represents the way they manage conflicts in intimate relationships​6​, the strategies they use for mental control​7​, and the relational experiences they have​8​.

How To Determine One’s Attachment Style

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

1. The Strange Situation For Infant

In infants, 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

Adult attachment styles can be identified through 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​9​.

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

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 types of 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. Instead, they “anxiously” escalate their attempts to coerce the parent’s support and love. These individuals are “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” of attachment.

four attachment styles chart categorized by two dimensions

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.

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

Securely attached children feel loved, secure, and confident. These kids often learn about 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.

Secure children generally have higher self-esteem than insecurely attached children​10​. They are also more emotionally self-regulated compared to those with insecure attachment styles​11​.

When they grow up, securely attached adults tend to expect romantic partners generally to be emotionally available and responsive. They interact with people in positive ways and feel comfortable in relationships. They also enjoy 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 and with some perspective.

The secure attachment type tends to agree with these statements:

  • “I feel comfortable depending on other adults and having them depend on me.”
  • “I don’t worry about being abandoned.”
  • “It is easy for me to get close to others and I am not concerned about being too close​12​.”

In the self-report 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 romantic relationships. When they are distressed, they seek support from others and cope with stress constructively.

Ambivalent Attachment

Ambivalent 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 attachment related anxiety.

Ambivalent kids have approach-avoidance behavior towards their caregivers when distressed, mixing bids for comfort and support with withdrawal and strong expressions of anger. This 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. They feel unlovable.

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

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

Anxious grownups identify themselves to these statements:

  • “I want 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 self-report survey, an anxious adult reports high in anxiety and low in avoidance. They have a negative 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 reliance on hyperactivating strategies when seeking attachment in adult romantic relationships.

Avoidant Attachment

Avoidant attachment forms when the attachment figure rejects their 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 am uncomfortable being close to others.”
  • “I don’t trust 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 avoidant attachment styles 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​13​.

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​14​.

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

  1. 1.
    Mikulincer M, Shaver PR, Pereg D. Attachment Theory and Affect Regulation: The Dynamics, Development, and Cognitive Consequences of Attachment-Related Strategies. Motivation and Emotion. Motivation and Emotion. 2003;27:77-102. doi:10.1023/a:1024515519160
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    Shaver P, Hazan C. Being lonely, falling in love. Journal of Social Behavior and Personality. 1987;2(2):105.
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    Brennan KA, Shaver PR. Dimensions of Adult Attachment, Affect Regulation, and Romantic Relationship Functioning. Pers Soc Psychol Bull. Published online March 1995:267-283. doi:10.1177/0146167295213008
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    Baldwin MW, Fehr B, Keedian E, Seidel M, Thomson DW. An Exploration of the Relational Schemata Underlying Attachment Styles: Self-Report and Lexical Decision Approaches. Pers Soc Psychol Bull. Published online December 1993:746-754. doi:10.1177/0146167293196010
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    Mikulincer M, Dolev T, Shaver PR. Attachment-Related Strategies During Thought Suppression: Ironic Rebounds and Vulnerable Self-Representations. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Published online 2004:940-956. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.87.6.940
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    Caron A, Lafontaine M-F, Bureau J-F, Levesque C, Johnson SM. Comparisons of close relationships: An evaluation of relationship quality and patterns of attachment to parents, friends, and romantic partners in young adults. Canadian Journal of Behavioural Science/Revue canadienne des sciences du comportement. Published online 2012:245-256. doi:10.1037/a0028013
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    Brennan KA, Shaver PR. Attachment Styles and Personality Disorders: Their Connections to Each Other and to Parental Divorce, Parental Death, and Perceptions of Parental Caregiving. Journal of Personality. Published online October 1998:835-878. doi:10.1111/1467-6494.00034
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    McCormick CB, Kennedy JH. Parent-child attachment working models and self-esteem in adolescence. J Youth Adolescence. Published online February 1994:1-18. doi:10.1007/bf01537139
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    Calkins SD. Early attachment processes and the development of emotional self-regulation. In: Handbook of Self-Regulation: Research, Theory, and Applications. The Guilford Press; 2004:324–339.
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    Mikulincer M, Shaver PR. The Attachment Behavioral System In Adulthood: Activation, Psychodynamics, And Interpersonal Processes. In: Advances in Experimental Social Psychology. Elsevier; 2003:53-152. doi:10.1016/s0065-2601(03)01002-5
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    Kobak RR, Sceery A. Attachment in Late Adolescence: Working Models, Affect Regulation, and Representations of Self and Others. Child Development. Published online February 1988:135. doi:10.2307/1130395
  14. 14.
    Lyons-Ruth K, Jacobvitz D. Attachment disorganization: Unresolved loss, relational violence, and lapses in behavioral and attentional strategies. In: Handbook of Attachment: Theory, Research, and Clinical Applications. The Guilford Press; 1999:520–554.

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