Many children who grow up in dysfunctional families vow not to raise their own children in the same manner as their parents. Yet, when they become parents themselves, they often revert to what their parents did under stress.
According to the Ainsworth attachment theory, adverse childhood attachment history such as having an abusive primary caregiver can lead to insecure attachments, which then affect their parenting behavior as an adult1. In turn, their parenting style affects their children’s childhood experiences, creating a cycle of dysfunction2.
This perpetuation of trauma, however, is not set in stone.
A parent can break the cycle of insecure style by developing an earned secure attachment over time.
What is an earned secure attachment
An earned secure attachment is a secure attachment developed after an adult has overcome their childhood attachment insecurity.
Earned-secure adults can rise above their malevolent childhood to break the intergenerational cycle. Researchers have found that the parenting behavior of these parents is similar to that of parents with continuous secure attachments3. They are just as effective at parenting as those who have always been securely attached4.
Why is earned secure attachment important
Insecure attachment styles in children or adults are costly financially, mentally, and physically.
Children who are insecurely attached are more likely to have more behavioral problems, poorer academic performance, and worse self-image. Adults with insecure attachment patterns are more likely to suffer from physical health issues, such as cancer, and mental health issues, such as depression. They generally have lower self-esteem, fewer healthy relationships, and less life satisfaction5.
Secure attachment has many clear benefits. An insecurely attached person becomes more secure as they earn adult attachment security later in life.
Earned security vs continuous security
Research shows that insecure adults tend to speak incoherently about their unhappy childhood. Secure adults, on the other hand, can talk coherently about their happy childhood, while earned-secure adults can tell a coherent story about their unhappy childhood.
Adults with a continuous secure style can convincingly describe positive childhood experiences, positive feelings, and memorable events.
The earned secures can recount difficult childhoods, but do so without discounting the negative impacts of such experiences or becoming entangled in them like the insecures.
How to earn a secure attachment
Our brains are capable of changing and rewiring over time through new experiences due to their plasticity.
Developing earned security is similar to developing early security. The difference is that earned security comes later in life.
Relationships are the key to earning a healthy attachment status. It can form attachments, obstruct attachments, or repair attachments.
Security can be earned through a close long-term relationship with a surrogate attachment figure who serves as a secure base. This new emotional experience can take place within or beyond a romantic relationship. The surrogate attachment figure can be a romantic partner, friend, mentor, or psychotherapist.
Earning new security is a process that can be long and involved. You must be dedicated and resolved to achieve it.
Research shows that the following factors can help one earn a secure style of attachment5.
Security comes from believing that you can count on others for support and that you are worthy of it. Emotional support, validation, as well as never giving up by the loving attachment figure are crucial to earning new security.
Make sense of the past
It is important to make sense of your past. Reflect on your past experiences and redefine what it means to be in an adult relationship. You can gain new perspectives on your current relationship if you have a better understanding of what has happened in the past and how it has impacted your life.
Having an experienced and compassionate therapist will be particularly helpful in this process. They can help you process past events and build a coherent narrative6.
Transform your self-identity
Changing how you perceive yourself, your identity, and your self-worth can help you take hold of your life and stop being a victim of circumstances. Consider how you can redefine your relationship with your family, yourself, and others in order to feel more secure.
Make intentional changes
The next step is to make the actual change in how you want to relate to others within those relationships. Overcoming rough patches in this process is key to gaining new security.
Become a mentor for others
Researchers have found that paying it forward and helping others who need the same kind of support can help you gain attachment security. Mentor young people or be a good friend who is always available, but with boundaries. By becoming an attachment figure for someone else, you have the opportunity to connect with others and pass along the security.
Final thoughts on earned secure attachment style
It takes time to heal attachment wounds and establish a new secure attachment, so therapy is a good place to start. You can explore your childhood narrative in a supportive and safe environment. You will also learn to challenge unhelpful mental models that fuel insecurity with the help of a good licensed therapist7.
- 1.Adam EK, Gunnar MR, Tanaka A. Adult Attachment, Parent Emotion, and Observed Parenting Behavior: Mediator and Moderator Models. Child Development. Published online January 2004:110-122. doi:10.1111/j.1467-8624.2004.00657.x
- 2.van IJzendoorn MH. Adult attachment representations, parental responsiveness, and infant attachment: A meta-analysis on the predictive validity of the Adult Attachment Interview. Psychological Bulletin. Published online May 1995:387-403. doi:10.1037/0033-2909.117.3.387
- 3.Pearson JL, Cohn DA, Cowan PA, Cowan CP. Earned- and continuous-security in adult attachment: Relation to depressive symptomatology and parenting style. Dev Psychopathol. Published online 1994:359-373. doi:10.1017/s0954579400004636
- 4.Roisman GI, Padron E, Sroufe LA, Egeland B. Earned-Secure Attachment Status in Retrospect and Prospect. Child Development. Published online July 2002:1204-1219. doi:10.1111/1467-8624.00467
- 5.Dansby Olufowote RA, Fife ST, Schleiden C, Whiting JB. How Can I Become More Secure?: A Grounded Theory of Earning Secure Attachment. J Marital Fam Ther. Published online October 2019:489-506. doi:10.1111/jmft.12409
- 6.Saunders R, Jacobvitz D, Zaccagnino M, Beverung LM, Hazen N. Pathways to earned-security: The role of alternative support figures. Attachment & Human Development. Published online July 2011:403-420. doi:10.1080/14616734.2011.584405
- 7.Burgess Moser M, Johnson SM, Dalgleish TL, Lafontaine MF, Wiebe SA, Tasca GA. Changes in Relationship-Specific Attachment in Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy. J Marital Fam Ther. Published online October 29, 2015:231-245. doi:10.1111/jmft.12139