Attachment styles are the ways in which we interact with other people and behave within relationships. There are four main types of attachment styles, which are typically developed in childhood and continue into our adult lives. Understanding these styles and recognising which type of attachment you fall into can be an important first step in better connecting with loved ones and strengthening your relationships.
It is important to note that we do not have a choice when it comes to our attachment style. It is an adaptation to our primary caregiver that we make pre-verbal. It is not something that we can switch up, like we might change our hairstyle or our fashion style.
Psychotherapy can help people gain awareness around their attachment style. Working with an attachment based therapist can help you experience different responses and, from this, many people can gradually move to learned secure attachment.
What is Attachment?
Attachment refers to the emotional relationship between loved ones. In childhood, this refers to the relationship between the primary caregiver—usually the mother, but not always—and the child. The emotional bonds we form in these early years of life influence our behaviour and development.
Attachment theory has been around for a long time. Developed in the 1960s, it was not really recognised and accepted until decades later and since then attachment theory has impacted our understanding of parenting and the ways in which our early attachment experiences can affect our intimate partner relationships. It can also affect how we will parent and attach to our own children.
The type of attachment we develop is not a choice, as children we learn from our caregivers what they can cope with and manage, and as children we make adaptations to our own needs so we can survive in our family. When we become parents we often want to do some aspects of parenting as we were parented and some we want to do differently. This is the same for relationships, we may want the same or different relationship to what our parents had.
Secure attachment is the healthiest and most desirable form of attachment style. Securely attached children are confident, happy, and secure in their belief that their parents will always be there to offer comfort. Secure children and adults have good self worth and know they are loved for being, not for what they achieve or do.
We know that secure attachment typically results from parents and caregivers who are emotionally and physically available to a child, sensitive and responsive to a child’s needs, and accepting of their child regardless of behaviour. These parents frequently play with their children and allow them a measure of independence, while always being ready to offer security when a child needs it. Children develop healthy self-esteem, confidence, and the ability to trust others.
As adults, secure attachment presents as people who are self-assured, competent, and in touch with their feelings. They are comfortable with intimacy and will typically not be concerned about rejection. These adults will normally be able to develop and maintain healthy and successful relationships.
Anxious attachment refers to an insecure attachment style which results from the inconsistent provision of comfort and protection. This can occur when parents and caregivers only respond to a child’s needs sporadically, leaving them insecure in their belief that someone will be there for them when needed.
These children are more likely to fear abandonment and rejection. They are often described as quite needy and require ongoing reassurance throughout life.
Anxiously attached adults often have relationship issues stemming from their concerns that the other person may leave them or not respond to them in a positive way. They will often struggle with communication, be highly emotional and argumentative, and be overly sensitive to their partner’s behaviour.
Avoidant attachment can occur when parents are emotionally distant and disconnected from their children in early childhood. If a parent fails to respond to their child’s needs or doesn’t accept them in a sensitive and comforting way, children can develop avoidant attachment.
Because their parent or caregiver often rejects them or minimises their feelings, these children will avoid contact with their parents and become self-reliant. Children with avoidant attachment shut down their emotions and won’t ask for help when distressed.
Similarly, in adulthood those with avoidant attachment will appear cold and emotionally detached within relationships. They often prefer autonomy over intimacy and closeness, and find it difficult to show emotion. As parents, these people often repeat the cycle by being emotionally unavailable to their own child.
Disorganised attachment is the least common of the types of attachment. If a parent rejects, ridicules and frightens their child, the child will often develop a disorganised attachment style. These parents typically display atypical behaviour and will not develop an emotional connection to their child, often due to a past unresolved trauma.
When a child cannot rely on their parent or caregiver for any love, comfort or security, they cannot develop an ‘organised’ or predictable attachment style. While as in the other three attachment styles above the child knows what to expect from their parent and learns to behave accordingly, in a disorganised attachment style the child cannot adjust their behaviour to meet that of their caregiver.
These children experience anxiety and fear of their parent and will often become aggressive, uncooperative and extremely self-reliant. Because this type of childhood can be traumatising, these people carry unresolved negative emotion into adulthood.
Adults with a disorganised attachment style will often experience dysfunctional and sometimes abusive relationships. They can suffer from severe depression and will often appear aggressive and abusive. These people demonstrate a lack of empathy which stops them from developing emotional closeness in a relationship. Tragically, they are likely to repeat the cycle by mistreating their own children who will also develop disorganised attachment.
Providing the foundations for a secure attachment style is taught in Circle of Security parenting courses, and research tells us IT IS NEVER TOO LATE to change the way we respond to our children so they can learn to trust those around them and feel more secure.