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What is Attachment Theory?

Attachment theory theorises that everyone has a different style of attachment, or way of interacting with others within relationships. This attachment style determines the way we connect to other people and develop emotional bonds. Since its origins, attachment theory has become a widely accepted theory for understanding how childhood experiences shape our adult lives.

History of Attachment Theory

Attachment Theory began with the work of British psychologist John Bowlby. Bowlby was especially interested in early childhood, believing that many behavioural issues seen in children could be attributed to their earliest experiences. He observed the distress experienced by babies when separated from their mothers and hypothesised that infants had developed this response over the course of evolutionary history. This is because infants that can remain close to their parents have a stronger chance of survival.

Through Bowlby’s work, the theory of attachment was developed. His colleague Mary Ainsworth later added to this area of study by forming an understanding of how different children respond to being separated from a parent. Ainsworth’s work led to the consensus that there are four main types of attachment.

What is Attachment Theory?

Attachment refers to the emotional connections that you can have with another person. Attachment does not only refer to parent-child relationships; our attachment style affects our romantics partnerships, friendships, familial relationships, and even bonds with work colleagues.

Attachment theory is the theory that the emotional availability and care given to us in early childhood forms a basis for the way we interact with others. Children who are given attention and love develop a sense of security and are better equipped to form healthy relationships. Conversely, children who do not have these positive early experiences can develop a negative attachment style.

Adult attachment styles are the same as those exhibited by children, but they can present differently as we age. Often, the attachment style you develop is then passed on from parent to child.

Types of Attachment Styles

There are four attachment styles. Different types of attachment are formed in early childhood, but it is possible to overcome a negative attachment style later in life.

Secure Attachment

Secure attachment was defined by John Bowlby as the ‘normative’ style of attachment. This type of attachment is commonly seen in well-adjusted children who are given plenty of comfort, security and care. As babies, these children show distress when separated from their parents and joy when they are reunited by a caregiver. Even though they are upset and frightened, they are assured that their caregiver will return and offer comfort. When children securely attach in childhood, they demonstrate good self-esteem, a healthy range of emotion, and resilience to manage problems.

Anxious Attachment

Anxious attachment is an insecure attachment style that is characterised by a fear of rejection and abandonment. Children with this attachment style are often needy and eager to please. When separated from a parent, they will be distressed and not confident that their caregiver will return. Anxious attachment can develop when children experience inconsistencies from their caregivers in early childhood. For example, it may be that sometimes a parent is there to comfort them, and other times their needs are met with indifference. This causes the child to develop insecurities and be highly sensitive.

Avoidant Attachment

Avoidant attachment can be seen as the opposite to anxious attachment. This attachment style presents as disconnected and aloof behaviour. It begins when a child’s needs are not met by their caregiver, who may respond to them with apathy or rejection. This causes the child to become self-reliant and reluctant to turn to others for help and support, as they believe it will only be met with indifference. Children with this type of attachment will be distrusting, highly self-reliant, and unwilling to show displays of emotion.

Disorganised Attachment

Disorganised attachment presents in children who experience traumatic experiences. When parents fail to develop an emotional connection to their child by frightening or rejecting them, this can lead to the child developing a disorganised attachment style. These parents do not respond to their children in a consistent way, meaning the child cannot predict their caregiver’s behaviour. The child will know not to rely on the parent for security or comfort and will come to believe that no one can be trusted. This results in fear and anxiety. People with disorganised attachment often experience depression and an inability to form close emotional bonds.

Attachment Styles in Relationships

Your attachment style will determine the way you behave within relationships. Most people have secure attachment styles and can develop healthy bonds with others. Secure attachment allows people to be comfortable expressing emotion, displaying intimacy, and trusting others.

However, for people with less desirable attachment styles, relationships can be difficult. These people will often experience communication issues and a lack of intimacy. People with anxious attachment are highly sensitive to other people’s behaviour and fear rejection. People with avoidant attachment are cold and emotionally distant, driving many people away. Unfortunately, people with anxious attachment styles and people with avoidant attachment styles are often drawn to each other. Adults with disorganised attachment often experience abusive relationships and will find it very challenging to develop healthy bonds with others.

However, it is possible to overcome your attachment style and seek out a healthier way to be in a relationship. Therapy with an experienced psychologist can assist to work through attachment issues, developing better communication skills and emotional responses.

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