As babies, we depend on our caregivers to meet our basic needs for protection, food, love and affection. Not surprisingly, we form strong bonds to our caregivers, or “attachment figures”.
The way our attachment figures interact with us determines how secure and protected we feel, our level of confidence and independence in exploring unfamiliar environments, and the ways we seek out comfort when we’re upset. What we learn in those relationships creates a template for how we view the world and other people, and we carry those expectations into adulthood.
We develop particular “attachment styles” in early childhood based on our relationships with our attachment figures. Our attachment style shapes how we relate to others as adults. Many of our trials, tribulations, and successes in relationships are directly related to our attachment style.
Researchers have extensively studied infants’ and toddlers’ interactions with their caregivers, and the children’s responses to a variety of situations. They have characterised four attachment styles: Secure, Ambivalent/Resistant, Avoidant and Disorganised. Each attachment style is a result of being treated in a particular way and leads to a specific set of behaviours in children and later in adulthood.
Which attachment style matches your experience?
About 65% of children have secure attachment styles.
Caregivers in this case are nurturing and attentive. They respond quickly and consistently to the child’s needs.
Children see their attachment figures as a safe and secure base from which they can explore the world. When their caregiver leaves, they become distressed. However, they are easily soothed when the caregiver returns and feel comfortable to begin exploring again. Children with secure attachments can sometimes also be soothed by strangers, but they show a clear preference for being comforted by their attachment figure.
Adults with a secure attachment style tend to have a positive view of themselves, their significant others, and their relationships. They feel comfortable with both intimacy and independence and find a suitable balance between the two. They are generally comfortable sharing their thoughts and feelings with friends or partners, and access social support when they need it. Securely attached adults tend to have fulfilling intimate relationships.
The caregivers of children that develop an ambivalent/resistant attachment style are inconsistent in they way they respond to the children’s needs. Sometimes the caregivers are nurturing and attentive, but at other times may ignore the child or be very slow to respond to their needs. These caregivers may only respond when the child shows “attachment behaviours” such as clinging to the caregiver or physically moving towards them to get their attention.
Children with an ambivalent/resistant attachment style have difficulties trusting that their caregiver is a secure base from which they can explore the world. They are often anxious because they don’t know what to expect from their attachment figure. These children may feel the need to regularly “test” whether their caregiver is still there and want to be close to them physically. The children are preoccupied with connecting to their caregivers, but when the caregivers respond positively and are available to the children, the children withdraw angrily.
When children with an ambivalent/resistant attachment style are separated from their caregivers, they become distressed. When the caregivers return, the children may be angry or reluctant to reconnect with them and are slow to return to playing. These children are not easily soothed by strangers.
The adult equivalent of an ambivalent/resistant attachment style is an anxious-preoccupied attachment style. Anxious-preoccupied adults usually have a hard time trusting their partners and the strength of their relationships. They worry about their relationships, wondering if their partner really loves them, and may demand high levels of intimacy. They constantly seek approval and affirmation from their partners and may become emotionally dependent on them. Anxious-preoccupied adults may seem unpredictable at times, as they can be very emotionally expressive and at times impulsive in their relationships. They may struggle with low self-esteem and also have negative thoughts about their partners. Anxious-preoccupied adults become very distraught when relationships end.
Caregivers of children who develop an avoidant attachment style are not very responsive to the children. They may give little or no response to a child’s distress, discourage crying or other signs that the child needs support, and encourage the child to be independent and take care of themselves.
When children with an avoidant attachment style are separated from their caregivers, they do not tend to show many signs of distress. Likewise, they have minimal reactions when their caregivers return. These children do not seek out contact and when they’re held, they tend to ignore their caregiver or break eye contact. Children with an avoidant attachment style treat strangers similarly to their attachment figures. They may become rebellious and tend to have lower self-esteem than securely attached children. When playing, they tend to show little emotion or share their emotional experience with others.
Adults with a dismissive-avoidant attachment style value independence over intimacy. They may see themselves as self-sufficient and not needing attachment or close relationships. Dismissive-avoidant adults have a tendency to suppress or ignore their feelings, and to distance themselves from anyone who rejects them or who they fear may reject them. People with this attachment style find it difficult to share their thoughts and feelings with others.
Disorganised attachment tends to develop from more extreme situations in which caregivers are neglectful or abusive. Caregivers may be extremely intrusive or very withdrawn, frighten the child or act frightened themselves, send confusing or mixed signals, or be physically abusive.
Children naturally form attachments with their caregivers, even if they’re being mistreated. It is often a confusing and disorienting experience for children to seek support, protection and affection from someone who is not offering those things and may even be abusive. As a result, children with disorganised attachment may have contradictory or confused ways of relating to their attachment figure. For instance, a child with disorganised attachment may approach their attachment figure but with the child’s back turned to their caregiver. When their caregivers return after a separation, children with disorganised attachment styles may freeze or start rocking. These children tend not to have consistent coping strategies when they’re distressed.
Disorganised attachment in infancy corresponds to the fearful-avoidant attachment style in adults. Adults with a fearful-avoidant attachment style feel torn between craving intimacy and finding it uncomfortable or being frightened of it. They often have low self-esteem and may view themselves as unworthy of relationships or unloveable. Adults with a fearful-avoidant attachment style may find it difficult to trust their partners. They may push aside their feelings and their longing for intimacy, and avoid emotional closeness.
The way we’re treated in the earliest stages of our lives has a major impact on how we relate to the world and to other people throughout the rest of our lives. However, our attachment styles need not feel like a life sentence. We have the power as adults to reflect on our relationship patterns, and make changes to give us the best opportunities to have fulfilling relationships and to thrive.
Counselling and psychotherapy are great ways to begin to understand ourselves better and improve the quality of our relationships. If you want to develop greater self-awareness about your relationship patterns and how to live a more fulfilling life, the team at Paul the Counsellor can help.
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