We talk about attachment styles a lot. We refer to them on a regular basis in my work as a way of trying to understand children’s relationship patterns and how they’ve learnt to get their needs met in adverse circumstances. There’s lots of information on attachment styles on Penny’s Lane, but here I’ll give you the low down on what attachment is, and what each attachment style looks like in children and adults.
ATTACHMENT IN A NUTSHELL
Attachment theory came from John Bowlby in the 1950s. It describes a relationship, the affectional bond, between two people. This could be between adult partners, an adult parent and adult child, siblings, and so on. However, it starts with a baby and a parent (usually referred to as the mother but it’s whoever the main care giver is).
Through her research, Mary Ainsworth developed Bowlby’s attachment theory. Ainsworth and her colleagues observed and videoed toddlers in a Strange Situation. Attachment styles (four in total) were classified from observing each child’s reaction to being separated from, and reunited with, their mother. This research has been replicated many times with mothers, fathers, grandparents, etc, and with children of different ages. Attachment styles aren’t just about the relationships we have in infancy and early childhood. Our attachment style and relationship patterns are present throughout our lives.
A secure attachment style is present in about 50-60% of the population. Someone with a secure attachment has experienced consistent, reliable, attuned and nurturing parenting. It’s not perfect or flawless parenting but the child knows they’re unconditionally safe and loved. Children who’ve developed a secure attachment see themselves as worthwhile and others as reliable. That doesn’t mean they haven’t had any difficult life experiences; it means that they’ve come through them supported, and are able to think about them in a balanced and coherent way.
Children with a secure attachment look for help and seek their parent(s) when hurt or afraid. They know they can ask for help, reassurance and closeness, and it will be received. They are likely to feel confident exploring their surroundings and consider themselves to be worthy and valued. Adults are seen as reliable, safe and trustworthy, and the world is seen as a safe place. Empathy is well developed, as is the ability to see things from someone else’s perspective.
Adult attachment style – Dismissive Attachment.
This attachment style is believed to be prevalent in about 20-25% of the population. A child or adult with an avoidant attachment style has experienced quite dismissive or emotionally avoidant care. This means when help was needed from a parent, it wasn’t offered or given. A child who has an avoidant attachment has learnt not to make a fuss. These are the children who don’t cry or seek comfort when hurt. They keep their distance from others, especially when it comes to showing their emotions. Those with an avoidant attachment have little insight into their emotions. As a result, they may not truly understand themselves. They are likely to be self-sufficient and seem older than their years. Experience has taught them that others cannot be relied on; in fact the only person they can rely on is themselves. They are very independent.
On the plus side, children and adults with an avoidant attachment style can be great thinkers. As emotions are avoided and minimised, their ability to think logically can be more pronounced. These are the children who concentrate in class and are very compliant. They are people pleasers.
As adults, those with an avoidant attachment style, can reach the top of their game. Because they aren’t emotionally tied, they can be quite ruthless and do well in business. Adults with an avoidant attachment style deny the need for closeness in a relationship and are likely to be emotionally distant.
Adult attachment style – Preoccupied.
An ambivalent attachment style is present in about 10-15% of the population. An ambivalent attachment style develops when parents offer inconsistent care which can be confusing to a child or baby. What do I mean by inconsistent? Well, a parent will sometimes get things right but they will respond depending on how they feel, rather than thinking about their child. Therefore, if they have a child who is upset, they may shout, ignore them, shame them, hit them, cuddle them. It’s a mixed bag. These are the parents who may handle their child quite roughly, or cuddle them too hard. Care can be intrusive.
For a child, they don’t know what they are going to get from their parent(s) or when they’re going to get it. This means they tend to keep going, remain active and persist until they get some sort of response or attention. Anything is better than nothing. Because the care is so inconsistent, children with an ambivalent attachment find it hard to be alone and separate from others. These are the children and adults who tend to be clingy and needy. They operate on the basis of how they feel rather than think about what they’re doing. Needless to say, such children can be very active and continually on the go. They find it hard to concentrate for lengthy periods and will flit from one activity to another. This attachment style can be mistaken for Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).
As children with an ambivalent attachment style become adults, they continue to find it hard to be alone. These are the adults who have a tendency to move from one relationship to another. They can be very attentive and will readily seek closeness from others. They need considerable validation and approval, rather than feeling and knowing this themselves. Adults with a ambivalent attachment style usually worry about their relationships and whether they are worthy of being loved.
INSECURE – DISORGANISED ATTACHMENT
Adult attachment style – Unresolved
A Disorganised attachment style is present in about 5% of the population. The characteristics of a disorganised attachment rest with our survival mode, our most primitive responses to danger. A child or adult with a disorganised attachment is locked into a fight, flight, fright mode. Sadly, they have no idea what safety feels like.
Parents who are frightened or frightening are likely to have children with a disorganised attachment. Any child who experiences their parent(s) in this way is placed in a dilemma. The natural thing to do would be to seek comfort and closeness at times of fear, but they can’t as the person they want to go to is unsafe. This presents a irresolvable dilemma for them. What we see here are children who freeze, back away, or try and run from their parent at a time when we would expect them to seek closeness. It’s fright or flight (and sometimes fight). The child may act in unusual ways, such as starting to approach the parent but opting to fall to the floor instead. In short, they don’t know what to do.
These children are usually in a state of heightened fear and anxiety and present as vigilant and dysregulated. They typically become controlling as a way of trying to increase their sense of safety. As the child gets older, they become highly organised, controlling, and can be coercive and self-reliant. Needless to say, they find concentrating a challenge and often find school difficult to manage.
Adults with Unresolved attachment patterns present as traumatised and see others in a distorted way. When talking about loss or trauma, it can be hard to track what they’re saying and there can be lapses in situations and sense making. Relationships tend to be voilatile and they are unlikely to relate sincerely to others. Empathy is unlikely to have developed. People with disorganised attachment are likely to be emotionally and socially dysregulated, and may show aggression and intimidating behaviours.
Can Attachment Styles Change?
The short answer is, of course. Children with insecure attachments need safety and attunement. They need to know they’re accepted regardless of their presentation. That said, each insecure attachment style needs a slightly different approach. For example, an avoidant child needs an adult who can name and draw out their feelings, as these are avoided. An ambialently attached child needs lots of co-regulation to help them them feel safe. The adult needs to pre-empt their needs so they don’t have to work hard to get noticed.
As children with insecure attachment styles become adults they may enter into relationships with a securely attached adults. This can be helpful and promote the development of a more secure attachment.
If you’d like to know more about each attachment style, click on the heading and you’ll be taken to a more detailed post.