Attachment is an emotional bond and an innate psychological desire to seek comfort from others in times of need. Psychologist John Bowlby claimed that human beings are born with this innate psychological system that motivates them to seek proximity to significant others in times of need.
What Are Attachment Styles?
Attachment styles can be defined as a way through which a person connects with others. It defines the way we react, interact, respond and behave with other people. A 2016 study 1 explains that it is the “relational behaviors that occur between the individuals and their primary caregivers to get their basic needs met (initially) and then to develop a schema (or response set) for interacting with the world (and others) around them.” According to the attachment theory 2 developed by Bowlby, our attachment styles are shaped during the early stages of childhood and are dependent on our relationship with our caregivers. It includes how we respond to others emotionally through our behaviors and interactions.
Children who receive care and support from their caregivers grow up into responsible and mature adults who thrive in stressful situations. A 2011 study 3 has shown that a positive maternal-infant attachment can enhance a child’s emotional and cognitive development that allows them to be resilient and confident as adults. However, children who do not receive enough care and support are often found to lack resilience and self-esteem in stressful situations. A 2017 study 4 pointed out that inconsistent behavior from attachment figures can be a crucial factor that influences the development of different attachment styles.
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Four Major Attachment Styles
The quality of attachment is greatly determined by the parental response to the infant when they are distressed. There are four main attachment styles that a child develops depending on their relationship with their primary caregiver. Bowlby’s research on attachment theory found that when the infants were separated from their parents and placed in an unfamiliar situation, they displayed four types of responses, namely:
1. Secure Attachment
Secure attachment is formed when a child feels secure and accepted with their primary caregivers. It is formed when a parent consistently attends to the child’s needs. When the caregivers respond to their infants in a loving or sensitive way when they are distressed, they feel secure and reassured to express themselves freely. The child gets upset when the parent leaves but can be easily comforted once the caregiver returns. The child seeks proximity with their caregiver until they feel safe. According to foundational attachment research 5 , about 56% of adults have a secure attachment type. A 2005 study 6 suggested people with secure attachment have fewer symptoms of psychopathology and higher psychosocial functioning throughout their life span.
A securely attached person possesses the ability to trust others and tends to get close to other people with ease. An individual with this type of attachment styles can easily interact with the outside world and can return to their secure base after exploration. People with secure attachment are usually:
- Comfortable in a warm and loving relationship
- Trusting and empathetic
- Able to communicate emotions honestly and proactively
- Able to manage emotions well
- Sensitive, warm, and caring
2. Dismissive Attachment
Dismissive attachment is formed when a child feels abandoned by their primary caregiver. The caregiver fails to attend to the emotional needs of the child. Infants whose caregivers consistently respond to the child’s emotional needs in dismissive and insensitive ways, develop a strategy to deal with distress. In such circumstances, they tend to avoid their caregiver and minimize their negative emotions in the presence of the caregiver. The child grows up believing that they are self-sufficient and that emotional connections are unnecessary. A 2012 study 7 pointed out that people with high levels of dismissive attachment tend to be reticent about forming intimate relationships.
People with dismissive attachment are usually:
- Emotionally distant
- Rejects any intimate relationship
- Prefers autonomy than intimacy
- Identifies intimacy with lack of independence
- Controlled and stoic
- Unable to rely on their partner
- Uncomfortable talking about emotions
3. Anxious/Preoccupied Attachment
An anxious attachment style is formed due to an inconsistent parenting style. The child feels anxious when separated from their parents and they are hard to console even after the caregiver returns. Infants whose parents respond in inconsistent and unpredictable ways, display extreme negative emotions in an attempt to draw attention from their inconsistent caregiver. They are insecure about relationships and often need constant reassurance and validation from their partners. They often display neediness or clingy behavior and constantly feel like their partner doesn’t care enough. A 2014 study 8 found that people with anxious attachment styles are usually afraid of rejection and loneliness in their relationships. Another 1991 study 9 pointed out that people with this style of attachment are unable to regulate their emotions internally.
People with anxious attachment are usually:
- Insecure in intimate relationships
- Worried about rejection and abandonment
- Sensitive to their partner’s actions or moods
- Unpredictable and moody
- Highly emotional
- Contemplates unresolved past issues
Mary Ainsworth’s attachment theory 10 further demonstrated another attachment pattern when the infant was separated from the parent with atypical behaviors. It is known as disorganized attachment.
4. Fearful avoidant/ disorganized attachment
Fearful avoidant attachment is the one of the attachment styles explained by Bowlby. It is a combination of both anxious attachment and dismissive attachment style. Children with this attachment style grow up believing that they are unworthy of love. Children’s disorganized attachment includes their exposure to specific forms of distorted parenting and unusual caregiver behaviors that are “atypical”. A 2004 study 11 pointed out that atypical behaviors are also referred to as “frightening, frightened, dissociated, sexualized or otherwise atypical”. These are aberrant behaviors that are displayed by the caregivers while interacting with their children that are not limited to when the child is distressed. Exposure to such behaviors can have long-term damaging effects on the child’s sensitivity and emotional regulation of the brain. A 2002 study 12 pointed out that disorganized attachment is believed to represent a severe disturbance in threat responding, social cognition, and identity development and is more likely to develop personality disorders.
People with disorganized attachment are usually:
- Frightened by memories of past childhood experiences
- Unable to tolerate emotional closeness in relationships
- Dissociated in order to avoid pain
- Unable to resolve their mindset and emotions
- Triggered into anger and fear
- Unable to regulate emotions
Regulating Attachment Styles
The style of attachment is passed down from generation to generation. Children learn emotional bonding from their parents. Hence, it is crucial to pay attention to how you are comforting your children when they are in distress. This plays a significant role in the child’s future relationships and how they relate and connect to their own children. In order to ensure your child receives the best childhood a parent can give, it may be beneficial to identify your own relationship patterns and seek professional help, if required.
- Mohammadi, K., Samavi, A., & Ghazavi, Z. (2016). The Relationship Between Attachment Styles and Lifestyle With Marital Satisfaction. Iranian Red Crescent medical journal, 18(4), e23839. https://doi.org/10.5812/ircmj.23839
- Cassidy, J., Jones, J. D., & Shaver, P. R. (2013). Contributions of attachment theory and research: a framework for future research, translation, and policy. Development and psychopathology, 25(4 Pt 2), 1415–1434. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0954579413000692
- Sullivan, R., Perry, R., Sloan, A., Kleinhaus, K., & Burtchen, N. (2011). Infant bonding and attachment to the caregiver: insights from basic and clinical science. Clinics in perinatology, 38(4), 643–655. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.clp.2011.08.011
- Reisz, S., Duschinsky, R., & Siegel, D. J. (2017). Disorganized attachment and defense: Exploring John Bowlby’s unpublished reflections. Attachment & Human Development, 20(2), 107-134. https://doi.org/10.1080/14616734.2017.1380055
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- Ahrens, K. R., Ciechanowski, P., & Katon, W. (2012). Associations between adult attachment style and health risk behaviors in an adult female primary care population. Journal of psychosomatic research, 72(5), 364–370. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jpsychores.2012.02.002
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