Attachment styles: How to appropriately connect with others?
How many attachment styles are there, how are they developed, what consequences do they have in adulthood, why is it important to build an appropriate emotional bond as soon as we are born? Here you will find answers to those questions, advice for parents and so much more. Discover this useful guide about different attachment types.
Attachment style theory has uncovered humanity’s need to establish profound and long-lasting bonds with our peers in order to ensure our survival. Bowlby explained the qualities a caregiver should have to establish a healthy bond with an infant, child or dependent person these being:
- Empathy: the ability to put oneself in another persons shoes and feel what they are feeling, however with enough distance to know its not their own problem or emotion.
- Sensitivity: ability to detect even the smallest signs of a basic or non basic need in a child.
- Availability: in order to satisfy the child’s needs adequately the caregiver has to be available.
The presence and absence of these elements in the set of interactions between the child and the caregiver are key to establish internal models for future relationships of the child, or attachment style in which the child will build its relationship with others.
Following J. Bowlby, Mary Ainsworth and her coworkers in Baltimore, were able to establish three attachment styles included into two main categories: secure attachment (type B) and insecure attachment which she divided into avoidant (type A) and ambivalent/resistant (type C). They did this by exposing the child to an unfamiliar place with the aim of seeing their reaction when the mother left the room and the child was left with a stranger. They observed the behavior before and after the mother came back. Finally, thanks to another research group insecure attachment got another category called disorganized/disoriented attachment.
Finally the attachments styles defined were:
What color does he see the world?- I question myself every time I’m in front of a patient and I’m trying to navigate his brain in order to give some sense to how he feels. What does he think of others? Does he protect himself by avoiding, or is he outgoing and open to life?- These are other questions I wonder about when he is telling me his life story and I try to figure out what attachment style he might be.
Attachment Styles: Secure Attachment
“It’s living with the feeling that people have my back. That whenever I need someone, they will encourage me to continue with a smile or will get sad if I’m crying. No matter what, I know they will be there, offering me comfort”.
Ainsworth defined secure attachment as the absence of concern of the availability of the caregiver. In a unfamiliar situation, children that had a secure attachment with their caregiver would explore the world with curiosity and joyfulness. When their parents left, children would cry and exhibit signs of angst, however they were easily calmed when they came back.
Children with secure attachments are happier and have parents who have been able to satisfy their needs in the different developmental stages. They have made the children felt loved and part of the family, through empathy, availability and sensitivity. In each encounter between the parent and the child, the parent has been capable with love and unconditional acceptance to regulate the child’s emotion even if before the child was crying or uncomfortable. The well being for one is the satisfaction of the other.
Thus, with every interaction, the child has modulated his representation of others as predictable and optimistic. He defines himself as: worthy to be loved, with positive self-esteem, confident in his abilities and self-worth as well as capable of expressing and communicating his emotions.
Therefore, they grow with the idea that the world is a safe and trustworthy place, living each life experience as a challenge and an opportunity to learn new things.
Children that developed a secure attachment tend to become emotional steady and coherent adults, with well integrated life narratives, confidence in themselves and others and have long lasting bonds with others. They use empathy and interpret their experiences with optimism and positivism.
In my opinion, people with secure attachments are the people we meet in life that make us feel comfortable, happy and filled with optimism.
Attachment Styles: Insecure Attachments
What happens with parenting is not satisfactory or when one of the essential elements is missing in order to create a secure bond? Then is when insecure attachments are usually formed. These are distinguished by profound significant ties that generate great discomfort, due to lack of empathy and sensitivity that turn into an unreliable and unpredictable view of the world.
At best in this category are children whose parents did a their job raising them with empathy and concern but failed understanding their needs or offering solutions. For each time they searched emotional warmth, security and understanding they might have failed, leading to pain and feelings of confusion towards the world.
Imagine we just landed in a new unknown and strange planet and around us the people can’t read our facial expressions, let alone the fear we feel by being there. Some might even out of curiosity get close to examine us while others just ignore our presence. We might be so scared we won’t have any idea of where to go, our brain will be trying to figure out an infinite number of unknown stimuli, leading us to be bewildered and mistrusting towards that world.
Children with insecure attachments have lived their relationship with others as unsatisfying, be it because they felt ignored or because their parents have tried inconsistent educational guidelines usually relying on their mood or their own needs. These are parents that seem genuinely worried about their children, however when analysed its discovered that the motivation for being worried is an egocentric one, more based on their personal needs than the children.
Hence, these children grow up with a negative emotional model that generates high levels of anxiety. Their interactions have taught them that there is nothing beneficial from them but great amount of disappointment and pain. Thus, they develop defensive strategies such as isolation, avoidance, in an attempt to lessen the pain. Likewise, they develop a lack of understanding, ignorance and undervalue that has in turn lead to a non-defined fragmented identity, coated with sadness and high levels of loneliness.
As adults, they have low self-esteem and expect very little from life. In any interaction they seem restrained, withdrawn and suspicious of good actions. They tend to be deep-rooted in security, fearing independence, occasionally having anxiety symptoms when they feel their safety is being threatened.
Some of them spend their lifetime avoiding relationships, meanwhile others manage to establish random relationships with different people however not rooted in a meaningful profound connections.
Ainsworth was able to give specific characteristics to the different attachment styles:
- Avoidant attachment style: children that don’t show any type of negative emotion with their mother’s absence. When the mother returns, the child avoids all contact with her not showing any emotions towards her, foreseeing his needs won’t be satisfied.
- Ambivalent attachment style: children with doubtful and inconclusive feelings, on one hand they search for their mother’s comfort but at the same time they feel a deep pain displayed as rage, irritability and it becomes very difficult to comfort them.
- Disoriented/Disorganized: this is the most serious one out of all three. They are traumatized children from young age. They don’t have a defined specific behavior established, therefore they swap from showing a strong attachment to avoidance or even remain paralyzed. They swing from anguish, to searching for comfort in the mother, to anger, to fear and avoidance. They think of their parents as scary and unpredictable because the latter have unpredictable educational guidelines. Thus, the child has a chaotic and disorganized view of the world, and in an attempt to protect himself a series of erratic behaviors are developed. Children with this attachment style have difficulty regulating their emotions and keeping healthy relationships. This attachment style is related to many psychological disorders.
Advice: How to build a secure attachment?
Attachment styles are very difficult to keep in mind when raising a child, however its possible build a secure attachment. What do we have to do to build a healthy bond and create a secure attachment? As caregivers, we have to ensure our child’s healthy development. As you may have been already understanding with this article, the bond or link between caregivers and the child are the key to our future relationships. Thus, I don’t want to conclude without giving some advice on how to build a secure attachment:
- Establish well-defined rules and limits. Children need rules because they will face a world filled with rules and norms. Its important that within our educational scheme we include specific rules making some negotiable with our children.
- Maintain high levels of communication. Answers such as “do it cause I say so” should not be used to get children to do something. Its important to first explain the motivations behind the rule or norm. This helps children develop a critical thought process about their behavior and how he feels about it. We can always help the process with words and expressions he may not know. Communication is an essential part of educating, particularly education values. Even when the behavior is not the most appropriate, its important to find a place where to speak and think about what happened and how it can change. This exchange in point of views between a parent and his child leads to better understanding of each other. A good communication requires active listening. We need to let the other person speak and we listen intently to what they are trying to transmit even if we don’t initially agree. Its not about who is wrong and who is right but rather help the child have introspection.
“There are no irrefutable truths, just stories, then, Why not listen to his story? And in case parts of his story include us, give our fragment of his story to complete it. “
- Let your child know you love them. It’s an essential part of childhood, more than food, is receiving lots of affection. A good emotional development will help them create relationships, develop empathy, communicate and understand others. Even when explaining the rules or scolding it should be done with warmth and care.
- “Sanction behaviors not people”. The child must be aware of the wrong behavior without it interfering or having a negative connotation with his identity. We have to explain clearly what exactly was the behavior didn’t like and measure our words in order not to hurt the child. Its very different for example if I said with a firm tone: “I didn’t like the way you threw that ball at your sister” than “you are a bad child for throwing the ball at your sister”. The second option is packed with negative emotions and brands the child a “bad person”.
- Heal your own wounds. We have to let the past go in order to focus on the present. Attachment styles tend to be intergenerational, that is, they are transmitted from parents to children through imitation, modeling, etc. A child that grew up without empathy, as a parent may not have that tool to teach his or her own children. The same happens with irrational fears, they can be passed from parents to children, thus it’s important for parents to let their past behind and apply new strategies with their children.
Remember to always keep in mind the three essentials elements: empathy, sensitivity and disposition. These elements are the key to developing a secure attachment and will allow us to understand our child’s point of view and way of looking at life.
People can develop secure relationships with some people and insecure with others, or even a secure relationship can turn into insecure in a different moment in time. What is assured is that young experiences play an important role in our brain development and from there how we relate to others and ourselves.
Maybe by reading this article you are now aware of your attachment style. Maybe you might even adventure in asking yourself what color do you see the world? What style do I have? What relationships are secure for me and which aren’t?.
Thank you so much for reading. If you have comments feel free to leave them below.
This article is originally in Spanish written by Samuel Facius Cruz, translated by Alejandra Salazar.
Alejandra is a clinical and health psychologist. She is a child specialist with a diploma in evaluation and intervention in autism. She has worked in different schools with young children and private practice for over 6 years. She is interested in early childhood intervention, emotional intelligence, and attachment styles. As a brain and human behavior enthusiast, she is more than happy to answer your questions and share her experience.