Attachment

We attach to our mothers while we are still in utero. Attachment problems can start that young too. If Mom was stressed, if there was an excess of cortisol in her system, or if she was using substances, all of these things can impact attachment. Depressed or distracted mothers can impact how their child attaches. Inconsistent parenting and unpredictability in the home can disrupt attachment as well. If your child has sensory issues, this could have impacted attachment because the typical bonding behaviors might have been dysregulating to your child.

Disrupted attachment is never about placing blame. Everyone is doing the best they can with what they have. Disrupted attachments happen, but people can heal from attachment trauma. People can feel safe, bonded, and at-home within a relationship even if they started their life with an insecure attachment style.

There are 4 styles of attachment: secure, anxious, ambivalent, and disorganized. Find more information on each attachment style and what it looks like below.

What are the different types of attachment?

Secure

You feel safe, accepted, and are able to handle conflict without being fearful of rejection. Broken relationships, lost friendships or otherwise, does not have a deep impact on your sense of self-worth. Conflict is simply par for the course, and while it’s not enjoyable, it’s also not fear provoking.

What kind of parenting leads to a secure attachment

Securely attached individuals had caregivers who were attuned to his or her needs. Attunement is the ability to accurately and consistently recognize, interpret, and respond to the child’s needs.

What does it look like in kids?

Kids with a secure attachment seek their care-givers like their home base. They come check in, get a dose of security, then they’re off to explore their environment, make new friends, and try new things. When they try new things they have sense of being capable. When things don’t go as planned, they are able to try again in a new way. When securely attached kids get in trouble, they’re typically angry for getting in trouble—there is no fear of caregivers no longer loving them. They know they’re loved. They’re simply mad over the consequences.

What does it look like in adults?

Adults with a secure attachment typically do well in both career and relationship. The base they developed as children taught them to explore, to try, and to adapt to failure. They are not fearful of conflict or failure—neither defines them, their value, or what they have to offer. They are able to end relationships when needed, they have a standard for how others treat them and how they treat others. Emotions feel safe, even anger. They have a wide range of emotional expression. They feel the highs and lows of life, but tend to recover from faster from life’s challenges.

Anxious Attachment

WHAT KIND OF PARENTING LEADS TO An anxious ATTACHMENT

Anxiously attached individuals likely grew up in a stressful environment, which could be many things: marital stress, financial stress, frequent moves, traumatic early life events, or simply having a mom who was anxious. Children can feel the emotions of their caregivers, so if their primary caregivers were often nervous, worried, fearful, or stressed, this would impact the emotional state of the child.

What does this look like in children?

A great indicator of any attachment style looks at how the child responds to being separated from the caregiver and how they reunite. An anxiously attached child will cling to the caregiver upon separation, they remain distressed for some time, they may hesitantly interact with their environment while the caregiver is gone, and upon return, the child will cling to the caregiver and will be slow to separate again. When the child gets in trouble, they become worried about the caregiver being upset with them. Displeasing others is distressing, including friends, family, and teachers. A teacher sending a not home will lead to either fear or worry about the relationships.

What does this look like in an adult?

Anxiously attached adults are constantly fearful of not being wanted or accepted. They’re convinced people are going to leave them or abandon them eventually and it will likely have been their fault. Conflict is highly anxiety provoking and they tend to want to hold on to their attachment figure for dear life. “Please don’t go. We can fix this.” You might be prone to taking the blame for conflict in your relationship. It might also be hard to hold other people accountable for their actions.

Ambivalent Attachment

WHAT KIND OF PARENTING LEADS TO AN ANXIOUS ATTACHMENT

This attachment style stems from parenting that does not meet the needs of the child. The template for relationships is very mistrusting of others, they’ve learned no one is going to show up for them. This is not because Mom and Dad were bad parents. This can happen when parents are depressed or distracted. Imagine having a two-year-old and a new born. If that 2-year-old is a handful, how many times did baby cry and no one come? What was the environment like in day-care? A mom struggling with post-partum depression will not have that loving gaze in her eyes as she tries to sooth her crying baby. The odds are, Mom’s crying too.

What does it look like in children?

Children who are ambivalently attached tend to need little from their caregivers because they’re so content to be self-sufficient. They might even be praised for this quality by teachers or other adults; however, children with this attachment tend have elevated levels of cortisol in their system. When separated from their caregiver, they show little distress and when the caregiver returns, the child appears to be indifferent to the parent. When they get in trouble, they tend to shutdown and withdraw. You do not see a full spectrum of emotions from these kids. Their highs and lows are relatively similar.

What does it look like in adults?

An ambivalently attached individual is independent and appears to be cool, calm, and collected. It’s not that emotions are foreign to them, they’re just not very helpful. They tend to withdraw and shut down when there’s conflict within their relationship. When things get tense, they’d rather remove themselves from the conflict. Their template for life and relationships has taught them to be self-reliant, sometimes to a fault. They likely believe it’s best to not count on others. Solitude feels safer than relationships and intimacy might feel foreign. Leaving home and loved ones does not evoke great stress, there’s probably something reassuring about the distance. They rarely miss people, whether that’s friends or family. It’s not that they don’t care for their loved ones, they do, but the emotional ache that comes with separation is rare. The important thing to note about this attachment style is that these individuals desire relationships and closeness, but because their template for relationships is built on the belief that they’re on their own, they don’t know how to intimately connect.

Disorganized

WHAT KIND OF PARENTING LEADS TO AN ANXIOUS ATTACHMENT

Disorganized attachment stems from caregivers who are unpredictable. Sometimes they meet your needs, sometimes they’re nowhere to be found. Caregivers may have be neglectful or hurtful. Our parents are our safe place, we are wired to seek them when we’re needing comfort and security, but what if your place of comfort is also your place of distress. This creates so much internal stress that it can feel like a push-pull relationship, often described as “I love you, I hate you”. It’s as if in a single moment, this individual is both pulling you in and pushing you away.

What does this look like in children?

These children can be explosive and destructive when they become upset. They might break their own belongings or the belongings of others. When upset these children might bang their head on the floor or wall. When they become dysregulated, it’s like they flip a switch and nothing you say gets through. Fits and tantrums are frequent. Fits could last anywhere from 15 minutes to over an hour. These tantrums can be exhausting to the child and they might fall asleep soon after the tantrum. When separated from their caregiver, they might be distressed or they might be indifferent (though, internally stressed). The classic sign of a disorganized attachment is when the caregiver returns—the child will want to be held, but then may also hit their caregiver. It’s a combination of, “I’m so glad you’re back” and “Why did you leave me?!”. Children who have this attachment style may have a history of early abuse or neglect.

What does this look like in adults?

Adults with this attachment style will have a hard time maintaining relationships. Their partners will likely feel at a loss for how to respond and what to do. The push-pull of the relationship can be very confusing and very distressing for everyone. These adults may go into a fear response (fight, flight, freeze) as a result of relational cues that are perceived as either negative or cues the individual struggles to interpret. They may go to extreme measures to keep a relationship, including threats of or actions of self-harm. Inconsistency was such a normal aspect of their life, others might feel like these individuals create chaos. What is normal feels safe, so if a person’s life has been chaotic, when things were good, it was most likely the calm before the storm, so better to bring the storm rather than wait for it to hit.