From the moment a person is born, they immediately become dependent on those that surround them. We have a biological need to form connections with other people, and in turn, we feel taken care of and loved. For a lot of individuals, bond formation begins with our first caregivers. This person could be a mother or father, an aunt, uncle, grandparent, close family friend, or any other type of caretaker. Even though babies can form connections with anyone who spends time in their lives, there is usually one person that outweighs the rest. Just think: how many times have you seen a baby react in an adverse way when they cannot find their caregiver in the room with them? How do they react when they are reunited? It is easy to understand that babies are emotionally attached to the people who take care of them. But — how does that connection change as time goes on? How does the relationship between caregivers and babies affect relationships later on in life? In this blog, we will discuss two of the four different types of attachment styles that characterize attachment theory.
Attachment Theory Explained
Attachment theory is a theory that was developed by psychologist, John Bowlby, in the 1950s and 1960s to explore the caregiver-child relationship. Research into this theory has spanned over 5 decades, and it was originally developed as an attempt to explain how the deep emotional bond between the caregiver and the child can affect development of the child later on in life. In addition, this theory explores how the attachment of the child to the caregiver affects their attachment in different relationships and connections that are unrelated to their childhood.
Research into this theory has shown that the interactions and experiences that young children have with their parents or caregiver affect their emotional development. For example, if a baby’s well-being is adequately nurtured by a caregiver at the start of their life, the baby’s future relationships are more likely to be successful and healthy. On the other hand, if a baby grows up with an unstable, unreliable caregiver, the health and success of future romantic and other personal relationships may suffer. Depending on how a person is cared for at the beginning of life affects how their attachment style will be as they evolve into young adolescents and adults. The type of attachment style a person has can speak a lot to what kind of mental assumptions, behaviors, and relationships someone seeks. Attachment styles are typically formed in young adolescence, and this is believed to have an everlasting effect on how someone may set expectations in a relationship, react to a partner’s behavior or words, how to deal with conflict, and how to communicate any concerns, needs or wants with other individuals.
At a certain age, mental health professionals are able to classify children into one of the four main attachment styles. The origin of these four attachment styles actually derive from a famous study done in 1969 called the Strange Experiment. In this experiment babies and their parents were placed into a room together where the child could play and explore. After a few minutes of playing with one another, the babies were left completely alone as the parents left the room. Through a blind screen, researchers observed the differing ways in which babies responded to the absence and subsequent return to the play area. They were able to come up with these four distinct groups of attachment styles:
- Secure Attachment
- Avoidant Attachment
- Anxious Attachment
- Disorganized Attachment
Each child and adult does not necessarily fall into one category completely. The different attachment styles exist as a broad spectrum, and so you may identify with a lot of the different characteristics of one style while also relating to some characteristics of another
Compared to the other attachment styles, secure attachment styles is considered to be the most healthy type of attachment. This is the type of attachment that people in healthy relationships strive to have or maintain.
Securely attached babies are the ones that are able to explore a new area or environment without stress when they know their mother or caretaker is watching them. They are typically not afraid of strangers and wander quite freely. In this relationship, the child trusts that the caregiver will consistently be there for them, and this caregiver is able to respond to the child in an appropriate, loving way when they need assistance. In the Strange Study, securely attached babies began to cry when the parent left the room, and then quickly recovered and returned to exploring once the parent returned. This type of behavior signals that the child trusts the parent enough to become comfortable once again and resume their play. The knowledge that the mother or caregiver will be their ‘base’ to come back to at all times gives the child a sense of security and confidence to explore. They are also aware that this caregiver will be there for them when they need help or guidance. This confidence in their caregiver helps children become adaptive and open to challenges. They view the world as trustworthy, and are able to self-regulate their emotions and reactions in a leveled, thoughtful way.
Babies with secure attachments typically grow up to seek out and foster healthy romantic and personal relationships. Because they grew up with a secure, loving, and trustworthy attachment to their caregiver, they are able to provide that same type of love and affection to those in their lives. They are more likely to seek out a relationship that is healthy and long lasting. Signs of a securely attached person include:
- Comfortability with being close to others
- Communicates well and articulates their words effectively
- Good coping skills
- Adaptable personality and approach to life
- Regulates emotions and feelings
- Able to express affection
- They depend on others to a healthy extent, but are still able to meet their own needs
- Ability to enter intimate, emotionally vulnerable relationships
The rest of the attachment styles discussed in this blog are types of insecure attachment styles. First, we will start with the anxious attachment style, also known as the fearful, preoccupied, or anxious-ambivalent attachment style.
Anxiously attached babies are not able to explore new surroundings with the same type of excitement and adventure as a securely attached baby. They instead navigate with a sense of high-alertness and constantly look for their caregiver to make sure that they have not been abandoned. This stems from the fact that anxiously attached infants do not really trust their caregivers. They grow up believing that their caregiver can abandon them at any point, and this fuels an insecurity for feeling like they may be deserted. These parents are not very consistent with their affection and love for this child, and this makes the child feel like they cannot count on that caregiver. In the context of the Strange Study, anxiously attached babies cried when the caregiver left them to their own devices in the room, and they were also not easily consolable once the parent did return. This helped researchers understand that these babies still felt stressed in the presence of their caregiver because they were not certain that they would just leave again.
Anxiously attached adults may come off as ‘needy’ or ‘clingy’ in a romantic or personal type of relationship. They may feel as though their partner will abandon them at any given moment, so they constantly seek reassurance and validation that they are wanted and good enough to stick around with. They typically hold a lower self-image of themselves and think that they are more unworthy of attention and love while other people deserve it. These individuals crave intimacy with other people, but they are worried that their partners will not love them correctly or will abandon them. Signs of an anxiously attached person include:
- A need for constant reassurance and contact
- They want to hear that they are good enough for their partner
- They want to fix things for other people even if it inconveniences them
- Negative self-worth
- Experience emotional highs and lows
- View others positive and themselves as negative
- Blurring boundaries, not being able to set boundaries with other people or respecting boundaries
- Unable to be alone
- Unable to regulate their own emotions
- Overanalyze small experiences
Those with anxious attachment styles are at more of a risk for developing anxiety disorders like social anxiety, panic disorder, any other type of anxiety-related disorder. It does not take very big triggers to make someone with an anxious attachment style feel like they are being abandoned or insecure about their relationship. They may find themselves starting arguments with their partner or becoming overly-emotional and cry as a way to connect back with their partner. They are not able to regulate their emotions in a very healthy way, and so communicating their needs is difficult and can even be polarizing.
In the next blog, we will pick up again by talking through the final 2 attachment styles: avoidant attachment and disorganized attachment. We will also discuss the different ways that we can all learn more about their own attachment styles, and different ideas and tips for how we can all strive for a more secure attachment. Understanding our attachment styles helps create healthier relationships, and therefore, stronger mental health.