Attachment in children and adults

A close and stable relationship to others is of crucial importance to everyone, at least during the formative years. The childhood of humans lasts much longer than that of all animals, and therefore we will need someone who can fulfil our physical and emotional needs for many years.

Until we are a few years old, it is usually the mother who plays a key role in giving us what we need. And the relationship to this primary caregiver – in the following referred to as the mother, though it might also be the father – is essential for our ability to have a healthy relationship to others later in life, for example within a couple. This first human relationship of the infant creates patterns in the nervous system which we later rely on when being with others. Thus, it is this early imprint which for example determines whether we believe both ourselves and others to be OK – or if we are inherently sceptical towards strangers.

Depending on the character of the relationship to the mother during the first couple of years, it is possible to discern between three different patterns of attachment or attachment styles of infants: Secure attachment, insecure-avoidant attachment, and insecure-ambivalent attachment.

Secure attachment

In this case, the infant experiences that the mother – or another primary caregiver – is available both physically and emotionally, that she gives the child what it needs, and that she is generally consistent, sensitive, committed and protective. In such a relationship the child is accepted as it is, together with its feelings and needs.

Not surprisingly, a relationship like this supports the ability of the infant to grow up with a positive attitude towards both itself and others – a high self-worth. A nourishing relation with these characteristics gives the child the resources to explore the life and the world, knowing that it can return to the safe haven at any time. This is often called a basic trust.

Through a so-called “strange situation” experiment, it is possible to discern between the various attachment styles. In this experiment, devised by the British psychologist Mary Ainsworth, a one-year-old infant is invited to explore some new toys in a room where its mother is also present. On a given signal, the mother leaves the room – with the effect that the child becomes clearly distressed because the mother has disappeared. This reaction is natural and common for most children, regardless of their pattern of attachment.

However, the difference becomes obvious when the mother comes back after a minute or two. The child with a secure attachment is relatively easy comforted by the mother – who will often pick it up – and will gradually calm down and become ready to explore the surroundings and the new toys. The video shown below illustrates this experiment both for children with a secure and with an insecure attachment.

The effects of the secure attachment with normally last throughout life, and will typically mean that the adult person has characteristics such as these:

  • Has a clear sense of self
  • Wants close relations to other people
  • Feels at ease together with others
  • Does not worry about being alone
  • Has a positive perspective, both on self and others
  • Feels comfortable both with emotional intimacy and with independence
  • Experiences having a balanced life

Insecure-avoidant attachment

In the case of the insecure attachment styles, the infant was not adequately met and was therefore not able to experience that the relationship with the mother or other caregiver was a safe base in a dangerous world. In various ways, the needs of the child were not sufficiently fulfilled and the contact with the mother was insufficient or unstable. Thus, the child had to develop strategies for protecting its integrity against possible feelings of inadequacy or of not being loved.

The insecure-avoidant attachment style evolves when the mother and/or the father was not emotionally available and therefore inattentive or insensitive to the needs of the child. The caregiver showed little or no response to signs of distress or sadness in the child – such parents teach the child not to cry and encourages it to independence. And the child acts accordingly: it learns to take care of itself and to resist needing anything from others. It becomes self-sufficient.

In the strange situation experiment, also a child with this attachment style becomes distressed when the mother leaves the room, but quickly calms down and continues to play. And when the mother returns, the child seems almost unaffected despite the actual distress it feels inside. The child will often reject attempts of the mother to comfort it and maybe even turn its face away in protest. Adults who have adapted this attachment style will typically display characteristics like these:

  • Is comfortable without having emotionally intimate relationships
  • Independence is considered to be very important
  • Does not like to be dependent on others or vice versa
  • May avoid getting close emotional ties
  • Considers close relationships to be less important
  • Has a more positive attitude towards oneself than towards others
  • Inclined to suppress and hide own emotions
  • Reacts on rejection by distancing oneself from the situation

Insecure-ambivalent attachment

This attachment style can develop when the mother has been unpredictable in her emotional attunement with the child. Sometimes she has been available and responsive to the needs of the child, while in other occasions she has been too preoccupied with her own problems to have resources for the child, leading her to become for example insensitive or invasive. Consequently, the child has become insecure and confused: When is my mother here for me, and when isn’t she? How will she behave towards me this time? The infant will be lacking trust in the parent and will at the same time behave in a clinging and desperate manner.

As a metaphor, this situation, imagine a slot machine which gives you the chance of winning a good prize only on rare occasions. This behaviour would tempt you to continue playing, just as in Lotto. But if you experience that you never win, you quickly learn to stop playing – as with the insecure-avoidant attachment.

In the strange situation experiment, an infant with an insecure-ambivalent attachment will cling to the mother when she returns. It will resist the attempts of the mother to comfort it and only slow calm down – or might even be inconsolable and not wanting to let her go. As an adult, a child with this attachment style will often display characteristics such as these:

  • Likes to be very close to others emotionally
  • Does not feel at ease without any close relationships
  • Has a more positive attitude towards others than towards oneself
  • Has a great need for recognition and a positive response from others
  • Tends to feel dependent
  • Blames oneself in case of lacking recognition from others
  • Often feels nervous or worried
  • Finds it difficult to trust others entirely
  • Very sensitive to the reaction of others, particularly criticism
  • Self-critical and insecure

Concluding remarks

Above I have described the tendencies and characteristics connected to the three described patterns of attachment separately, emphasizing the differences. In real life, things are less clear-cut, and most people will be able to recognize characteristics in themselves from several attachment styles. A question to oneself for the curious might be “If you were pressed for a single answer and HAD to choose, would you then choose intimacy or independence?”

Here is a link to a test, where you can test your attachment pattern.

The British psychologists John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth were the first ones to investigate and describe these attachment styles. According to statistics, 60% of the population has a secure pattern of attachment while the other attachment styles account for around 20% each. Fortunately, you can develop a secure attachment style as an adult even if you have not been gifted with it from childhood – the human brain is extremely plastic, and your basic beliefs about yourself and others can always be changed if you are motivated for it. It is also good to keep in mind that our parents did the best they could under the circumstances at the time.

Written with inspiration from John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth, Dan Siegel, R. Chris Fraley and Inge Holm.

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