Date: September 14, 2023

Author: Erica Preville, MSc, RP

Research tells us that humans need connection! We have a deep desire to feel that we belong and yet, adult relationships are rarely easy or straight forward. What many people are unaware of however, is how much a person’s childhood relationships with their parents and caregivers can impact how they relate with others in the context of adult relationships. In fact, these early relationships form somewhat of a blueprint or “how-to guide” on how we expect others to respond to us as children, and into adulthood. Our early relationships also heavily impact our self worth, and how we view ourselves as we get older. 

What is Attachment?

The Theory of Attachment began by studying the emotional bond between children and their parents, and was later adapted to understand adult relationships. In a nutshell, Attachment is the bond that forms between a parent and caregiver. This bond is so important because it is the means by which infants get their primal needs met. Without such a relationship, infants would be unable to survive! 

Throughout decades of research, we’ve learned that the quality of the parent-child relationship says a lot about how individuals respond to relationships in childhood and into adulthood. Through observing parent-child interactions, four attachment styles were identified.

What are the Four Attachment Styles?

Secure Attachment is characterized by a positive sense of self, feelings of worthiness in love and relationships and a strong belief that others will reciprocate and reflect these qualities. 

Anxious Attachment is characterized by a fear of abandonment. The anxiously attached often exhibit higher levels of sensitivity and clinginess when navigating interactions with intimate partners. These behaviors result from discomfort caused by doubt and manifest as anxiety, worry and a need for constant reassurance to bring them back to feelings of comfort. 

Avoidant Attachment is characterized by a fear of depending on others or having others depend on them. Avoidant behavior often stems from feelings of discomfort with emotional closeness and manifests as reduced interaction and isolation from partners. These behaviors are often motivated by a desire to maintain independence which feels more comfortable. 

Unlike the anxious and avoidant attachment types, the disorganized attachment style is characterized by a lack of coherence in responding relationships. Those with a disorganized attachment style show signs of both anxious and avoidant types. Sometimes anxious and avoidance strategies are used simultaneously, where one might seek closeness from a support person, and then push them away once closeness is established. 

Curious about your attachment style? Try this free quiz by The Attachment Project.

Childhood Experiences and the Development of Attachment Styles

As mentioned, our early childhood relationships act as a guide for how we see relationships as adults. How our caregivers responded to our needs as children form the basis of how we make sense of relationships now. 

Secure Attachment

A Secure Attachment style develops in children whose parents/guardians are readily available for them in times of need or distress. They know that if they experience emotions requiring support, their caregiver will consistently be available to give them help. They develop the security that someone will always be there when they need them. 

Anxious Attachment

An Anxious Attachment style may develop if parents/guardians demonstrate inconsistency when responding to their child’s needs. These parents/guardians may be emotionally available some of the time and insensitive or unavailable at other times. The child may be left feeling uncertain as to when and if caregivers will be supportive and emotionally available which can result in anxiety surrounding the predictability of their parents, and eventually their partner’s, responses to their needs. 

Avoidant Attachment 

An Avoidant Attachment style may develop if parents/guardians have demonstrated a lack of availability in times of need. A caregiver may downplay their child’s experience or suggest the problem isn’t a problem at all, they may not respond to emotions or may suggest there is no need to feel or express emotions in a certain way. This may result in a child who generally avoids relying on caregivers and eventually partners, for support. Instead, choosing to handle emotional responses on their own, often resulting in more negative or hostile reactions overall.   

Disorganized Attachment

A Disorganized Attachment style is sometimes seen as a combination of Anxious and Avoidant and can develop when caregivers are a source of fear instead of comfort. A child’s needs may have been responded to with fear, threats, intimidation and/or yelling. While a child with Disorganized Attachment is still hardwired to seek out their parent/guardian in times of need, that need is mixed with fear of their parents’ unpredictable response. 

Can Therapy Help?

Insecure attachment styles are understood to develop through attachment injuries, which has been defined as a feeling of betrayal or abandonment during a critical time of need. Struggles in adult relationships could be due to attachment injuries that occurred consistently in past relationships. Evidence shows that addressing attachment and relationship challenges in therapy can lead to the experience of healthier and more fulfilling relationships.

Enso Counselling provides therapy and counselling in Burlington that can help you identify and address potential attachment injuries and relationship difficulties you might be facing.