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Even though I’ve been an adoptive parent for four years, attachment styles in children still confuse me.
It’s a complicated area of psychology for sure – but in case we weren’t perplexed enough, it turns out that different professionals use different words for each attachment style too! As if our heads weren’t already foggy enough from parenting our attachmentally-challenged children.
So here is my no-fuss guide to the four types of attachment styles. You’ll find a description of the style, how it plays out in a child’s emotions and behaviour, and some brief comments on the kind of parenting that this child might need.
I’ve deliberately kept things concise (well, you know me – as concise as I’m able to) – but throughout the post, you’ll find links to articles which will take you deeper on that particular issue or attachment style.
Where you see a link, do click through for more information – you may find it helpful to open each link in a new tab, so that you can continue reading this article before reading others.
Attachment styles definition
As always, it’s good to start with a definition, so that we’re all starting from the same point. What is attachment? What are parent-child attachment styles?
Very simply, attachment is the way that we relate to others, in particular the way we build relationships with those closest to us. Attachment styles are the labels psychologists have given to these different ways in which humans relate to others.
For our purposes, we will be talking about the relationship a child builds with its main caregivers – whether that is one parent or two, a step-parent, foster parent, guardian, grandparent, or whoever else is responsible for them.
It’s right that we focus on the specific relationship an infant develops with its caregivers, for it is this attachment that is the most important one we form in life. It sets a precedent for how we will relate to others through life. It has an impact on our friendships, our boyfriends/girlfriends (and later partners/spouses), our relationship with our work colleagues and boss. And it subconsciously wires our brain to respond to not only people, but situations, in particular ways.
I’m going to briefly mention here that attachment theory is not really anything to do with love and affection. No one is doubting that many birth parents who are unable to look after their children still love them very much – they just haven’t been able to develop a secure attachment in them.
Likewise, it is not enough for us adoptive/fostering parents to simply love our children and show them affection. This is important, of course, but the relationship we have with our children is not a mutual, reciprocal one (in attachment theory terms) – it is based on the need for safety, security and protection. From this perspective, how we develop secure attachment in our children is about much more than just loving them.
What are the four types of attachment styles?
The four types of attachment styles are:
- Ambivalent (sometimes called preoccupied)
- Disorganised (sometimes called disorientated)
In addition, avoidant and ambivalent attachment styles are sometimes grouped together as ‘anxious’ attachment styles, and all three of the attachment styles which aren’t ‘secure’ are often given the umbrella term of ‘insecure attachment’.
So if you hear someone talk about ‘insecure attachment’, that’s really a general term for any attachment which isn’t secure. To break it down further, someone with insecure attachment might be avoidant, ambivalent or disorganised.
It’s worth remembering here that these are terms which psychologists have come up with to label what already exists. As such, they may change in the future – they certainly weren’t always used in the past.
Another consequence of this is that children won’t necessarily always fall easily into one category. As you read the following definitions, you may relate to some aspects of one, and some aspects of another. That’s OK. Our brains are complicated organs, and psychological language can only go so far in describing them.
The point of this blog post is not to force everyone into a box or give them a label; it is to clarify our own understanding of this important area so that we can parent our children appropriately, particularly if their early life experiences might have damaged their ability to attach securely to us.
So if your child falls into two or more boxes, that’s fine! My own children don’t line up neatly under any one of these labels either. But there might be particular times when one attachment style is more evident, and my job as their mum is to try and work out whether certain situations trigger certain attachment styles, and how I can help to re-parent my child at those times, so that the impact of their insecure attachment is minimised as they grow older.
Now let’s look at each attachment style in depth:
This is the most straightforward! For children who’ve had a stable early start to life, with a caregiver who has always met their needs, it is highly likely that they will demonstrate secure attachment.
In practice, this means that they have a close relationship with their main caregivers, and are able to build good friendships with other family members and friends as they go through life.
This has come about because the child has had consistent care since birth. They have always had their needs met – both physical and emotional – so they don’t question whether others will be able to fulfil their side of a friendship or relationship. They have learnt to trust their caregiver unconditionally, which makes it much easier to trust others.
A securely-attached child knows that they can go to their caregivers when feeling distressed and will receive comfort. Now, while there might be a whole host of reasons why securely-attached older children and teenagers don’t always go to Mum or Dad first, still there is an underlying knowledge that their caregivers have their back, that they are there for them and on their side.
Children who present an avoidant attachment style have often had a caregiver who has not met their needs, who has been unavailable or unresponsive when called for, and who does not show any/much interest in them.
In practice, if the first person a child knew was not able to develop a strong attachment with them, this makes it very difficult for that child to get close to anyone. They avoid close relationships, hijacking friendships before they get hurt, or breaking off a relationship before the threat of intimacy.
Understandably, a child with avoidant attachment will be wary of any relationship, in case they are let down again. In fact, they will probably expect to be let down. This is not a conscious thought: this child is still human, and therefore craves relationship and community like we all do, but they are unable to get very far, because a secure attachment was not available to them at the stage when their brain was developing the most.
Children with avoidant attachment may present as strong, independent individuals who like to do things for themselves – but this masks a fear of allowing others into their world. Emotionally, this child will be quite distant, preferring instead to focus on practical tasks when relating to others. And their self-esteem is likely to be fairly fragile.
If your child has an attachment style which is partly or largely avoidant, you may find it frustrating that your attempts at connecting with them emotionally, or encouraging them to depend upon you for their physical needs, seem to be in vain.
As with much of adoptive/foster parenting, the key is patience and persistence – not withdrawal. While it may be tempting to stop offering hugs, or to stop doing particular practical tasks for your child, don’t. Keep offering. If you persist at creating a culture of emotional intimacy and dependence within your family, your child will slowly start to realise that this is normal.
Avoidant attachment children may also struggle with new experiences, for fear of the unknown and a lack of ability to trust those in charge of them.
Both Monkey and Meerkat have this, although they exhibit in different ways. Meerkat presents as the most anxious when we do new things as a family, with many questions, a lot of physical fidgeting/inability to stay still, and extra sensitivity towards anything which doesn’t go his way. But we are discovering that Monkey, underneath his more relaxed demeanour, also struggles with changes to his routine. He might ask more questions, like Meerkat, but he also becomes more physically clingy and emotional, crying at things which wouldn’t upset him usually, and wanting to reiterate how much he loves us, perhaps for fear that we might leave him.
Leading our children gently into new places and new ways of doing things, taking time to explain in advance what will be happening, as well as patiently answering their millions of (often identical) questions, will pay off. With each new experience, your child will be building a memory bank of positive memories around new challenges. Little by little, their brain is being rewired to know that they can relax in our care.
The second of the two ‘anxious’ parent-child attachment styles, ambivalent attachment (sometimes referred to as ‘preoccupied attachment‘) may be seen in children who have not had their care needs met consistently.
Whereas an avoidant style suggests that care needs have not been met at all, or at least very minimally, ambivalent style arises where a caregiver has been unpredictable: very emotionally/physically present one moment, and very uninterested/unavailable the next. The child becomes confused, not knowing when his/her caregiver will be present for them.
Sometimes the caregiver seems de-sensitized to his/her child’s needs. At other times, he/she will be over-sensitive, going over-the-top in their caregiving, perhaps treating the child as much younger or less able than they are, reducing this child’s independence and sense of ownership.
Because the child has some experience of having care needs met, he/she might present as whingey, expressing their needs loudly or for a long time, having become used to a caregiver who didn’t always meet their needs, but would probably be more likely to do so the louder they cried. (An avoidant child, by contrast, would be likely not to express their needs at all.)
A child with ambivalent attachment may also present as younger than they are. Although to some extent this could be said for all insecure attachment styles in children, it is particularly prevalent in ambivalent attachment because of having been ‘babied’ at times by their caregiver, who assumed the child was unable to do a task and therefore did it for them.
This can cause a child to have low self-esteem and feelings of unworthiness. They might become over-the-top or over-sensitive themselves, leading to over-dependence on others, attention-seeking behaviours, and sometimes possessive/controlling behaviour in order to get others to meet their needs.
Parenting a child with avoidant attachment is, naturally, going to be challenging. Again, a patient and long-term approach is required. It will be necessary to build the child’s self-esteem and help them to become independent, encouraging them away from the expectation that you will do everything for them.
But this won’t happen overnight! You may need to work on one small task at a time, whilst patiently doing other tasks for them – even if all their peers are doing this for themselves.
Meerkat (5) often needs us to put on his shoes for him, even though he’s fully capable of doing this for himself. But a few months ago, we were having to get him totally dressed for school. Prioritising this, rather than this AND getting his shoes on, has meant that he now gets dressed happily on his own, with no meltdowns. Our next challenge will be the shoes!
It is also important to put in place very clear boundaries surrounding attention-seeking behaviours. We have had to become very strict about our boys not interrupting others – often our boys try to get our attention for a non-urgent matter while we are in the middle of a conversation with someone else.
While this behaviour is obviously not restricted to those who are adopted/fostered, it is often more pronounced, and goes on till an older age, than in non-traumatised children. Do our birth children interrupt us? Yes of course they do. But they respond when we say “Wait a moment”, whereas our adopted children largely don’t.
It can be very, very difficult to ignore attention-seeking behaviours, and takes a huge amount of self control. But as long as your child is not endangering themselves or others, try to ignore certain negative behaviours which are designed to get your attention. And, instead, make sure you DO give attention for really positive things! This is a lesson we’re learning right now. Gradually, our children will re-learn the best ways of getting our attention.
This attachment style arises when a caregiver has been not only unpredictable in their mood and care-giving abilities (as in ambivalent attachment), but also frightening to the child – most probably abusive.
This potent mix of neglect and abuse (or, at best, frightening situations being witnessed by the child) teaches children to avoid expressing their needs, for these needs are unlikely to be their caregiver’s top priority and therefore unlikely to be met. A child may even seek to become ‘invisible’, learning to stay out of the way at particular moments.
When a child is no longer expressing their needs, their brain will gradually switch off from feeling their needs. They develop a numbness to protect themselves from being hurt or let down. They don’t cry when their nappy is full, when they are hungry or when they are sad. These very basic human instincts, which are designed for survival, become detached, potentially closing down some of a child’s brain pathways for life.
Children with disorganised attachment may find it hard to cry or express their needs. They may also lack empathy, unable to understand someone else’s experience, or how they might be feeling. The reason for this is pretty straightforward once we know something of the background for disorganised-attachment kids: if they’ve stopped being able to feel their own feelings, they’re not likely to be able to feel someone else’s. This then leads to rather superficial relationships.
Not being able to recognise and manage his/her own emotions can also lead to a child developing depression and anger. A child with disorganised attachment may see themselves as inherently bad, with an even deeper sense of shame.
You’ll be aware that children who’ve been abused often end up in abusive or abusing relationships, and this reflects every aspect of disorganised attachment: lack of ability to feel, lack of ability to empathise, low self-worth, tendency to get angry, higher risk of depression.
So if our child is presenting with some, or many, aspects of disorganised attachment, how can we parent them in a way which helps to build up some of those brain pathways which have closed down?
Our children may need a lot of help with recognising their emotions. They’ve been taught not to feel, so will initially need us to feel for them, transferring this ability across to them over time.
We could communicate it using a phrase like, “I think you’re feeling angry, because Lewis said something about you which wasn’t untrue” or “I think you’re feeling tired, because it was a late night at Sammy’s party last night”.
Even if the child is feeling angry/tired/whatever because of a negative choice that they made, it’s important to try and stay neutral as much as possible, without apportioning blame. There will be a time for some kind of consequence, but first the child needs to calm down.
A phrase like, “I think you’re sad because you didn’t want to hit your brother” will likely be more of a situation-diffuser than “I think you’re sad because you’ve been very naughty and hit your brother”! Expecting the best from our children – over time – will gradually help them to expect the best from themselves too.
And constantly looking for ways to fill our children up will also pay dividends. Children with low self-esteem as a result of traumatic early life experiences are like leaky buckets – we need to constantly be reassuring them and reinforcing positive messages about them.
When I build up my birth children, the compliment gets added to a nice, solid foundation of love and acceptance that has been set in place from before they were born. When I build up my adopted children, the effect is positive but short-lived and likely to be forgotten the next day. Their foundation is taking longer to build, as their attachment has been broken in the past as they’ve changed caregiver.
Did I say this was going to be concise?! Sorry. But I hope it’s helped to clarify for you the four types of attachment disorder, as well as given you some brain-fodder about where your child might be, and how you can help them.
As I said at the start, this is not about labelling a child or putting them in a box: if your child crosses a couple of attachment styles, that’s probably very normal! I know it is with our children.
But as we build our own knowledge of attachment, we can become better able to spot times when certain attachment styles come to the fore, which – eventually – will help us to pre-empt these times and do all we can to support our children in them, with the long-term goal of them becoming healthy adults.
I’d love to know about your experiences in recognising your child’s attachment styles – or even yours as an adult. Let’s chat in the comments!