Tag Archives: relationships

attachment and attachment styles

In this post, I’ll discuss attachment and attachment styles, including adult attachment styles. This will be a very broad discussion of attachment because it’s such a complex subject!

We know that children who are in foster care and/or have been adopted experience disruption in primary attachment relationships due to relinquishment, abuse, neglect, multiple placements, etc. The separation of a child from his/her first or natural mother is the most significant disruption. The Primal Wound by Nancy Newton-Verrier is a great resource for learning more about the significance of this initial disruption in an adoptee’s life.

Attachment can be described as “a reciprocal process by which an emotional connection develops between an infant and his/her primary caregiver.”2 It influences the child’s physical, neurological, cognitive and psychological development and becomes the basis for development of basic trust or mistrust.” It shapes how the child will learn and relate to the world and others. In other words, attachment is the give and take relationship between the child and parent primary caregiver. It is critical to a child’s healthy behavioral, social, emotional and neurological development. Healthy attachment teaches a child to trust and to form healthy relationships throughout his/her life.

I will not discuss attachment theory fully, as there are a plethora of textbooks and articles written specifically on that. Suffice it to say that key researchers include John Bowlby, Mary Ainsworth, Mary Main, and Vera Fahlberg. Bowlby believed that a child’s healthy psychological development was dependent upon a safe and functional relationship with a parent or caregiver. Bowlby theorized that attachment begins in infancy via a bond between the child and the most present, attentive caregiver. This first relationship forms the basis of the internal working models for the child, influencing his or her thoughts, feelings, and expectations with regard to future relationships. Mary Main developed the Adult Attachment Interview (AAI), which is widely recognized as the tool for assessing adult attachment. And Vera Fahlberg is a doctor who formalized the arousal-relaxation cycle, the positive interaction cycle and claiming behaviors in the early 1990s. She wrote A Child’s Journey through Placement, which is a standard training textbook for child welfare workers. Many others have stepped forward and contributed to attachment theory over the years.

In my last post, Healing Childhood TraumaI discussed the arousal-relaxation cycle and how it influences the attachment process in the infant’s first year of life. In a nutshell, an infant expresses a need through crying, fussing, or otherwise raging, which causes her stress response system to become aroused. Her caregiver meets the need, and the infant relaxes. The child’s parasympathetic nervous system helps calm her body once the distress has passed. This dance between infant and caregiver occurs multiple times throughout the first year of life. The signs and symptoms of attachment problems develop as a result of the way a child’s parent/caregiver behaves toward her, environmental factors, and her own particular psychological traits. If a child’s caregiver is unresponsive toward her needs or inconsistent in meeting her needs, she will be at risk for attachment problems. Unattached children have difficulty relating normally to others. For example, it’s common for foster and adoptive parents to report that their child is manipulative, lacks a conscience, or is unable to show genuine affection, when these behaviors are very likely the result of insecure attachment and significant trauma. It’s important to recognize this so that the child is not punished repeatedly for bad behavior, but rather the most appropriate interventions and parenting strategies are sought and learned by the parents. The child does not have it in his wheelhouse to respond in behaviorally/emotionally appropriate ways because brain wiring and neurochemistry have been greatly altered by trauma. Essential areas in the brain that control executive function, common sense, emotional control, etc. are underdeveloped and must be healed in order for change to occur. And this takes time…I’ll say more about trauma and attachment sensitive parenting strategies in another post.

Attachment Styles

Mary Ainsworth pioneered an experiment called the Strange Situation Test. This test was developed and is used to examine the pattern of attachment between a child and the mother or caregiver. The results of the experiment were categorized into four specific types of attachment: Secure, Insecure/Avoidant, Insecure/Ambivalent, and Insecure/Disorganized. Parenting styles are associated with each of these types of attachment. The Insecure/Avoidant and Insecure/Ambivalent attachment styles are interchangeable with or otherwise known as the Anxious/Avoidant and Anxious/Ambivalent attachment styles.

Secure Attachment

Children with a Secure attachment style have a caregiver who consistently responds to them when upset. The infant cries and learns to trust that a caregiver will be available to respond to her needs. Children secure in their attachment go on to have healthy social functioning, have fewer behavioral problems at school, and can become competent leaders within their peer group. They grow up into adults who trust that they are worthy of receiving love, are able to give love/care/nurture, negotiate their needs, and remain autonomous.

Insecure Avoidant Attachment

In Ainsworth’s studies of mothers and infants, observations showed that when some infants became distressed, their bids for comfort were rejected by their mothers. The mothers of these babies were also uncomfortable with close bodily contact. The behaviors exhibited by these infants were later categorized as Insecure/avoidant. Avoidant children do not have caregivers who consistently respond to their needs. When activation of their attachment system leads to painful rejection, infants may develop a strategy where their attachment systems are activated as little as possible.2 These are infants who learn not to cry when they have a need. Avoidant infants and adults appear to suppress activation of their attachment systems, or in other words, have trouble seeking care.

In laboratory studies of babies separated from their mothers, observations revealed that some babies did not seek the mother for comfort or even interaction upon her return as most infants do2. These infants rather actively avoided the mother and became focused on toy play. Avoidant children learn to turn defensively toward self-soothing behaviors, e.g., a play activity, due to past painful rejection when expressing a need.

Evidence demonstrates that avoidant children tend to mask negative affect and replace feelings of sadness with a smile.2 These children often avoid adult eye contact, thus precluding any comfort or reassurance an adult might offer. Although avoidant children may feel and display sadness, they may do so only when there is no child-adult eye contact or when an adult is not present.

Data shows that individuals with an avoidant or Dismissive Adult Attachment style  have trouble seeking or receiving care and giving care. For example, they may fail to share their concerns with others, and may, in fact, withdraw from others as they become more anxious. A number of other studies report that avoidant adults are less likely than secure adults to seek support in response to stress.

Insecure Ambivalent Attachment

Ainsworth observed that mothers of Insecure/Ambivalent infants were inconsistent in providing care. Sometimes these caregivers were loving and responsive, but only when they could manage, not in response to the infant’s signals. An infant whose mother is sometimes responsive, but at other times, preoccupied or overwhelmed, may develop a strategy to stay near the mother at all times.2 The infant cannot count on her mother to monitor her needs. She may cling and vigilantly monitor her mother’s availability in case some need arises. The infant/child takes on a disproportionate share of the burden in maintaining the connection. As a result, hyperactivation of the attachment system occurs.2 These infants/children may show extreme distress on separation and difficulty in calming upon reunion. They may display angry, resistant behavior toward the parent. The negative emotionality of the ambivalent child may be exaggerated and chronic, as the child recognizes that to relax and allow herself to be soothed by the presence of the attachment figure is risky – she may very well lose contact with the inconsistently available caregiver.2 The child may have trouble maintaining boundaries between another person’s distress and his own. Furthermore, the child may feel that the only way to gain care is by sending exaggerated signals of need.

This hyperactivation in adults with an ambivalent or Entangled Adult Attachment style manifests as an insatiability for closeness to others.2 These adults may have a desire to merge with a significant other. They portray themselves in relationships as ‘preoccupied’ and may be particularly upset by relationship breakups. The heightened desire for closeness reflects an impairment of the attachment system. Ambivalent adults may expect others to fill all their needs; thus, they have difficulty negotiating needs and remaining autonomous. They may be codependent or threatened by another’s desire for autonomy. Obviously, this behavior can lead to ambivalence and resentment in both the individual and the significant others in his life.

Insecure/Disorganized Attachment

Children with an Insecure/Disorganized Attachment style have had experiences of maternal/caregiver behavior that is so frightening or unpredictable that they are incapable of developing an organized, strategic response to it.2 Their attachment systems are behaviorally disorganized. The child has no pattern for how to relate to her caregiver. She may behave erratically with toys and might prefer a stranger over her caregiver. These infants may demonstrate a high-pitched cry and/or shriek.

Children with a disorganized attachment style may have the most severe difficulties related to seeking care. Frightening behavior by a caregiver activates simultaneous competing tendencies: to flee to the parent as a safe haven, and to flee from the parent in response to alarm. In this paradoxical situation, there is no organized behavioral strategy available.2 The infant/child is in a terrible position, as neither proximity-seeking nor proximity-avoiding is a solution, and the resulting behavioral responses become freezing, disorientation, and/or disorganization. The adult with a disorganized, or Unresolved Adult Attachment style, has difficulty giving and receiving care/love/nurture, negotiating needs, and remaining autonomous.

In Summary

It’s important to know that these attachment styles are fluid. You may see features of yourself in each of the attachment styles, or may notice that you lean toward one attachment style with one person, e.g., your spouse, and a different attachment style with another, e.g., your mother. This is normal, the point really is to notice and gain awareness.

None of us has a perfect attachment style. Learning and understanding which style I lean toward has given me incredible insight into why I behave as I do and why some of my relationships are more difficult than others. As a younger adult, I was often told that I seemed aloof, that other’s did not feel connected to me, and that I lacked facial expression. Can you guess what my attachment style is?

Upon reflection, I recognized that I did not have a strong attachment, if any at all, to any one person during infancy, as I was in an orphanage for the first four months of my life. My relationship with my adoptive parents was not emotionally close. They provided for all of my physical needs, but I did not feel connected to either of my parents. I loved them, but I had great difficulty expressing my needs and showing affection. My adoptive parents were ill-equipped to nurture a strong attachment. They did the best they could with the knowledge they had, which was pretty minimal. This insight has empowered me to be more intentional in how I interact with certain others in my life. It’s also helped me to understand how important it is for fost/adoptive parents to understand attachment, and furthermore, to get appropriate training and education. I hope that this very brief overview of attachment and attachment styles is of benefit to you and gives you some insight into your own particular style.

                                                                                                                                               

1 The Association for Treatment and Training in the Attachment of Children (ATTACh). Retrieved from http://www.attach.org/about-us/attach-accepted-definitions/.

2 Cassidy, J. (2001). Truth, lies, and intimacy: An attachment perspective. Attachment & Human Development, 3(2), 121-155.

Featured Photo by Tanja Heffner on Unsplash

the little red church bus

My parents weren’t super religious, but for a short period, we attended church together as a family. My mom made sure that I wore a pretty dress, typically one she’d sown, and fixed my hair so that I looked especially “girly.” She often made matching dresses for my niece and me. My parents cared for my niece for several years, and she was like a little sister to me. It was almost like a kinship adoption, except no paperwork to formally bind such an arrangement. I carried a small, white patent leather purse to match my white patent Mary Janes. The color of my shoes always matched the season, white during the spring and summer months and black in the fall and winter. Additionally, my mom made me wear tights, usually white, with my dress. I hated them. I felt uncool compared to all the other girls. I eventually convinced my mom to allow me to wear pantyhose and small heels. It was the 70’s after all and quite fashionable for a kid my age at the time.

When I was a young child, we attended a small Methodist church in Shady Grove, a little suburb in Bossier City, Louisiana, where I grew up. My mom signed me into childcare so she and dad could attend “big service.” It was a traumatic event each and every Sunday. I was the kid who screamed and clung desperately to her mom. I don’t recall exactly how old I was at that time, but I’m guessing I was in kindergarten or first grade. Little did I know then that I was demonstrating so many of the symptoms related to insecure attachment, a condition that is commonly experienced by adopted children due to multiple disruptions in attachment. It was particularly bad in elementary school, as I experienced stomachaches and panic daily. I was painfully shy and felt like my whole world tumbled upside down as soon as my mom “abandoned” me again. Occasionally, I’d sit in big service with my parents at church when the daycare workers couldn’t manage the screaming. I have not so fond memories of sitting on creaky old pews, my feet dangling uncomfortably over the edge of a hard wooden seat. I’m certain that after a while the drama of leaving me in childcare became too exasperating for my mom. The sermon was incredibly boring, and I couldn’t help but fidget through the whole thing. I remember a few times being taken outside for a spanking because I just couldn’t sit still, as if that would fix me. After such a torturous experience, we’d sometimes go out to lunch at the Officer’s Club on Barksdale Air Force Base. My dad was a Lt. Colonel in the Air Force. He eventually retired at Barksdale. I loved visiting the Officer’s Club. It was like a palace. The dining room was formal and elegant. The tables were dressed in starched white linens and servers dressed in black. My parents enjoyed going to the Club to have a cocktail. I enjoyed the biscuits and sausage gravy.

My parents eventually stopped going to church. They still, however, made sure I went every Sunday. Imagine that. By then, they sent me to a different church, Bellaire Baptist, right off Barksdale Boulevard. Sometimes, I’d attend the big service,  with our next door neighbors. All I can remember about that is the pastor “screaming” from the pulpit. I wondered why a person would yell in such a way and found big service to be excruciatingly boring. Most of the time, I went to Sunday school class with my peers. Mom still made sure that I was dressed up, certainly no jeans, pants or shorts. I loved having my hair set in those spongy pink rollers the night before so that it was curly the next day.  On Sunday mornings, a little red church bus came to our house to pick me up. Bellaire Baptist had a bus service that transported kids around our community to and from church. I’d sit in our front living room and peer out the window waiting for the bus to arrive. The driver, J.D. Harris, a very sweet man, opened the bus doors and greeted each kid with a big smile. I knew most of the kids who were picked up because we all went to the same school, Sun City Elementary. I got to church for three years on that little red church bus, my Bible and devotional in hand. I was the kid in Sunday school class who read my weekly devotional and memorized every memory scripture faithfully. I’m certain that no other kid cared about memorizing her Bible scripture.

When I got to high school, I quit going to church. In college, I sometimes attended, but it was spotty. Mom eventually went back to the Catholic church after my dad died. I’d go to mass with her every once in awhile. I never quite understood the whole standing up, kneeling, sitting, communion part of the service, but I do know that going to mass together encouraged her a great deal.

So the little red church bus ran for many years. Who knows what happened to it and whether the church upgraded to a fancier more modern bus. How convenient it was for parents to send their kids to church. I honestly don’t know of another church that ever ran such a service. Maybe it was a southern thing.