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Attachment Styles

Attachment science describes an emotional relationship formed by experiences in early childhood that can be best categorized into four types: avoidant, ambivalent, disorganized, and secure. When we look at the characteristics of each of these attachment styles we can better understand the relational patterns between children and their caregivers in their early years, as well as romantic relationships between adults. Let’s focus on the effects of these attachment patterns on the parent-child relationship. In the 1970 study “Strange Situation” conducted by Mary Ainsworth, a child was placed in a room with their parent or caregiver and a stranger. The parent and child played for a bit before the parent eventually left the room. The researchers studied how the child responded to the parent leaving, interactions with the stranger, and the parent’s return. The major attachment styles were concluded based on the results of this study.

An avoidant attachment style is similar to how it sounds- children often avoid and don’t seek comfort from their caregivers. In the study mentioned above, the child was not phased by the parent leaving the room, or by the parent’s return. The child was seemingly unbothered by the presence of the stranger, and the child didn’t seek comfort from the parent upon their return to the room. These children often grow into adults who rarely share thoughts and feelings with others and have trouble developing intimate relationships. Both children and adults with avoidant tendencies often keep others at a distance, including their primary caregivers. They are unwilling to show big emotions and don’t go out of their way to seek comfort from the people in their lives that are closest to them.

An ambivalent attachment style can be seen by children who are wary of strangers; these children are often distressed without their parents, but at the same time do not seem comforted by them upon their return. In extreme situations, the child might actively reject comfort offered by the parent, or even respond aggressively toward the parent attempting to provide comfort. This attachment style differs from avoidant during adulthood in that love is rarely accepted by others, and when relationships do develop, there is extreme distress if and when they end.

The disorganized attachment style is the most unstable style studied. With this, there is a lack of clear attachment behavior, though similar characteristics can be observed. Children with this pattern often seem confused or reluctant by the presence of their caregivers, often showing signs of avoidance or resistance. This pattern may be developed by inconsistencies displayed by the parent toward the child; in other words, the parent might be overly affectionate in one instance, while screaming and seemingly unsafe the next. The child has the tendency to take on more of a parental role in this attachment relationship, oftentimes not knowing their role in the family.

The gold standard style that I believe we all strive for is secure attachment. When this pattern was observed in the aforementioned study, children showed visible distress in the absence of their caregiver, but were easily consoled upon their return; moreso, these children met their parent’s return with positive interactions and genuine happiness. These children develop a secure attachment over time by their parents or caregivers regularly showing affection, tending to their needs in a timely manner, and generally being more physically and emotionally available. These children often develop into adults who are able to maintain trusting, long-lasting relationships, are emotionally intelligent, have positive self-esteem, and seek social support when necessary.

Attachment styles are important to understand in parenting so that we can look for signs of a positive attachment pattern in our children. I can confidently say that most, if not all, parents want their children to grow into happy, successful adults. In order to get that far, we must set them up with the best possible attachment behavior. This will not only improve their childhood overall, as well as their relationship with their primary caregiver; but it will also allow them the opportunity to develop their own healthy interpersonal relationships. I’d love to hear what type of attachment style you share with your caregivers, and the type of style you are working to develop with your children- these don’t have to be the same answer!

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