Attachment refers to the particular way that you interact with others in relationships. Another definition is this: “the ability to form emotional bonds and empathic, enjoyable relationships with other people, especially close family members” (Attachment Issues, goodtherapy.org)
Types of Attachment in Early ChildhoodAttachment is formed in the early years of life, and it continues with you as you develop close relationships and even into your parenting years. It is helpful to know your early attachment style to inform you of relationship patterns and development in the past, and it can help you know what you need to change in present and future relationships in order to have healthy, thriving relationships with your family, friends, and significant other.
As an infant, it is crucial for healthy development that the young infant/toddler knows and trusts his or her caregivers, and trusts that his or her needs will be met, especially in times of distress. Without this secure attachment (caregivers do not demonstrate that they are trustworthy or do not respond well to infant/toddler distress), children can suffer more psychological distress and develop unhealthy relationship patterns well into their lives.
There are four different attachment patterns that one can develop in the early years. These are based onAttachment Theorydeveloped by John Bowlby, and theStrange Situationexperiment developed by Mary Ainsworth.
In a secure attachment, the infant’s caregivers are consistent and are emotionally available in every situation, especially in times of distress. These caregivers are responsive and engaging with the infant.
When this caregiver is consistent, in year two the toddler feels safe to explore and become more independent under their caregiver’s care. This is the most ideal form of attachment because usually, children will then continue to develop healthy relationship patterns with others throughout their lives.
In an avoidant attachment, adults are not attuned to the emotional needs of their children. They do not like crying (seeing it as intrusive) and encourage complete independence, so children grow up to be adults too early and do not believe that they have need of others. When a child is distressed, the adult has little to no reaction to them, expecting them to soothe themselves.
Ambivalent /Anxious AttachmentIn an ambivalent/avoidant attachment, adults are inconsistent. At times they respond in appropriate, helpful ways to their infant, and at other times are insensitive to their infant’s needs.
Children become confused in relationships and insecure, not sure when and whom they can trust. They often do not trust their caregivers, but at other times these children can cling to caregivers. They never know what to expect from adults.
In a disorganized attachment, parents and caregivers are abusive to the infants/ toddlers. Their actions are physically and psychologically harmful. A child does not feel safe in the place he or she is supposed to feel the safest.
The caregiver then becomes the source of a child’s distress. Often this results in some dissociation from reality in which the child often detaches from what is happening. Children learn that they cannot trust their caregivers, and often struggle to trust others in their lives as a result.
Adult Attachment Styles
Attachment styles in adults are the result of attachment in early childhood. Below is a brief discussion of what this can look like. These are found in more detail at psychalive.org/what-is-your-attachment-style.
This results from a secure attachment in early childhood. An adult has a positive view of self and of his or her relationships. They are secure with their independence, but they are also secure in interpersonal relationships.
This results from an avoidant attachment in early childhood. These adults tend to be alone, not feeling as if they have a need for relationships with others. They also tend to suppress their feelings, and they are emotionally removed from themselves and others.
This results from an ambivalent/ anxious attachment in early childhood. These adults are insecure in themselves and in relationships with others. They can be clingy and overly dependent on others in relationships, and they are critical toward self.
This results from a disorganized attachment in early childhood. These adults continue to detach from feelings and distressing situations. They can do well in relationships until they go to a deeper emotional level, a place that they do not believe is safe. As adults, feelings of traumatic situations often resurface from childhood and have to work to become present and learn how to trust others today.
Signs of Attachment Issues in Adults
If you have been a “loner,” are distrustful of relationships, or are overly dependent on another, you may have some attachment issues. It is important to seek professional counseling with a therapist familiar with attachment styles and issues if you exhibit some of these signs. Your therapist will be able to help you develop new and healthy patterns. Here are some signs of attachment issues:
- Clinginess in relationships, as if you believe that you cannot live without a person
- Overdependence on one person to the point of losing that relationship, then moving on to another
- Isolated most of the time with no need or desire for friends or companionship
- You are not in relationships because “you don’t trust people”
- Insecurity with self and others
Signs of Attachment Issues in Infants/ Toddlers
It is important to pay attention to how you engage with your infant/toddler. If you notice any of these signs, professional counseling could help you if any of your parenting practices may be leading to unhealthy attachment patterns. Here are some signs of attachment issues in infants and toddlers:
- Lack of good eye contact
- Avoidance of physical touch in infants or toddlers
- Inconsolable crying
- Frequent crying
- Rejection of moments of connection
- Lack of interest in play with others
- Disinterest when dropped off to school/daycare (as if they do not care if you leave)
- Tendency to self-soothe without need for an adult to help
- Anxiety around strangers, will not interact with them
- Clinginess with other consistent adults (like teachers, grandparents, etc.)
How can therapy help with attachment issues?
Professional counseling for children can help when children have attachment issues, providing a safe and consistent place with a trusted adult, but a therapist can only do so much if the parent is not also willing to change some parenting tendencies in order to promote secure attachment. It would need to be therapy from a family systems approach in order to be successful.
Often attachment issues are not noticed until adolescence or adulthood. One may begin to notice his or her patterns of unhealthy relationships (through self-reflection or through the feedback of others) and the signs mentioned above and then realize that he or she may need professional help to be able to have meaningful relationships.
Therapy can help adults tell the narrative of their lives, going back to the beginning of their stories and work their way through, making meaning and noticing where some of their current behaviors and mindsets developed. It can also lead them to develop new, healthy patterns, overcoming some of their current attachment issues.
Adults who have experienced “big T” trauma (more serious, such as abuse, traumatic loss, major accidents, or major natural disasters) or “little t” trauma (events that have caused distress in which the person was never the same) will likely have attachment issues, and not just disorganized attachment.
Therapy can help clients work through these traumas, the things in their lives that made lasting negative impacts. It can help them move through the hurt that they faced in their childhoods, see how that hurt has impacted them today, and walk toward healing to live full lives in the future.
Attachment issues are important, and they should not be ignored. They can lead to many relationship struggles. However, they are not forever if one decides to move forward after looking back. People can work through it and be whole and healthy, and they can have strong relationships with family, friends, and significant others.
If you are concerned that you may be struggling with attachment issues and your relationships seem to be suffering, do not wait. Seek a therapist, and commit to working through it.
“Shy”, Courtesy of Julian Paul, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “In Love”, Courtesy of Jonathan Leppan, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Little Girl Lost”, Courtesy of Joseph Gonzalez, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Well Loved”, Courtesy of Taisiia Shestopal, Unsplash.com, CC0 License