Have you ever felt that you do not possess the adequate skills or resources to deal with stressors in your life, such as a job loss, relationship breakdown or family conflict? You may have compared your ability to cope with that of others, felt that you came up short and wondered why. Your ability to deal with stressful situations as an adult could be related to the attachment style you developed in your childhood.
What are attachment styles?
Attachment styles help us understand and predict reactions from other people and from our environment. The way a parent responds to their child’s needs throughout infancy, childhood and adolescence help to shape their attachment style.
The reactions we get from the people in our environment are ingrained in our brains and emotional systems by the time we reach adulthood.
Renowned attachment theorist, John Bowlby, defines attachment as a “lasting psychological connectedness between human beings”. Bowlby identified four characteristics of attachment:
- Proximity maintenance – we want to be near the people we are attached to
- Safe haven – our attachment figure is who we return to when we are afraid or threatened
- Secure base – we may explore our environment comfortably knowing our attachment figure is a secure base to return to
- Separation distress – we experience anxiety if separated from our attachment figure
In the 1970s, psychologist Mary Ainsworth defined three major attachment styles: Secure, Ambivalent and Avoidant. Later, researchers Main and Solomon categorized a fourth attachment style: Disorganized. Ambivalent, Avoidant and Disorganized attachments are considered insecure attachments.
According to Dr Hal Shorey, Ph.D, “about 55% of people emerge from childhood with secure attachment styles”.
Secure attachments develop when parents are consistently available and responsive to a child’s needs. Responsive parents are often very in tune with their child’s emotional needs and cues. By responding appropriately to these cues, the child learns their emotions are worthy of recognition.
Parents that help their children to develop secure attachments also provide non-verbal cues to help their children process and regulate their emotions, while providing compassion and instilling resilience. Responsive parents play a key role in teaching their children to tolerate and manage negative emotions like pain, loneliness, aggression and frustration.
Responsive parents help their children to become empathetic adults by correctly identifying and reacting to their children’s emotions.
The culmination of this parenting style generally results in children who develop the confidence to act independently, as they can identify and regulate their emotions, can tolerate negative emotions and are equipped with strategies to move past obstacles.
Common personality traits of people with secure attachments:
- High self-esteem
- Good emotional regulation and management
- Long-term relationships with friends
- Good relationships with parents and other authority figures
- Empathetic, compassionate
Parents who respond inconsistently to their child’s needs tend to create an anxious attachment style, where the child is less inclined to explore their environment and may cry more often. Ambivalently attached children tend to experience considerable distress when separated from their parents, but don’t find comfort in their return either. Parents of ambivalently attached children can confuse their children with their responses: being sometimes receptive and nurturing, and other times overbearing and insensitive.
Common personality traits of people with ambivalent attachments:
- Suspicious of strangers, not trusting
- Clingy, needy
- Unwilling to form close relationships
- Cold, distant
- Frequently end relationships
- Underdeveloped pain coping skills
Children may develop an avoidant attachment style when their parent consistently ignores or rejects their needs. In these cases, the parent is not attuned to the child’s emotional responses. Children with avoidant attachments will try to evade attempts to make physical contact and may avoid parents or caregivers overall.
Common personality traits of people with avoidant attachments:
- Self-contained – have learned to rely on themselves from a young age
- Have difficulty with intimacy
- Superficial relationships – do not emotionally invest
- May engage in casual sex regularly
- Lack empathy
- Unable to identify what others are feeling
- Unable to summon a correct emotional response to others
When a child displays a lack of clear attachment behaviour, they may be categorized as having a disorganized attachment. Often these children will display a mix of avoidant and resistant behaviours and may be apprehensive in the presence of their parent or another authority figure.
Inconsistent parental responses may contribute to this attachment style: commonly this may be a mix of parental responses that include fear and reassurance. This attachment style may also be observed in children who have been abused, as the person who is meant to be their “safe haven” is also the perpetrator of terrifying behaviour.
Attachment styles: implications for adult personality and relationships
Although our development throughout our childhood plays a key role in determining our personality traits and reactions to our environment as adults, we are not doomed to go through life with a lack of coping skills or stuck in personality patterns that do not serve us. It is possible to build our interpersonal skills and resilience.
What attachment style do you most identify with? What skills would you like to work on building so they serve you better as an adult?
In a future article, we will discuss how attachment styles affect our relationships and personality in adulthood. We’ll also outline some methods that can help us make changes to our attachment style.
The Keys to Rewarding Relationships: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-freedom-change/201502/the-keys-rewarding-relationships-secure-attachment
What is Your Attachment Style?: https://www.psychalive.org/what-is-your-attachment-style/
Traits of Secure Attachment: http://www.evergreenpsychotherapycenter.com/attachment-therapy/attachment-explained/traits-secure-attachment/
Attachment Theory – Styles and Characteristics: https://www.verywell.com/attachment-styles-2795344