Attachment Styles in Adults

November 20th, 2010

Cassandra Firkins, LCSW – HCC Therapist
Clémentine Malta-Bey – HCC intern

“Attachment” has become a buzzword sprawled all over parenting magazines and used to market a plethora of baby products, from baby carriers and slings to co-sleepers. However, the trendy new concept of “attachment parenting” has little to do with Attachment Theory, which was developed by psychologists to explain how and why infant attachment to a caregiver affects human development.

Most parents know that the secure attachment of an infant to a caregiver is crucial in laying the foundation for the infant’s healthy and pro-social development. But what is secure attachment? One thing is certain: secure attachment is neither as literal, nor as simple, as the parenting magazines would have us believe! “Wearing”, breastfeeding, and co-sleeping with one’s baby certainly facilitate physical proximity between caregiver and child, but do not automatically engender caregiver engagement, emotional availability, sensitivity, and responsiveness, all of which are necessary to facilitating secure attachment in the infant.

While secure attachment is the goal, oftentimes infants are not able to attach securely to their caregiver(s). In part this may be due to infant temperament—for example, a colicky baby will be harder to parent—but more often than not the most influential factor in the quality of care provided by the caregiver(s) is their own attachment history. According to a report by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, “the major determinant of the infant’s pattern of attachment (secure, avoidant, ambivalent, or disorganized) appears to be the quality of care the primary caregiver(s) provides.” A caregiver who is stressed out, physically and/ or emotionally unavailable, negligent, or abusive can intentionally or unintentionally prevent the child from developing a secure attachment. Instead, the child may develop one of three maladaptive attachment patterns/ styles: avoidant, ambivalent, or disorganized.

The most common method researchers have used to determine infant/ toddler attachment style has been through the use of the Strange Situation Behavior protocol. The parent and infant/ toddler enter a room together. The parent stays with the infant/ toddler for a period of time to allow the child to adjust. Eventually, the parent leaves the room. The child’s behavior is noted prior to this separation, during this separation and upon the reunion with his or her parent. The infant/ toddler’s behavior is then classified as secure, avoidant, resistant/ ambivalent or disorganized/ disoriented.
In the 1980’s, interest in adult attachment began to develop. According to Daniel Jay Sonkin, Ph.D., “three important findings have emerged from the research in adult attachment. First, is that the attachment status of a prospective parent will predict the attachment status of their child to that parent: with as high as 80 percent predictability (van Ijzendoorn, 1995). Second, although changes over time can influence the attachment status of a child, there is a strong continuity between infant attachment patterns, child and adolescent patterns and adult attachment patterns.” Adult attachment styles can be classified into four categories, similar to the classification of infant attachment styles: secure/ autonomous, dismissing, preoccupied and unresolved/ disorganized. These categories appear at the end of this article. The Adult Attachment Interview (AAI), a semi structured, hour long interview with 18 questions, is typically used to determine the attachment style of adults.

Typically an individual’s attachment style will remain stable over the course of his/ her lifespan. However an individual’s attachment style can change. In adults, through reflection and processing of one’s past, present and future, life stories can become more coherent, and one can move towards a more secure attachment. This is known as earned attachment. Therapy helps people work through this process. In children, attachment style can change as the caregiver’s attachment style changes. As a caregiver’s attachment style becomes more secure (earned security), the child’s attachment style also becomes more secure. Additionally, a change in caregiver(s) often directly impacts the attachment style of the child. For example, if a child is removed from a parent who has a highly unresolved/ disorganized style of attachment and is placed in a home with an adult who has a secure level of attachment, the child will be more able to move from a disorganized/ disoriented style of attachment to a more secure style of attachment.

New research on adult attachment has shown that children are most likely to develop secure attachment to caregivers who are aware of, and have worked to resolve, their own past issues and traumas. This process of self-healing allows the caregiver to avoid being triggered by the needs of the child, and facilitates the caregiver’s ability to be empathic. As a result, the caregiver is better able to provide the engagement, emotional availability, sensitivity, and responsiveness necessary to create a secure attachment with the child. A corollary of this research finding is that children with attachment issues are often best served by treating their parent(s) first. Empathy rolls downhill! So if you are a parent of a child with attachment issues, consider not only treatment for your child, but for you as well. Chances are, you both will be glad you did.