Attachment research has shown that a person's attachment style with their own parents is a strong indicator of the attachment style they'll have throughout life. It is also a strong indicator to what type of parenting a child is exposed to.
What is attachment?
When you were a child, attachment was the emotional connection you formed with the people closest to you. Attachment theory, introduced by British psychiatrist John Bowlby and American psychologist Mary Ainsworth, is the quality of your bonding during your first relationships, and it often determines how well you are able to relate to others and respond to intimacy in the future.
As an child, if your primary caregiver made you feel safe and understood, if they responded to your cries and were able to accurately interpret your physical and emotional needs, you likely developed a successful, secure attachment. This will give you the emotional tools in adolescence and adulthood to help you develop self-confidence, trust, and hope, with an ability to manage conflict, respond to intimacy, and navigate the ups and downs of romantic relationships effectively.
In contrast, if your caregiver was unable to comfort you or respond to your needs during early childhood consistently, you are more likely to have experienced an unsuccessful or insecure attachment. The insecurity of an child's attachment often leads to difficulties in understanding one's own emotions and other people's feelings in adulthood, limiting a person's ability to establish and maintain good relationships. Relationships may be difficult for them, they may avoid closeness, and they may be clingy, fearful, or anxious.
What are the Attachment Styles, and How do they Affect our Parenting
I deal often with Parental Alienation cases and parental reunification. It is the sad reality that one parent keeps a child from another, usually due to some attachment issues from childhood, activated after a high-conflict divorce. Research in attachment systems helps family therapists see this all the more clearly.
Our attachment system is goal oriented to form a bond. It is always oriented to form a bond. A child is still seeking to bond to a parent, even when the parenting is bad. And since it is a goal-corrected motivation, we can tell what kind of parenting a child has experienced by the way they are adjusting. We can determine the parent-child attachment style based on how the child adjusts to the parenting. Pretty neat stuff, our attachment system.
This doesn’t mean you have to be a perfect parent. In fact, according to attachment researcher Edward Tronick, even the best parents are only attuned to their children about 30 percent of the time. However, as Dr. Siegel puts it, if parents are able to "repair the ruptures" that occur between them and their kids, a secure attachment can be sustained.
Types of attachment
Attachment styles describe how people behave in and around relationships. There are four attachment styles:
Ambivalent (or anxious-preoccupied) attachment
Secure Attachment: What it looks like
In close relationships, people with secure attachments tend to feel safe, stable, and more satisfied because they are empathetic and able to set appropriate boundaries. Although they thrive in close, meaningful relationships, they don't stress about being alone.
With this attachment style, you are able to stay engaged with your children. You do not lean on them for your emotional regulation. Instead, you are emotionally available to calm and soothe your distressed child and their emotional dysregulation.
Ambivalent Attachment: What it looks like A person with an ambivalent attachment style tends to be overly needy. This attachment style is characterized by anxiety, uncertainty, and low self-esteem. They crave emotional intimacy and worry about being abandoned.
With this type of attachment, you are likely inconsistent in your parenting,
sometimes engaged and responsive to your child's needs, other times unavailable or distracted. This inconsistency makes the child more motivated to bond by protest behavior. Protest behavior makes the parent more responsive to the child's needs.
Avoidant Attachment: What it looks like
An avoidant insecure attachment style is the opposite of an ambivalent attachment style. A parent with this type of attachment is overwhelmed emotionally. Any protest behavior will cause the parent to withdraw more.
Children of parents with this attachment learn to emotionally regulate their parent's emotional dysregulation and psychological needs. They become very low demand to keep the parent close and are particularly intuned and enmeshed emotionally with their parent. In order to cope authentically with their emotions, they learn to self-soothe because their parent is not emotionally available to them.
Disorganized Attachment: What it looks like
Disorganized attachment is often caused by childhood trauma, neglect, or abuse. People with this style of insecure attachment often feel unworthy of love or closeness.
Adults develop a disorganized attachment style through repeated unresolved trauma. Parents with disorganized attachment often act as both sources of fear and comfort for a child. In order for a child to attach to their parent (remember the attachment system is always motivated to connect and is goal-oriented, meaning we will see in the child's attachment display a corrected response), they need to shut off their avoidant system motivation. This is called splitting. When you see this in children, you have parenting issues that must be mitigated. It is a polarization of attitudes. Either extreme love and bonding or extreme rejection. There is no middle ground or spectrum of emotions. Splitting occurs when you have to completely shut down your attachment system bonding motivation or avoidant motivation system to be goal oriented. When one is on, the other is off. When one is on the other is completely inhibited. The child has to shut down their avoidance motivation to have a single motivational directive and emotionally connect to a parent who is both a source of nurturing and fear. In parental alienation, the child shuts off all emotional bonding to the other parent for bonding and activates the avoidance motivation due to being enmeshed with the parent they have had to regulate emotionally.
Attachment-based therapy examines the relationship between early attachment experiences with primary caregivers, usually parents, and a child's ability to develop normally as an adult and ultimately form healthy emotional and physical relationships.
If you are in need of help in building and strengthen the parent-child relationship or parental reunification due to the suffering of fractured familial relationships, whether it is from parental alienation, children in foster care, depressed parents with poor attachment regulation, reach out to a good family therapist who understands attachment systems and incorporates attachment-based therapy in their family therapy practice.
Odell Terrell is a mental health counselor in Greensboro, NC. He graduated with a MS in Counseling from Divine Mercy University in Arlington, VA, and places emphasis on family systems theory and attachment theory working with families and children.
His education and training has qualified him to sit for and pass the state of North Carolina Licensing Examination Board. His training in family systems theory, attachment theory, personality disorders, psychological pathology, and complex trauma gives him the necessary qualifications to assess, diagnose and treat pathology. He also has background and experience in the assessment, diagnosis, and treatment of attachment pathology in the family courts. Odell is happily married for 17 years. He is the father of 9 children and brings a wealth of knowledge and experience to his family and child therapy practice.