We are fundamentally social beings: from birth, we desire, need, and constantly strive for relationships with those around us. Throughout our lives, relationships play a vital role in our brain and personality development, our sense of physical and emotional safety, and ultimately our quality of life. How we connect and form relationships depends heavily on our earliest attachment to and relationship with our primary caregiver(s). If we begin our journey feeling loved and cared for, we will formulate a secure sense of self, foster a healthy emotional regulation system, and develop an appropriate level of intimacy in our future relationships.

What is attachment? 

How a caregiver responds to her baby’s needs sends various messages to the child’s developing brain. Consider your own primary caregiver for a moment. Perhaps she, let us assume your mother, responded to your needs positively by taking care of your basic physical necessities, promptly soothing you when you cried, and nurturing you with hugs and kisses. Your mother’s care and attunement to your needs instilled you with feelings being loved and being able to love. Through her attentive actions, you learned: “My mother is a source of safety, and the world is a safe place where I belong.” As a result, you developed a strong and healthy bond with your caregiver, ultimately forging a solid foundation for future connections. As you grow, mature, and explore the world, your mother will remain a secure base to which you can return in times of need.

What happens if you did not receive the care and love you needed? If, for example, your primary caregiver was neglectful, unpredictable, or abusive, you learned a rather different cognitive and emotional perspective: “The world is a frightening place and I am essentially on my own.” Without receiving messages of love and care, you were unable to develop a basis for connection, and this lack of a secure base will continue into adulthood, negatively affecting how you form and maintain relationships.

What is the theory behind this concept? 

Developed in the 1950s by John Bowlby, a British psychologist, attachment theory explains why it is imperative that we form strong bonds with our caregivers and how these early bonds set the stage for essentially all of our subsequent relationships. Observing how infants became distressed upon separation from their mothers, Bowlby asserted that primary caregivers are evolutionarily pivotal for infants’ survival and that infants form bonds with these caregivers to develop a sense of navigation. Attachments formed in early childhood can remain long into adulthood, affecting and informing later development, intimate relationships, and adults’ attachment style to their own children.

What are the early attachment styles we develop? 

As a result of her research in the 1970s, Mary Ainsworth expanded Bowlby’s attachment theory to include four primary types of attachment:

  • Secure
  • Avoidant
  • Anxious-Ambivalent
  • Disorganized/disoriented

To assess the nature and strength of the early bonds essential to our mental health and stability, Ainsworth developed the Strange Situation Procedure during which she observed young children and their interactions with their mothers. When studying one- to two-year-olds’ reactions to the absence and subsequent return of their mother, Ainsworth discovered definite variations of positive and negative behavior. Depending on the level of distress the children displayed upon their mother’s departure from the experiment room and how quickly the children were soothed upon her return, Ainsworth theorized that this reaction speaks volumes about how well-adjusted the children have become. Ainsworth first observed the child interacting with the mother, then the mother left the room and a stranger entered it. Ainsworth, by observing how the children responded specifically to the return of their primary caregiver, determined two major types of attachment: secure and insecure.

1) Secure Attachment

As the ideal form of a child’s attachment to his or her caregiver, secure attachment results in not only a positive relationship between these two individuals, but also successful early physical and psychological development. There are several key ingredients to successfully form a secure attachment:

  • Co-regulation of emotion between the caregiver and the infant is essential because the infant, in a sense, “borrows” the caregiver’s nervous system to feel calm, safe, and soothed. As infants are not born with a functional parasympathetic nervous system, which helps us remain emotionally and physically balanced, when they become aroused, they have no capacity to calm themselves. This is where the caregiver comes in: babies need their caregiver to help regulate their emotions.
  • Co-determination of meaning is also essential as the infant or toddler tries to make sense of the world. The caregiver acts as a catalyst for the infant’s understanding of external factors.
  • Reciprocal communication between the infant and the caregiver must exist for a secure attachment to develop. This is an ongoing, interactive engagement, in which back-and-forth dialogue between the two serves as the basis of intimacy.

Securely attached children:

  • Receive comfort from their caregiver
  • Can separate from their caregiver to explore the world around them
  • Return to their caregiver as a safe base
  • Learn to regulate their emotions
  • Develop the capacity to form intimate relationships with others

2) Avoidant Attachment 

During the Strange Situation experiment, avoidant attachment, the first insecure attachment subtype, the child did not seem too upset when the mother left the room, and when she returned, the child did not return to her as a safe base. Essentially, the child, in regular interactions with the mother, did not experience soothing or calming effects from her, and therefore reasoned he or she did not need the mother. This conclusion stems from the mother’s emotional unavailability and lack of consistent response to her infant’s needs. Avoidantly attached children learn rather quickly not to regard their primary caregiver as a secure base from which to explore the world. Consequently, they possess a core believe that they are on their own.

Avoidantly attached children:

  • Are not very exploratory of the world around them
  • Do not believe their physical and emotional needs will be met
  • Are emotionally distant
  • Do not seek closeness with their caregiver
  • Often feel rejected

3) Anxious-Ambivalent Attachment

In the anxious-ambivalent subtype of insecure attachment, the infants’ behavior during the Strange Situation was quite different. Upon the mother’s return, the child with this attachment style cried and was quite upset, but when the mother picked him or her up, the child appeared angry and remained so even when the mother put him or her down. Evidently, the child was not able to receive any comfort from the mother because of inconsistent care from her. The confusing signals the mother sends her child result in the child’s propensity for anxiety, and they learn quickly that the best way to get their needs met is through clinginess and constant, yet distressed, proximity to their caregiver.

Ambivalently attached children:

  • Experience separation anxiety and distress when their caregiver is absent
  • Have difficulty regulating emotions
  • Are not easily consoled
  • Lack boundaries in relationships
  • Display intense anger when needs are not met

4) Disorganized/Disoriented Attachment

In this most severe insecure attachment, children with a disorganized/disoriented attachment responded in strange and confusing ways during Ainsworth’s experiment, sometimes running in circles or falling when the mother returned. From this, one can deduce that the child was in a predicament, because during daily interactions, the mother’s care was absent, or worse, abusive.

The child’s neural networks then become wired in such a way that results in the lack of ability to form strong and intimate relationships, causing numerous problems throughout adulthood.

Disorganized/Disoriented children:

  • Fear connection with caregivers
  • Lack the ability to regulate emotions
  • Do not develop a sense of safety in relationships
  • Are confused about their caregiver’s lack of care
  • Become angry or depressed







About Michael Hilgers, M.MFT

I’m a Licensed Professional Counselor working remotely with clients around the world. I believe that everyone has the potential to change; to create new paths, to go in new directions. Life is hard. Counseling can help.

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