What is Attachment?
An attachment bond is how we connect with others, and it begins at birth. After birth, the primary caregivers for a child model soothing which is the first relationship that the child knows. When a child cries, the caregiver will either meet the needs of the child or not. This pattern will then go on to influence the child’s relationships moving forward and reinforce or punish the child for seeking attention from the caregiver. Attending to a child’s emotional and physical needs is not coddling — it is attentive parenting. Attachment style goes on to affect mental health with insecure attachment styles that are linked to depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, eating disorders, substance use and personality disorders (Mikulincer & Shaver, 2012).
These attachment patterns can be seen in children as young as one year old. In children, the four attachment patterns are secure, ambivalent, avoidant, and disorganized. Secure attachment is the most common attachment type in children, as well as in adults. It is characterized by being able to use the caregiver as a source of comfort while exploring. This is sometimes referred to as the “secure base.” Caregivers of secure children tend to be attentive to their children's cries, loving, available, calm and comforting.
However, we cannot choose what family we are born into or the parents we have. When parents are emotionally or physically unavailable, or only sometimes available, this increases the possibility of the child having one of the three insecure styles. Insecure anxious attachment is characterized by need for closeness and fear of abandonment. This is caused by inconsistent parenting. When the child learns that if they are loud, persistent, or desperate enough, they will get attention. Insecure avoidant attachment is the opposite. This style is when child pushes others away, avoids emotional intimacy, and looks out for themselves. This is usually caused by a parent that neglects or abuses the child. Lastly, there is insecure disorganized attachment, which is a mixture of the previous two attachment styles. This looks like longing for relationships but leads to a reaction of avoidance when the other person becomes close. Additionally, it may present as enduring close relationships with an intense fear of rejection and angry outbursts when feeling real or imagined abandonment. This is caused by intense fear of caretakers in childhood, which can come from trauma, abuse, or neglect.
The good news is that no matter which attachment style you have, it is not a life sentence. Attachment bonds are a lifelong process and affect us in all relationships. The dominant style can differ from relationship to relationship and is not black and white. You can even have an attachment to your pets! In adulthood, the romantic partner becomes the new secure base figure. There is also an attachment bond that you create with a therapist, that is referred to as rapport or trust. For those with disorganized or avoidant attachment, this trust can be hard to build. However, it can be used as a model for secure attachment and is part of the healing process. Whether you realize it or not, the bond that you have with your therapist is a very important and healing part of therapy.
By: Audrey Meacham
Master of Social Work Intern
University of Kansas
Mikulincer, M., & Shaver, P. R. (2012). An attachment perspective on psychopathology. World Psychiatry, 11(1), 11–15. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.wpsyc.2012.01.003