Our relationships with others are some of the most important things in our life. They offer us support, teach us new things, and provide us with a sense of belonging and security.
The way that we attach to others can play a large role in the stability and closeness of our relationships and affect our mental health. People who form secure attachments to others tend to be more resilient against mental health disorders and recover more quickly from trauma. On the other hand, people with insecure attachments may be more likely to develop features of borderline personality disorder, anxiety, and depression and find it harder to understand and manage emotions.
There is a lot of research exploring the way our attachment styles form and develop. Researchers used to think that parents or other guardians transfer attachment styles to their children through the way they care for them – and these attachments usually persist as they move into adulthood.
Some researchers now think that the story is a bit more complex. While transmission from caregivers may play a large role in shaping a child’s attachment style, they think these attachment styles often change as they grow older. In adolescents and adults, attachment style may be more shaped by life events, relationships with friends, romantic relationships, and other factors.
This blog offers some information on the different ideas about how attachment styles form and change – in young children, adolescents, and adults. It also provides insight into how adolescents may move from insecure to secure attachments, helping them to form healthy relationships in the future.
What Are Attachment Styles?
Most experts talk about three or four attachment styles. One is secure attachment, and the others are types of insecure attachment.
- Adolescents and adults with secure attachment usually have long and trusting relationships, good self-esteem, and share their feelings with partners and friends
- Adolescents and adults with an anxious (or preoccupied) attachment may be very scared of abandonment, think that their partner does not love them, and feel extremely distressed when a relationship ends
- Adolescents and adults with avoidant (or dismissive) attachment may avoid intimacy, find it hard to express their feelings, and have difficulties trusting others
- Adolescents and adults with disorganised (or fearful) may switch between signs of anxious and avoidant attachment, acting in unpredictable and contradictory ways
Transferring Attachment: How the Way We Bond With Others Moves Between Generations
Research has found that parents often have the same attachment style as their children. If a parent has an anxious attachment style, their children are more likely to have it too – and the same is true for secure, avoidant, and disorganised attachments.
Researchers think that some of this ‘attachment transmission’ may be rooted in the way a parent cares for their child. A young child’s attachment style is largely shaped by their interactions with their parents. If their parents are sensitive to their needs and respond to their cues with care, a child is more likely to develop a secure attachment style. Insecure attachment styles usually form when parents are unable to meet a child’s needs or are inconsistent, sometimes caring for and sometimes dismissing a child.
Attachment styles are transferred when a parent’s own attachment style affects the way that they care for their child – and, in turn, shapes the way their child bonds with others. Researchers are still not sure exactly how this process works, although they have some ideas. In reality, the process of attachment transfer may be very complex and vary from one case to another, involving different parts of our brains and combinations of behaviours.
Changing Attachments: How Life Events and New Relationships Continue to Shape Attachment Style
While the interactions between a parent and child shape the way a child bonds to others in their earlier years, attachment styles can change and develop as a young person grows older.
Some researchers now think that a parent’s attachment style only has a big effect until adolescence, when other factors become more important. They say that the most important factors that affect adolescent or adult attachment styles are subsequent life events and relationships. These might include:
- Socialisation at school or in the workplace
- Romantic relationships with partners
- Experiences of abuse
Researchers think that some attachment style changes may happen when a parent stops becoming the most important attachment figure in a young person’s life. As children grow older, their attachment systems begin to be affected by relationships with people other than their parents, causing them to change and develop.
In some cases, these changes may be negative, but they can also be positive. Secure relationships in adolescence or adulthood can help individuals overcome insecure attachment styles and form healthier bonds with others in the future.
Adolescence: Moving from Insecure to Secure Attachments
Adolescence is a time of change. Young people’s brains are rapidly developing, as are their friendships and networks with others. As a result, a young person’s experiences during adolescence may shape their attachments in the future.
In a 2017 paper, researchers explored how supportive and secure environments could help teenagers develop or maintain secure attachments. Secure environments may include:
- Supportive parents who provide a role model of a healthy relationship, effectively resolving conflicts and meeting each other’s needs
- Parenting strategies that avoid controlling behaviours and allow teenagers to explore and realise their autonomy
- Relationships with friends and romantic partners that allow each person to be autonomous
- Relationships with friends and romantic partners with effective conflict management
Researchers found that changes in attachment style were less from adolescence to early adulthood than they had been from infancy to early adolescence. However, there were still important changes in adolescents’ attachment systems connected to their relationship experiences. These secure relationship experiences may help young people move away from insecure attachments and interpersonal difficulties and form healthier and more stable relationships in the future.
Treating Insecure Attachment
Young people may also be able to overcome insecure attachments through psychotherapy. Psychotherapy can help young people to explore and understand to causes of their emotions, reactions, and behaviours, which may be rooted in their early childhood or subsequent relationships with others. Therapists can work with individuals or groups to develop internal and interpersonal skills associated with secure attachments, such as mentalisation and trust.
While insecure attachment can have a big effect on a young person’s well-being, change is possible. With effective support, young people can develop more secure attachments and build fulfilling, lasting relationships with others.
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