What Is a Secure Attachment Style?

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Attachment style is a theory which relates to the way we form relationships with others, both in childhood and throughout our lives. It is thought that the attachment style we develop as young children has a profound impact on several things, including; our communication, conflict resolution, and our needs from relationships as adults.

Somebody who has a secure attachment style is considered to be trusting and secure in their relationships. A secure attachment style forms in infancy with the primary caregiver, and a secure attachment style contributes to children developing healthily and confidently.

Around 65% of the population are securely attached, with the remainder falling into one of the insecure categories which include; anxious, avoidant, and disorganised. 

What Is the Attachment Theory?

The attachment theory was developed by psychoanalyst, John Bowlby, in the 1950’s. He was researching the distress experienced by young children when they were separated from their caregivers. He saw how babies would attempt to prevent any separation from their caregiver by crying out or clinging on.

Bowlby noted how these behaviours were common to those of other infant mammals, and suggested that it could be part of an evolutionary development.

Human babies are dependent on caregivers to provide support, protection, food and warmth. Bowlby hypothesised that over time we have evolved to form attachments in order to increase our chances of survival, he called this the attachment behavioural system.

The Strange Situation

Mary Ainsworth was a student of John Bowlby’s who developed the attachment theory, and identified the four attachment types in young children. Her 1969 experiment, The Strange Situation, observed babies in an unfamiliar environment under different circumstances. Initially, their primary caregivers were present, then absent, then present again. Through these observations Ainsworth was able to describe four distinct attachment styles.

Usually, parents or caregivers will do everything they can to fulfil all of the needs of their child. This includes creating a safe environment, providing nourishing food, interacting with them, enabling them to learn and grow, and encouraging them to play and improve confidence.

Parents who are in sync with their children and respond to their needs are able to form a strong bond with them, which usually results in a secure attachment.

Conversely, if the child’s needs are not met, or there is confusion or separation, it is likely an insecure attachment will form. There are three insecure attachment styles which we will look at in detail below.

Attachment style is the term given to a specific pattern of behaviour in relation to how we form and maintain relationships. It is thought that the attachment style we develop in childhood influences how we attach as adults.

This can impact the way we react and respond emotionally, how we communicate with our partners, and our general behaviour in and around relationships.

What are the Four Attachment Styles?

Secure Attachment as Children

Securely attached children feel safe and assured in their parents’ presence, but they are also confident enough to explore and interact with others. They typically favour the comfort of their primary caregiver(s) but they welcome the care of other adults. If their parent or caregiver leaves, they are not likely to feel extremely upset or anxious, therein they are certain they will return.

Children who are securely attached are likely to consider other people as supportive companions, and that they themselves are worthy of kindness and respect. In early childhood they are likely to enjoy playing with others and in early school years they typically thrive.

Secure Attachment as Adults

It is thought that 65% of adults are securely attached.

As adults, securely attached people are likely to feel generally content with their relationships, feeling safe and connected with their partners.

People who are securely attached children are likely to become securely attached adults, and they are likely to value and uphold honesty, independence and support in their relationships. They do not usually feel the need to be around their partner all the time in order to feel safe.

Anxious Attachment as Children

The next three forms of attachment belong to the category of ‘insecure attachment’. The first is anxious attachment, sometimes known as anxious-resistant, which is characterised by a real fear of abandonment.

Children with an anxious attachment style usually lack self-esteem and only feel safe when their caregivers are very close by, even then, they may not feel comforted. As young people they may be very emotional and find it hard to make friends, making the connection between their caregiver even more intense.

Anxious attachment as Adults

Around 20% of American adults are anxiously attached.

Anxious attachment in adults is also referred to as anxious-preoccupied attachment. As adults, someone with this style of attachment may feel as though they need their partner to survive. Anxiously attached adults seek safety and security, and they are likely to look for this in their romantic partners. Unfortunately, sometimes their behaviours can serve to push away others, the opposite of what they are striving to do.

This may manifest in ways such as being clingy, jealous, easily upset, and having a strong need for validation. Adults who are anxiously attached are likely to fear rejection and may be constantly worried that their partner doesn’t love them, is cheating on them, or will leave them.

Avoidant Attachment as Children

An avoidant attachment style is likely to manifest in children being withdrawn and resistant to reaching out for help or friendships. This is built on a core belief that their needs won’t be met by others. This can result in them being isolated and unable to make meaningful relationships.

Children with an avoidant attachment style may exhibit antisocial behaviour such as anger, bullying and dishonesty. They may isolate themselves purposefully due to a fear of intimacy, and to reduce emotional upset.

Avoidant Attachment as Adults

Around 25% of adults have avoidant attachment styles.

Anxious attachment style in adults is also referred to as dismissive-avoidant attachment. People with this form of attachment are likely to maintain distance between themselves and others. They may feel they can cope better alone, and may retreat emotionally when they feel threatened.

This could manifest as being distant or unavailable in relationships, sabotaging relationships to relieve the pressure or intensity, or even choosing to be alone due to the fear of intimacy.

Disorganised Attachment as Children

Sometimes referred to as fearful avoidant attachment, disorganised attachment is considered a combination of anxious and avoidant. Children with disorganised attachment styles have a combination of craving and fearing affection and intimacy.

This may permeate other areas of their life, in that they are unable to develop organised coping strategies for separation from their caregiver which can lead to antisocial behaviour and isolation. They are likely to view other people as threatening, which can result in a combination of isolation and aggression.

Disorganised Attachment as Adults

It is thought that around 5% of adults have a disorganised attachment style.

As adults, this may be characterised in reluctancy to form intimate relationships. However – complexly – this can be accompanied by a deep desire to be needed and loved by others. This incoherent combination of avoidance and anxiety is what results in the name disorganised attachment.

This form of attachment is a relatively new research area so it is currently less understood than the other attachment styles. However, it is thought that people with this form of attachment may find it difficult to regulate emotions and could be at increased risk of mental illness and violent relationships.

It’s common for individuals with this attachment style to disassociate or detach from their feelings in order not to feel overwhelmed.

Disorganised attachment can leave people, and their loved ones, feeling confused and hurt. They may live with a deep fear of rejection but are equally drawn to creating bonds in an effort to feel safe.

How Do We Form Attachments?

As newborns, we are unable to survive by ourselves, therefore in order to survive we depend on our caregivers. Unable to speak, babies use other cues such as crying, sucking and grabbing to indicate they need something. If the infant’s needs are met and they feel safe, it is likely they will form a secure attachment style.

Sometimes, the communication between child and caregiver is interrupted. This can be due to a number of things, from separation, to physical or mental illness, to lack of quality care. In this scenario, it is likely that an insecure attachment will be made.

Forming Secure Attachments

As a new parent, there is often so much information to take in about how best to nurture your child. This can be overwhelming and confusing at the best of times. In order to make secure attachments with your child there are some fundamental elements which need to be in place.

Safety

The most crucial element of forming a healthy relationship with your child, and indeed for your child to develop healthy attachments throughout their life, is safety. Your infant must feel as though you are there to protect them from harm in order for them to feel safe.

Usually, this means being within close proximity to the mother as she is the source of food and warmth. In some cases the mother will not be the primary caregiver and in this scenario somebody else who also provides the baby with food and warmth will become the child’s safety.

Providing protection to your child is often innate, but it can feel overwhelming and like a huge amount of responsibility. There is a balance to strike in order not to stifle the child’s freedom to explore and learn, but close enough that they feel confident.

Ideally, the infant should test their boundaries, but when things feel uncomfortable or frightening they will return to the safety of their caregiver.

Recognition

Given that babies can’t verbally explain their needs, a parent or caregiver must learn to understand what the infant is looking for through their cues. For example, if a baby cries and then they are fed or changed the baby will begin to understand that their parent recognises their cries. This signals to the baby that their caregiver is available to them and they don’t have to fear being abandoned or neglected.

At a very young age, there are few things that the baby needs but they are vital to their survival. Usually, a crying baby signals they are hungry, tired or uncomfortable. Being able to interpret these needs can build a stronger attachment between caregiver and infant.

Comfort

Babies and children crave the comfort of their caregiver, the warmth and softness of their embrace can calm the child if they are frightened or in pain.

If a child feels soothed and comforted by their caregiver, the negative feelings they are experiencing are likely to decrease more quickly. Additionally, these interactions can help the child discover their own ways of soothing difficult emotions.

Respect

Respect is fundamental for young people to form positive attachments. Starting in infancy, children who are shown respect are likely to move through the world with healthy self esteem and confidence.

On the contrary, if a child is disrespected by their caregiver, it is likely they will form unhealthy beliefs about themselves and the world around them.

Support and Encouragement

If a child feels safe, they can then develop on this and begin to explore what is around. If a young person’s caregiver encourages them to play and adventure, but is always there for them to retreat to if needed, the child is likely to become independent and courageous. These qualities are needed to build a strong sense of self

Recognising Secure Attachment Type Adults

Usually, although not always, securely attached children go on to develop a secure attachment style in adulthood. Sometimes due to trauma or abuse the attachment style may change, but it is possible with quality therapy to re-establish security.

Secure attachment in adult romantic relationships tends to manifest in independence and confidence in the relationship. People with this type are likely to be largely consistent in their communication with their partner, and they are good at expressing their needs in the relationship.

Securely attached people are able to strike a balance between solving problems independently, while also depending on their partner for support at times.

Securely attached individuals are likely to find relationships, both intimate and platonic, easier and have more positive feelings around their social lives.

A secure person when it comes to attachment is likely to be well attuned to emotions. This means they can regulate their own emotions reasonably well, recognise the impact of their emotions on others, and relate with compassion to the emotions of others.

Some indicators of securely attached teens and adults include:

Healthy Self Esteem

It is normal even for those with a very secure attachment style to have self doubt at times. However, securely attached adults and young adults are likely to have overall positive self esteem and confidence in themselves and their abilities. They are not likely to need constant validation to confirm their capabilities.

Despite this, they are still likely to accept and enjoy praise and confirmation from their partners.

Positive Perception of others

A securely attached person is also likely to have positive perceptions of other people, unless given reason not to. This means they are trusting and accepting of those around them and are not likely to be overly jealous or paranoid.

They are usually able to build strong romantic relationships with people around them and don’t fear abandonment. This tends to help them move through the world with more ease than insecurely attached adults.

Positive Perception of Upbringing

People with secure attachment styles often have happy memories of their childhood and upbringing. This does not mean to say that everybody who has a secure attachment had an idyllic childhood, rather it means they understand the experiences in their past and how that might have formed them into who they are today.

Secure Adult Relationships

If children develop a secure attachment style in infancy, they are likely to go on to form secure relationships throughout their life.

Crucially, having and being a secure partner does not mean your relationship will be free of problems, but it’s likely to make you better communicators and enable you to move through challenges more harmoniously. Additionally, secure adults are likely to take responsibility for any mistakes they make in relationships which can help move issues forwards to a resolution.

Some indicators of a secure attachment style in adult relationships include:

  • You are able to express your needs, fears, disappointments and concerns about the world, and crucially, about your relationship to your partner
  • You feel supported by your partner and you look to them in times of need but you also feel comfortable being apart
  • Your partner relies on you in times of need
  • You maintain relationships with other people and you invite advice from others outside of your romantic relationships
  • You can deal with conflict or upset between you and your partner
  • Although the end of relationships are hard, if you do separate from romantic relationships after some time you are able to move forwards with your life

Support for Young People at The Wave Clinic

Early relationships can have wide ranging impacts on a child’s development and how they progress through the world. Insecure attachment styles can perpetuate underlying mental illness and lead to isolation. If you are concerned about your child or another young person in your life, we are here to offer support.

We are a young person’s clinic who specialise in treating the mental health needs of adolescents as they transition from child to adult.

We offer a variety of services and treatment programs designed to empower young people to regain control of their lives and live out their youth in a happier, healthier way. We focus on helping young adults regain confidence and teach them strategies to cope with the stresses of everyday life.

Get in touch with us today to find out more.

Further reading on similar topics can be found in our blog What are the different types of attachment?

Fiona - The Wave Clinic

Fiona Yassin is the founder and clinical director at The Wave Clinic. She is a U.K. and International registered Psychotherapist and Accredited Clinical Supervisor (U.K. and UNCG).

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