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Attachment theory and the four attachment styles

Reviewed by Brooks Baer, LCPC, CMHP

A mother holds her baby's feet as the baby sleeps against her

In the 1950s, psychologist John Bowlby began developing attachment theory—the theory that our bonds with our primary caregivers shape our lifelong emotional and social development.1 As humans evolved, he suggested, we developed an instinctive need to seek out our caregivers in times of danger or stress. Bowlby called the actions we use to look for this connection, such as crying out for or clinging to a caregiver, “attachment behaviors.”

Psychologist Mary Ainsworth expanded on attachment theory in the 1970s with a famous experiment called the strange situation procedure.2 In this experiment, babies were separated from their caregivers for short periods of time, then reunited. Ainsworth and her team observed the infants’ reactions and noticed some distinct differences. From the study results, Ainsworth proposed that infants develop one of several styles of attachment based on their experiences with their primary caregivers.

What are the four styles of attachment?

When a baby’s attachment behaviors get a consistent, competent response—meaning a primary caregiver meets their needs with physical care, communication, or affection—the child begins to think of their caregiver as a safe base for exploring the world. This stable relationship results in a secure attachment style. However, if the child’s needs are met inconsistently or unpredictably, they may develop one of several insecure attachment styles: anxious, avoidant, or disorganized.

As we grow up, our attachment styles can affect how we behave in other close relationships, such as friendships or romantic partnerships. While it’s possible for attachment styles to change as we age, research shows that our early attachment experiences can contribute to emotional or psychological challenges later in life.3, 4

It’s important to note that it’s not your fault if you don’t have a secure attachment style. It can also help to remember that most parents don’t set out to fail their kids, and there’s no such thing as a perfectly understanding and responsive caregiver. Parents usually don’t know that they’re modeling their own insecure attachment styles for their children. If you’d like to explore your own attachment style with the help of a therapist, browse our directory to find a licensed provider near you.

Secure attachment

Secure attachment develops when an infant knows their primary caregiver will provide comfort, understanding, and safety consistently in times of stress. Kids with secure attachment turn to their caregivers when something frightening happens. They’re also able to separate from their caregivers without much anxiety—they feel confident that the people they’re attached to will come back.

Securely attached young people tend to form close relationships with others and experience less loneliness.5 As adults, they generally form positive relationships based on trust and vulnerability. Because of the consistency they were shown when they first began forming attachments, they continue to expect their efforts in relationships will be returned.

Anxious attachment

Anxious attachment, also known as ambivalent attachment, develops when children form worried, insecure patterns of interacting after getting inconsistent care from their primary caregivers. As with all attachment styles, these patterns can carry over to other relationships.

Anxiously attached kids are more likely to be nervous about going to school and getting to know their classmates.6 Adults with an anxious attachment style may come across as clingy and as spending too much time and energy worrying about their relationships. For instance, they might overanalyze conversations or a partner’s expressions, looking for problems even when there aren’t any.7

Avoidant attachment

Children with avoidant attachment have learned that their primary caregiver can’t meet their needs reliably, so they rely on themselves instead.

Adults with avoidant attachment styles may seem like they don’t care about their relationships. They dislike depending on others and don’t want others to depend on them. They may struggle to be vulnerable or intimate in relationships, which can lead to less satisfaction, less connection, and a general lack of support.8

Disorganized attachment

Disorganized attachment was recognized as an attachment style several years after the original strange situation study. Researchers noticed that some children responded to reunions with their caregivers in unpredictable ways that combined elements of anxious and avoidant attachment.9 Some kids acted as though they wanted to punish their caregivers for abandoning them, while others seemed fearful or conflicted. Some even took on the caregiver role themselves, comforting their parents.

As they grow, children with disorganized attachment may struggle with hostile or oppositional behavior. Adults with disorganized attachment can find relationships confusing, scary, or unpredictable. While they may crave intimacy, they’re not confident their partners will return their efforts.

Attachment disorders and difficulties

Insecure attachment styles and other problems with attachment are often grouped together as “attachment difficulties.” Attachment difficulties are common, and they can be treated with attachment-based therapy—where a therapist creates a secure, trusting bond with a client and addresses patterns that stem from the client’s early attachment experiences.

Separate from attachment difficulties are attachment disorders, two specific and rare conditions recognized by the American Psychiatric Association’s diagnostic manual, the DSM-5.10

  • Reactive attachment disorder (RAD): Children with RAD avoid adults because of past negative experiences such as abuse, neglect, or trauma. They rely on themselves for comfort when they’re under stress, even as they struggle to regulate their emotions. They have difficulty expressing positive feelings like joy.11 They struggle to accept comfort and may react violently when held.
  • Disinhibited social engagement disorder (DSED): Children with DSED have usually experienced neglect. As a result, they seek care and affection from all adults, even total strangers.12 They show little to no preference for their caregivers and will willingly leave them—but they’re overly friendly with strangers, often putting themselves in vulnerable or risky situations. 

Attachment disorders don’t appear often and can improve over time. Family therapy, attachment-based therapy, or individual therapy for both children and caregivers can help.

It’s important to remember that attachment issues aren’t the only source of problems with intimacy and connection. If you’re struggling with anxiety around your relationships, talking to a therapist can help you uncover the root of the problem. Browse our directory to find a licensed mental health professional near you today.

About the author

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