Is It Secure or Insecure? The Four Attachment Styles
Cathy adopted 15 year old, Rachel, from foster care at eight months. Cathy shares in session, “Rachel is on the dance team at school. This week they performed in front of the whole school; Rachel was nervous about it. I saw her come into the gym, and I was worried she wouldn’t find me. I waited while she looked around the room. Finally, our eyes met, and at the same time we pointed at each other. I gave her a thumbs up, and I could see her relax.”
Cathy’s story tells a lot about their secure attachment –Rachel looks to her mom for comfort and safety. In a healthy attachment the child feels safe, emotionally secure and protected; a securely attached child seeks their parent for emotional and physical connection when they are frightened, hurt or if they become separated.
Secure vs. Insecure Attachment: The Four Styles of Attachment
Secure (healthy) attachments develop from available, consistent, and sensitive caregiving while unavailable, inconsistent or insensitive caregiving promotes insecure attachments. Attachment forms from repeated interactions between the child and caregiver. Let’s look at the four attachment styles, along with a story, to demonstrate the insecure styles.
Secure attachment: Secure
Secure attachment develops when a caregiver provides consistent caregiving. In a secure relationship, the child seeks comfort from her caregiver and prefers her over strangers.
Insecure Attachment: Ambivalent, Avoidant, Disorganized
Ambivalent attachment develops when a caregiver shifts between adequate and preoccupied caregiving. Children in an ambivalent relationship are clingy, and (directly or indirectly) aggressive toward their caregiver often pushing them away and then immediately wanting closeness again.
Avoidant attachment develops when a caregiver is neglectful and rejects the child. Children in an avoidant relationship avoid their caregiver (i.e.: ignore them, refuse touch) and may show a preference to strangers.
Disorganized attachment develops when an inconsistent caregiver wavers between frightening and comforting the child. In a disorganized relationship, children try to control or attempt to be a caretaker to their parent.
Stories to Demonstrate Insecure Styles
Ambivalent Attachment: The Davis Family
Wade and Kimberly, are concerned about their three year old son, Luis. In a therapy session, Kimberly says, “We brought Luis home from Colombia when he was sixteen months old. We thought he had a good foster home; now, we’re not so sure.”
Wade and Kimberly explain Luis’ behaviors, “If I get upset with Luis he says, ‘Mom, your hair looks nice. I like you very much.’ It makes me wonder if he’s manipulating me.” Wade adds, “Another thing we’ve worried about is he runs into his room, hides and screams, ‘Don’t touch me!’ Then, he yells for one of us and as soon as we get there, he says, ‘Get out! Leave me alone!‘
A Child with Avoidant Behaviors: Joe’s Story
Joe is thirteen years old. From birth to age three, he lived with his birth mother, Charlene, who neglected him. Frequently, Charlene left Joe alone in a dirty home and when she was there, she rarely paid attention to him. Joe was removed from her care when Child Protective Services found Joe in the home with a drunken man who was passed out on the floor.
Joe was placed in foster care until age five when he was adopted by Chris and Mandi. Chris and Mandi want to hear Joe’s thoughts and feelings, but by the time he came to their home he had already lost his voice. Unfortunately, Joe keeps his thoughts and feelings to himself.
A Child With Disorganized Behaviors: Alee’s Story
Alee is four years old. Her birth parents, Brandon and Marcy, were both young and mentally ill. They could not remember how to mix her formula, dress her appropriately or manage her illnesses. Furthermore, Brandon would become aggressive when she cried. Marcy confesses that Brandon spanked Alee when he was irritated with her bouts of crying. Finally, Child Protective Services removed Alee from their home.
After two foster placements, Alee was adopted by her paternal aunt and uncle, Ellen and James, at the age of two and a half. Alee is both punitive and caretaking with her mom and dad. When Alee becomes punitive she hits, kicks, spits at her parents and says, “You’re just a stupid mom” and “Get away from me!”
Sometimes, Ellen is tearful which triggers Alee’s caretaking behavior. She scoots over to mom, gently puts her hand on mom’s shoulder and in a encouraging voice says, “Don’t worry, mom. I’ll do better.”
Read more information on attachment styles in The Adoptive & Foster Parent Guide at Amazon.com.
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Carol Lozier is a therapist, author, and blogger specializing in trauma; and adoptive and foster kids, teens, and adults. Ms. Lozier is in private practice in Louisville, KY.