Understanding Attachment Styles Part I: Secure Attachment

attachment

Attachment styles are how we, as people, interact and behave within our relationships. Some people may become attached more quickly than others, whilst some may be more aloof and distant irrespective of the type of relationship.

This blog is the first in a four-part series covering the four unique attachment styles and what each of them means. This week’s topic is the secure attachment style.

The History of Attachment

Psychologists and sociologists began researching attachment styles in the 20th century, with its roots beginning in Sigmund Freud’s theories about love. However, John Bowlby is known as the primary founder of attachment theory.

Bowlby believed that children are programmed to seek and remain close to attachment figures who provide comfort and aid survival. He also believed that childhood experiences influence behaviour and development in later life.

Based on his research, Bowlby went on to make three propositions about attachment:

  1. When children are raised knowing that their primary caregiver will attend to their needs, they are less likely to experience fear than those not secure in this knowledge.
  2. This knowledge is formed during a critical time of development and remains unchanged throughout life, whether positive or negative.[1]
  3. Expectations that form are correlated to experience. If a child experiences a caregiver responsive to their needs, they will expect others to do so.

There are four primary attachment styles:

  • Secure attachment
  • Anxious attachment
  • Avoidant attachment
  • Disorganised attachment

Secure Attachment Style

A secure attachment style is the healthiest style of attachment. Children with secure attachment styles become upset when their primary caregivers leave the room, are happy when they return, and go to them for comfort when scared.

Children raised with a secure attachment style feel safe around their caregivers and trust that they can return to them when overwhelmed. When children cry or give other cues that they need food or attention, they are secure in knowing that their caregiver will promptly acknowledge a particular need.

Parents who are warm and attentive to their children show that they are worthy and important, which becomes imprinted in the child’s brain as they grow and influences them positively in their future relationships.

Children who develop a secure attachment style feel supported by their caregivers. They also feel valued, loved, and safe to explore the world. They also tend to:

  • React well to stress
  • Try new things independently
  • Solve problems well
  • Form good intrapersonal relationships

Experiencing healthy development and forming secure attachments is crucial as a child. Research from Harvard University shows that positive childhood experiences set children up for prosperity, health, parenting, and education.[2]

Romantic relationships may not align perfectly with childhood experiences and attachments, but they heavily influence them. As adults, those with secure attachment styles have several characteristics:

  • The ability to form lasting, trusting relationships
  • Good self-esteem
  • The ability to share their emotions with people close to them
  • Good communication skills

People who have a secure attachment style are also less likely to develop depression and are often physically healthier than those with unhealthy attachment styles.[3]

Changing Attachment Styles

Around 56% of people classified themselves as securely attached in a study conducted by social psychologists Cindy Hazan and Philip Shaver.[4] However, those without a secure attachment style can work towards forming one by doing the following:

  • Identify the attachment style – The first step in changing an attachment style is identifying which one an individual has. Once it is clear whether an individual is anxious, avoidant, or disorganised, they can begin to identify points to work on to become more secure.
  • Reflect on patterns – Keeping a journal surrounding emotions and thoughts about relationships can help many people form a secure attachment style. Here, individuals may benefit from questioning the emotions that appear, whether there’s a pattern, and the behaviours or actions that trigger these thoughts.
  • Improve communication – Communication is vital in every romantic or platonic relationship. When individuals improve their communication and ask for what they need, they can help their partner recognise and respond more effectively. Doing so also increases confidence in the relationship.
  • Work with a professional – In some instances, individuals looking to form a secure attachment style may benefit from contacting a mental health professional for help. Here, techniques such as cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT) may be used to equip individuals with the tools needed to combat negative thoughts and behaviours.

Changing attachment style is not easy, but it can be done. Consistent work over time will enable many to improve their emotional reactions and form healthier relationships in the future.

Conclusion

Secure attachment is a healthy form of attachment that is formed in childhood. Early interactions affect the brain and establish how a child will develop relationships as they mature into adulthood. Although not prescriptive, those who form secure attachments in childhood are more likely to form healthy relationships in adulthood.

Even if individuals feel they do not have a secure attachment style, they can develop one. Although this is not an easy process, it is worthwhile, especially as it will allow them to form healthier relationships in the future.

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Sources:

[1] Fuertes J N, R. Grindell S, Kestenbaum M, Gorman B. Sex, Parent Attachment, Emotional Adjustment, and Risk-Taking Behaviors, Int J High Risk Behav Addict. 2017 ; 6(2):e36301. doi: 10.5812/ijhrba.36301.

[2] “What Is Early Childhood Development? A Guide To Brain Development”. Center On The Developing Child At Harvard University, 2021, https://developingchild.harvard.edu/guide/what-is-early-childhood-development-a-guide-to-the-science/.

[3] Feeney, J A. “Implications Of Attachment Style For Patterns Of Health And Illness”. Child: Care, Health And Development, vol 26, no. 4, 2000, pp. 277-288. Wiley, https://doi.org/10.1046/j.1365-2214.2000.00146.x.  Accessed 20 Dec 2021.

[4] Hazan C, Shaver P. Romantic love conceptualized as an attachment process. J Pers Soc Psychol. 1987;52(3):511-24. doi:10.1037//0022-3514.52.3.511

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