Attachment Anxiety and its Childhood Origins
"Attachment anxiety" arises when we sense that there is either too much distance between ourselves and our loved ones or, on the other hand, that they are too close and seeming to violate our boundaries. We all have a particular comfort level and set of needs within our relationships, which are heavily shaped by our early childhood attachment experiences.
So, what do psychologists mean by “Attachment?”
The “attachment” process begins in infancy. It is the natural tendency for a baby to seek out another person to meet their needs for safety and security. This happens first and most notably with a primary caregiver, aka the parent or guardian that is most in charge of care during infancy. Babies are dependent on their caregivers to meet all of their basic needs, such as for food and shelter but also for emotional support and comfort.
Depending on the caregiver’s ability to notice and meet that baby's needs, the baby begins to interact in certain ways and form basic assumptions about what happens when they need something or are upset. If the caregiver responds well to those needs at least 70% of the time, it is natural for the baby to begin to rely and them to help and form a basic sense of trust. As long as those conditions are reasonably met, a sense of calm, safety, and curiosity begins to develop, along with the beginnings of some basic healthy relational patterns that the baby will take with them through childhood, adolescence, and adulthood.
Within some relationships between caregiver(s) and baby, however, needs become missed or responded to with stress or dismissal. This creates a sense of tension, anxiety, and confusion for the baby. When they are upset and in need of comfort, it is natural for a baby to cry as a signal to their caregiver to rush over, to determine what is wrong, and to apply the type of care that is needed. When the crying response does not work to elicit that care, some babies cry and cry and cry until their caregiver eventually comes over to soothe them. In some cases, though, this does not happen. This poses a dilemma for the baby and begins to shape their future behavior. On an unconscious level, they form a plan for the future. What do you think they'll do?
a) Will the baby cry louder and more dramatically next time, in hopes of finally getting their caregiver’s attention? Will they become increasingly intense with their emotional response?
b) Will the baby give up on eliciting care and not bother to cry next time? Will they start to view themselves as a "lone wolf" that is charged with handling their own problems?
We can imagine how those choices made during the early years form a style of relating to others that is only furthered in childhood. Just as during infancy, as long as their caregiver(s) respond to them in a timely and reasonable manner at least most of the time, the child gains a sense of delight and interest in the world, an increasing amount of resilience and self-esteem, and an understanding that they can always return to their caregiver(s) for safety and care. If those conditions are not met, though, and the child is instead dismissed, neglected, excessively scolded, or made to fear their caregiver, they are said to develop an "insecure" bond with that figure (and later with others, as well).
In short, humans adapt to their circumstances. For better or worse, the attachment relationship is basically where babies and children do most of their learning about people in general, about how they are perceived by others, and make assumptions about how the world works. So, if the relationship with the attachment figure is an uncertain or rejecting one, in a way they form an insecure bond with the world. Their ability to handle stress is impacted and they become more likely to notice threats in the world in general as well as within their relationships in particular. These early experiences also affect children’s (and adults’) later ability to cope and soothe themselves.
So, what are the attachment “styles?”
Attachment styles are distinct categories that flow from a baby’s early experiences with a primary caregiver and that are later reinforced by their childhood and adolescent experiences. It is estimated that about 66% of the US population falls into the “secure attachment” category. This means that they enjoyed experiences with their primary caregiver(s) that met their needs often enough to promote a sense of overall calm, trust, and curiosity (instead of alarm) about the world.
Unfortunately, that leaves a lot of folks within the “insecure attachment” category. To understand why, we can first validate the human adaptiveness of adjusting to difficult childhood experiences. After all, it makes intuitive sense that a child who was not able to consistently rely on their caregiver would have to learn various ways to survive and achieve the most calm and safe state of being that they could.
Consider our earlier descriptions. The child who continued to cry even when their caregiver did/could not appropriately soothe them is at risk of developing the “anxious/preoccupied” attachment style. Within this style, humans fear having too much distance within their relationships and become preoccupied with methods of seeking greater closeness. In childhood, adolescence, and adulthood, they might demonstrate more intense emotions, worry about the whereabouts of their loved ones, test the strength of their relationships, and consistently ruminate about where they stand with others.
The child who decided to give up and meet their own needs or who recognized that their caregivers either were not coming to soothe them or believed that they would be too burdened by the child's needs is at risk of falling into the “avoidant” attachment style. On the surface, those with the avoidant attachment style might appear aloof, disinterested, and hyper-independent. They might even shut down or run when others seek greater closeness to them. At the core of avoidance there is a divide between those who truly value their independence and folks who fear rejection or mistreatment so much that their autonomy becomes their safe place. Their independence might at times feel lonely, however distance and avoidance provide a shelter and reduce their attachment related anxiety.
To introduce a third category, a child who did not always know what they would experience at home – maybe care one day but anger and abuse another day – might develop the “disorganized” attachment style. In adolescence and adulthood, those strategies might look erratic, confusing, and inconsistent. The fear and mistrust that develops as part of the “disorganized” style unfortunately tends to push others away, despite the core need for closeness and care.
Are attachment styles “set in stone?”
Thankfully, while it used to be believed that attachment styles were cemented in infancy and therefore unchangeable, psychological researchers have found evidence that this is not true at all. In fact, many therapists today are trained in effective methods that help to teach clients about the impact of their development, validate their experiences, and heal in ways that promote openness, trust, curiosity, and relational intimacy.
For more information or to find out how you can heal from your own early attachment experiences, contact a Skyline psychologist. We are confident in our understanding of attachment theory and ability to help in ways that promote healthy, satisfying lives and relationships.