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The Four Patterns of Attachment in Children

A woman sits with a child in a field.

In a previous article, I defined attachment and explained how it develops. The attachment system is a proximity-seeking system that evolved to ensure the survival of the human infant. It operates like your home heating and cooling system: if everything is fine you don’t see the system operate, but when things go out of bounds, the heating or cooling system activates. Likewise, when a person feels threatened, the attachment system activates, evoking attachment behaviors. Attachment behaviors are proximity-seeking behaviors that draw the person closer to a preferred caregiver. The proximity creates or renews or recreates a secure base—a sense of safety, security, and comfort from which the person, once settled, can begin to explore the world.

Patterns develop in response to the sort of caring the infant and child experience. Several patterns of attachment can develop.

  • Secure
  • Ambivalent (in an adult this on is termed Preoccupied)
  • Avoidant (in an adult this one is termed Dismissing)
  • Disorganized

These categories have been refined and identified by extensive empirical research across cultures. There is a large body of research supporting these categorizations. In research literature, there are several subtypes within each category and two other categories that won’t turn up in this article. These patterns can best be described as a broad manner or style used to manage relationships. The pattern, based on the person’s earliest experiences, is the approach the person uses to manage and maintain relationships. In early infancy, the child may have one pattern of attachment with one caregiver and a different pattern with another. Sometime between the ages of three and five this crystallizes into one general pattern seen in all relationships. It is the way the person maintains a connection with others, the way the person achieves the degree of intimacy in relationships with which the person is most comfortable and familiar.

In this article I will describe the patterns as seen in a child. These patterns are not mental health diagnoses. The first three are normal patterns of relating, although the second and third are considered insecure patterns, less healthy than the secure pattern.

  1. SECURE:child with a secure pattern of attachment will explore a room while the parent is present. If the parent leaves the room, the child will show signs of missing the parent during the separation. Preference for the parent over a stranger is evident; the child will greet the parent, initiating physical contact, upon reunion. After the reunion, the child will settle and resume play.
  2. AVOIDANT: This child often fails to cry when separated from the parent, avoids and ignores the parent when reunited (by moving away, turning away, or leaning out of arms if picked up), and shows little or no proximity or contact-seeking, no distress or anger at separations. Responses to the parent often appear unemotional. These children tend to focus more on toys and the environment than on a caregiver in new and strange situations.
  3. RESISTANT OR AMBIVALENT: Showing little exploration of their environment, these children may be wary or distressed prior to separation. They seem preoccupied with the status and location of the parent, and may appear angry or passive. After a separation, these children fail to take comfort in the parent when reunited and continue to focus on the parent and fuss. They fail to return to exploration after reunion.
  4. DISORGANIZED: This is the subtype most likely to develop into the psychiatric diagnosis of Reactive Attachment Disorder. This pattern is most often associated with maltreatment from a parent who frightens the child. The child displays disorganized or disoriented behaviors in the parent’s presence, suggesting a temporary collapse of behavioral integrity and organization. The child may freeze, for example, with a trance-like expression, hands in air, may rise at parent’s entrance, then fall prone and huddle on the floor, or the child may cling, crying, leaning away with an averted gaze.

© Copyright 2009 by Arthur Becker-Weidman, Ph.D., therapist in Williamsville, New York. All Rights Reserved.

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Comments
  • JOSHUA November 9th, 2009 at 4:37 PM #1

    attachment is a weird thing,don’t you think? i say this because although there is enough reason and logic for a child to be attached to its parents, sometimes as kids or even adults, we find ourselves being attached to a particular person for no apparent reason whatsoever… you may not know why, but you feel like you are being pulled toward that person, maybe its their aura or their good nature, but you don’t quite know why you are so pulled towards them…

  • Germie November 10th, 2009 at 4:03 AM #2

    Hmm…interesting to know that seemingly simple things have so much depth and detail to them… I for one didn’t think there are different patters to attachment …

  • Arthur Becker-Weidman, Ph.D. November 10th, 2009 at 10:21 AM #3

    Joshua,

    Attraction and Attachment are related and overlapping terms. The Attachment system is a biologically based system that evolved to ensure the survival of the human infant. It is primarily a proximity seeking system. When the child experiences some threat, the child seeks proximity to some preferred caregiver.

    Attractions are different and can have many bases.

  • Arthur Becker-Weidman, Ph.D. November 10th, 2009 at 10:23 AM #4

    Dear Germie,

    The research literature describes several patterns of attachment:
    Secure
    Two Anxious patterns:
    Avoidant or Dismissing
    Ambivalent or Preoccupied
    Disorganized
    Cannot Classify

    regards

  • Cornell Poitier March 22nd, 2014 at 11:23 AM #5

    As an addiction therapist, what role do you believe attachment theory may play in the recovery process. If trauma (early childhood, abuse, PTSD, etc,..)is at the root cause of addictions do you see a difficulty in those with addicts having difficulty securely attaching in the healing process of their addictions? Are personality disorders in adults with addictions another form of the attachment theory.

  • Arthur Becker-Weidman, Ph.D. March 23rd, 2014 at 12:41 PM #6

    Dear Cornell,

    Excellent questions. To start at the bottom and work my way up. Many children with meet the criteria for Reactive Attachment Disorder and who do not receive effective treatment (such as Attachment-Focused Treatment Dyadic Developmental Psychotherapy, which is an evidence-based and empirically validated treatment) will often meet DSM criteria for a personality disorder upon reaching age 18 years.

    Certainly the pattern of attachment evidenced by your client will play an important role in how treatment proceeds and in how you manage the relationship to keep the client engaged in the recovery process.

    I hope this answers your questions. Let me know what more you’d like to know.

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