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.
- Ambivalent (in an adult this on is termed Preoccupied)
- Avoidant (in an adult this one is termed Dismissing)
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.
- SECURE: A 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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