Different Types of Attachment and What It Means to You

Wanted to share this article by Dr. Greg Popcak commenting on a study on the consequences of the cry-it-out sleep method.  He writes:

[A] new study published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships highlights the long term psychological and relational consequences of the cry-it-out method.  In particular, the new study looks at the tendency of insecurely attached adults to feel threatened by otherwise healthy, intimate relationships.   The study is one of hundreds that look at the effects of insecure attachment in childhood on adult relationships.

Dr. Popcak explains very clearly the different “attachment styles” and how they influence outcomes for children when they grow up.  There are three attachment categories identified by attachment scientists:  secure, ambivalent, and avoidant.  The securely attached child is confident in interpersonal relationships and knows how to be vulnerable “without losing himself”.  He also feels confident enough to explore the world, knowing his 123172048safe harbor (mom or dad) is nearby.  The child is nervous when mom or dad leave, often crying, but when mom or dad return, the child cuddles for a while then is fine.  The ambivalent-attached child is not secure, tends to be clingy and nervous about being abandoned.  This child is hesitant in exploring the world and becomes distraught when a parent leaves, but when the parent returns he will act ambivalent about the parent.   The avoidant-attached child is the least securely attached — they act as if they don’t care about their parents.  They don’t behave in a distressed manner when the parent leaves and don’t seem to care when the parent returns.

Unless something significant happens to change the child’s world, the child’s attachment category tends to be stable into adulthood.  But it can change. For example, the securely attached child will tend to grow into a securely attached adult, enjoying intimate, close friendships, capable of joy and empathy.  However, if the child experiences some serious setback in life — the death of a parent, divorce, abuse, etc. — his attachment category can change.  Similarly, a child who lacks a secure attachment as young child can learn to trust the world again through intervention and consistent, warm parenting.  Adopted children often experience some attachment difficulty early on, but with loving parents, they grow up to become thriving, happy adults.  I just want to make clear that the childhood attachment category isn’t carved into our brains, forever unchangeable.

Why does this matter to you, to me?  As Dr. Greg explains, which category a child falls into is determined by how responsive her parent is in infancy and toddlerhood.  He specifically says that:

Children whose cries are responded to promptly develop secure attachment.  Children whose cries are responded to inconsistently (i.e, time to response or consistency of responding at all varies) develop anxious-ambivalent attachment.  Children whose cries are consistently ignored develop avoidant attachment.  This it not a theory.  These findings (both how a child comes by their attachment style and the long term relationship effects) have been established by hundreds of studies conducted over decades and, in some cases for decades (as with some of the 30year + longitudinal research done on attachment styles and adult relationships.)

Poorly attached children do not fare well in interpersonal relationships in adulthood.  They are guarded, suspicious, and have a hard time opening their hearts to anyone.  They also often lack empathy and are more vulnerable to depression and addiction.

Dr. Greg urges parents to look at the evidence before they make up their minds about the cry it out method.  I would also add that the attachment or bond is started in infancy, but we have to nourish the bond throughout childhood.  Harsh parenting styles will weaken the basic trust between the child and parent even if that child was responded to with sensitivity as an infant. CAPC’s 7 Building Blocks work together to create a connection-rich environment in your home not only during infancy but throughout childhood.

As Catholic parents, we have to use wisdom in discerning which cultural norms we should accept or reject.  God made our child’s body a particular way, and scientists are revealing the way our parenting choices impact our child’s emotional and moral development.  Every child deserves to be treated with dignity; every child deserves a fighting chance to grow up to become a joyful, exuberant adult.  I hope you’ll check out Dr. Greg’s article and the links he provides.

I also recommend these awesome books on attachment science if you want to dive deeper into this topic:

The Science of Parenting by Margot Sunderland.  A great, accessible book on how parenting choices influence brain development and attachment outcomes.

The Attachment Connection: Parenting a Secure and Confident Child Using the Science of Attachment Theory by Ruth Newton. Presents a clear history of attachment theory and how to foster attachment especially in babies and very young children.

Becoming Attached: First Relationships and How They Shape Our Capacity to Love by Robert Karen.  This book traces the emergence of attachment theory in the work of John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth.  This might be more detail than some readers want, but I couldn’t put it down!

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