The 4 Attachment Styles: What Are They, and Is Your Style Affecting Your Parenting?

Source: Shutterstock
Source: Shutterstock

Have you always felt at ease diving into new relationships? Have you ever felt someone you were hoping to get close with was emotionally unavailable? Has anyone ever come across as “too clingy” to you? If someone doesn’t respond to your messages or calls right away, how do you feel? Questions like these can actually clue us into a fundamental way we bond with others: our attachment style.   

Attachment styles and parenting have touched us all. Before we could even have a say in the matter, we faced all kinds of situations and interactions with caregivers during our childhood that would go on to shape what ours would be. If you’ve only vaguely heard of attachment styles before, don’t worry. We’ll fill you in on all the details as you keep reading. For now, just think of them as possible ways we form emotional bonds and relate to others, especially our loved ones. 

By the time we’re full-fledged adults, how we engage in our relationships—including with our children—has a pretty significant connection to the attachment style we developed as infants. What’s crazy is we might not even be aware of it! While your attachment style doesn’t capture a complete explanation of your relationships, it can definitely shed light on your relationship patterns and tendencies. Like… who you tend to be attracted to, the relationship issues you’ve repeatedly faced, or why your most intimate relationships have been successful (or not!).   

If you consider yourself a primary caregiver, then you have a special role when it comes to attachment styles. It’s the primary caregivers who most influence what a child’s attachment style will be. For that reason, we figured you’d want the scoop on what they are and how yours might be influencing your parenting.

Disclaimer: If you don’t flawlessly create opportunities for secure attachment at every moment, your child isn’t doomed for dysfunctional relationships. Read on to better understand the connection between attachment styles and parenting.  

What is attachment theory?

As babies, we’re born quite helpless, and all we really know is how to express our emotions in their purest form. From giggles to sobs and kicking to screaming, our primary caregivers come to our rescue by nurturing those vulnerabilities. Enter attachment theory, a framework of developmental psychology formed by British psychologist John Bowlby in the 1950s. It explains the nature of bonds we form in our earliest years to get our needs met—literally and emotionally.  

Whether it’s a diaper change, our next meal, some playtime, or peaceful sleep, we count on our caregivers to be responsive to our appeals for these needs and more. It’s as much about survival as it is about emotional nourishment. Throughout our childhood, how a parent or caregiver attends to what we express we need determines our attachment style. Attachment theory researchers have identified four styles of attachment a child can develop.

What are the four styles of attachment?

Central to attachment theory are the four styles of attachment: secure, anxious, avoidant, and disorganized (also called anxious-avoidant). Psychologist Mary Ainsworth researched and identified the first three in the 1970s by conducting the Strange Situation experiment

During this experiment, Ainsworth and her team observed infants ages 9 to 18 months. They analyzed these infants’ reactions to brief separations from and reunions with their caregivers. They organized their findings into secure, anxious, and avoidant attachment patterns. In the 1980s, Mary Main and Judith Solomon made further discoveries around a fourth unique pattern in babies’ behaviors and coined it disorganized attachment

If you’re questioning how an experiment like this—an isolated scenario taking place early in infancy—can be so predictive of somebody’s future self, you’re not alone. Before we get into that, however, it’s helpful to have an understanding of the attachment styles themselves. These descriptions hold true for children as much as they do for adults. 

Secure attachment

When you have secure attachment, you’re as comfortable growing close to others as you are being alone. You have a healthy sense of relationship confidence, and you trust your caregiver or partner to support your needs. You don’t shy away from giving and receiving affection, but you also know how to set boundaries to protect your well-being. 

Anxious attachment

If you have anxious attachment, it’s usually coupled with low self-esteem. It’s easy to fear that your caregiver, partner, or others close to you won’t be there for you. You thrive on reassurance and worry about rejection or abandonment. For that reason, it’s challenging to be alone. Those with anxious attachment tend to heavily rely on others to have their emotional needs fulfilled. 

Avoidant attachment

Avoidant attachment moves to the other end of the continuum. In this case, you’re highly independent and even prefer being alone. You’re typically uncomfortable with intimacy and could be described as emotionally distant. You could have difficulty making commitments and feel that the only person you can really trust to take care of yourself is yourself. Often, avoidant attachment arises when you experience repeated unresponsiveness or a “toughen up” attitude from a primary caregiver in childhood.

Disorganized attachment

Also referred to as fearful-avoidant attachment, this style is a combination of anxious and avoidant behaviors. Basically, the ways you act might go on to be perceived as contradictory or inconsistent. You could be emotionally distant and quite afraid of intimacy but also prone to emotional outbursts—especially angry ones. You might hopefully make appeals for your primary caregiver’s or partner’s affection, but recoil even if you receive it because you fear they could still reject you. This tends to arise in response to having been unpredictably rejected or ignored and yet loved or cared for.

Why do attachment styles matter?

Meet the expert
Nina Kaiser, Ph.D.
Dr. Kaiser is a licensed psychologist and founder of PRACTICE San Francisco. She has over 15 years of experience working with children, teens, and parents, and specializes in evidence-based behavioral, cognitive-behavioral, and mindfulness-based strategies for living a more peaceful and joyful life.

To understand the connections between attachment styles and parenting, we spoke with licensed child and family psychologist Dr. Nina Kaiser. She is a parenting expert and founder of PRACTICE San Francisco. She is well-versed in the role attachment styles play in child development and the lasting impact they have by the time we’re adults. As she put it, “Understanding attachment styles can help us better understand our kids’ behavior—and better understand what we as parents can do to support them!” 

“Understanding attachment styles can help us better understand our kids’ behavior—and better understand what we as parents can do to support them!”

By acquainting ourselves with attachment styles, we can also reflect on ourselves and what we bring to our parenting. Dr. Kaiser went on to say, “Understanding our own attachment styles from our own families of origin can help us be more intentional. We can parent our kids in a way that fosters healthy attachment, rather than defaulting to the kind of parenting that we ourselves may have had as kids.”

Essentially, it’s an opportunity to parent more mindfully. Rather than entering into parenting by doing whatever was normalized during our own childhoods without really thinking about it, familiarizing ourselves with attachment styles helps us change course. We can foster our child’s short-term happiness and sense of connection in childhood, as well as lay the groundwork for lifelong healthy relationships.  

attachment styles and parenting mom and baby
Source: Shutterstock

How does attachment style impact parenting?

Can what happened so early in your childhood really have such an impact on how you parent? “Absolutely!” replied Dr. Kaiser. “The models of relationships that we internalize as kids absolutely travel with us into adulthood. They impact the way in which we interact with and attach to others,” she explained. So, despite all the life you’ve lived, relationships you’ve formed, and lessons you’ve learned since your earliest years, what you learned to expect from your primary caregiver(s) leaves its lasting influence on you, too. 

So, how do attachment styles and parenting come together in your relationship with your child? Dr. Kaiser described that how we connect with others is significantly influenced by our expectations of their reactions and behaviors. For instance, let’s say you believe someone is going to shy away from your expressions of affection. You may withhold affection not because you don’t care about them but because you want to avoid feeling hurt if they react how you imagine they will. “These expectations stem from our families of origin, and the ways in which our parents responded to us as kids… we build an understanding of how close personal relationships work based on the way that our own parents treated or interacted with us,” Dr. Kaiser detailed.

The influence of your attachment style

That means that the attachment style we possess as parents shapes our anticipation of and reactions to our children’s behaviors. For example, if you didn’t have all your emotional needs met early on, you might be more likely to default toward an independent mindset. You may not prioritize nurturing intimacy or receiving caretaking support from others because you didn’t learn to rely on it. In fact, if you’re the default parent, it might be worth reflecting on whether or not it could be due, in part, to hidden beliefs. Do you believe you can count on physical and emotional needs being met—whether it’s yours or your child’s? 

On the other hand, if you grew up securely attached—completely trusting your caregiver, feeling loved consistently, etc.—then you might have no problem being an affectionate, collaborative parent. No matter your attachment style, though, undoubtedly you’re doing everything you can to be the best parent you possibly can. Of course, you’re making every effort to show up and express love and care for your child. Still, what’s tricky is that even if we’re doing our best not to let our attachment style (if it’s not secure) flow in our relationship with our children, we still tend to model those insecure attachment styles to them anyway. Since they regularly observe and potentially assimilate how we engage with others, they may still wind up adopting yours.

Will my child automatically have the same attachment style as me?

While it’s not guaranteed, there’s certainly a chance they will. That’s because if your beliefs and behaviors toward your relationships—which often arise from your attachment style—are not things you’re totally aware of and something you “just do,” then how would your child learn any differently? As Dr. Kaiser put it, attachment styles and parenting go hand-in-hand: “It’s so easy as a caregiver or parent to default into your attachment style from your family of origin—these patterns tend to be so ingrained and automatic.”

“It’s so easy as a caregiver or parent to default into your attachment style from your family of origin—these patterns tend to be so ingrained and automatic.”

If you have a secure attachment style, then that’s great news. That means there’s a promising chance that’s what you’ll transmit to your child. But if you don’t, don’t worry—all hope is not lost! Dr. Kaiser mentioned there are ways you can encourage secure attachment anyway, which we tackle below.

It’s worth mentioning that it’s actually possible to have secure attachment yourself but have a child who emerges differently.  Dr. Kaiser used the example of a child experiencing clinically significant anxiety. “They might look like they have an anxious attachment style,” she noted, “but it’s more about the genetics of anxiety than it is about attachment with primary caregiver.” She also specified that if a child faces noteworthy trauma or adversities that are beyond a primary caregiver’s control, their attachment style could be affected as well.

Identifying your attachment style 

Having a more conscious awareness of your attachment style can enrich your parenting. It may help you promote secure attachment within your child more attentively while illuminating any blind spots. Worried you have tendencies that could potentially model an insecure way of relating to others? Dr. Kaiser emphasized that “…responding differently requires us really to have understood or actively worked with our attachment patterns. We must decide with intention to establish a new pattern of interaction in the families we are building as adults!”

There are a myriad of helpful resources and quizzes (I liked Psychology Today’s and NPR’s) that can reveal what your attachment style is and how it shows up in your life. Hopefully, they motivate you to continue expressing any features of secure attachment that come naturally to you. Meanwhile, they can plant seeds of change. Especially if you realize you’ve grown accustomed to engaging in your relationships with anxious, avoidant, or disorganized tendencies.

Ultimately, Dr. Kaiser is encouraging parents who are “actively working on showing up differently in their relationship with their own child.” She confirmed that by doing so, you can “absolutely help foster secure attachment in their child(ren).” By tying healthy attachment efforts and your parenting together, you’re elevating your self-growth, and you’re positively shaping your child’s development. So, it’s a win-win!

Source: Canva

Understanding your child’s attachment style

Obviously, you might be wondering what your child’s attachment style is, too. “Watching your child’s behavior in separation situations can yield some clues about attachment,” advised Dr. Kaiser. When you leave them—whether from a room, at daycare, in the company of other trusted adults they’re familiar with, etc.—how do they initially respond? What kinds of emotions do they reveal? Do their emotions stay consistent or change as time goes on? How do they react when you come back? Is their emotional response the same pattern every time? 

“Ideally, you want a securely attached, confident kid who can go out into the world and know that you as a parent are there as a safe base to which they can return,” Dr. Kaiser highlighted. Nevertheless, she explained that other factors could be at play. For example, perhaps it’s a child’s temperament that’s affecting their behavior during their separation from you.

If you notice your child doesn’t always show signs of secure attachment when you’re not around—like easing comfortably into situations with others or feeling empowered to explore and play—it’s not necessarily cause for alarm. Instead, Dr. Kaiser recommended sorting out what’s going on by seeking suggestions and feedback from your pediatrician or a child therapist. And that’s if and when you’re seeing that separating from you is “really consistently difficult.”  

Help! My child doesn’t seem to have secure attachment

If you’re finding that separation situations with your child are repeatedly challenging, Dr. Kaiser reiterated it’s always smart to check in with a professional. Whether it’s your child’s pediatrician or a specialist in child development, they can guide you every step of the way. From assessing if it’s indeed something to worry about, to offering recommendations and supportive outlets, they’ll have tools you can work with. 

Even before professional intervention, taking initiative to become aware of how attachment styles operate is another fantastic starting point. From there, you have the core knowledge to take the best action. “These patterns are malleable, especially if we catch them early. We can seek support in shifting and changing them,” Dr. Kaiser reassured parents. She continued, “[Since] even adults can work to address and change their attachment styles, it’s truly never too late.” By educating yourself, you’re steering your child (and yourself!) toward healthy attachment and fulfilling relationships.   

“Even adults can work to address and change their attachment styles, it’s truly never too late.”

On a related note, anxiousness alone doesn’t equate to having an insecure attachment. Dr. Kaiser has observed anxious kids who can present like they don’t have secure attachment when in reality they do. That’s where checking in with a professional also comes in handy. They will be able to clarify the type of support that will most effectively benefit your child. It could be disentangling attachment patterns, but it could also just be learning to build self-esteem.      

The best advice for creating secure attachment 

It’s really not as complicated as you might think. Dr. Kaiser shared, “Be present, be consistent, be responsive, and be underreactive!” Actually, the fact that she left her advice on attachment styles and parenting short, simple, and sweet makes perfect sense. The last thing you need is to start over-thinking how you can ensure secure attachment. A laundry list of ‘must do this’ and ‘must not do that’ will only make you more insecure! 

At the end of the day, “Ideally, we as parents want to be projecting a message of confidence that the world is a safe place and we’re confident that our kids can cope. AND that we’ll always be here to hear about it and support them,” Dr. Kaiser advocated. We love this optimism and wholeheartedly second it!

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