Understanding Attachment

Written by Rachel Ealy, M.Ed., LPC-Intern


Oftentimes when I begin parenting support sessions, we discuss attachment. Many parents struggle with describing ways in which they built an attachment with their child. I believe that it is extremely important for parents to be aware of how they are building an attachment with their child so that they can strive to build a secure attachment. Recently I completed a training on attachment theory presented by Alane Atchley, M.S., LMFT, LCDC and gleaned a wealth of information that will help parents not only understand attachment, but enable them to build a secure attachment with their child.


Attachment styles


Based on research by John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth, there are four attachment styles under two categories. Attachment is formed in the first few years of life. Through her research, Mary Ainsworth found that birth to 12 months of age is the most critical attachment period (Atchley, 2019).


1.     Secure Attachment, which makes up about 60% of the population (From Princeton.edu

as cited in Atchley, 2019). A secure attachment is built when the primary caretaker responds to the child and is attune to the child’s needs. The primary caregiver is quick, sensitive, and consistent, which communicates to the child that their needs will be met. The primary caregiver is a secure base from which their child can explore.


 2.    Insecure Attachment, which makes up about 40% of the population (From Princeton.edu as cited in Atchley, 2019).

a.      Anxious Ambivalent (25%)

 Anxious ambivalent attachment is formed when the primary caregiver is inconsistent  

 in their responses to the child. Sometimes they respond sensitively and sometimes  

 they are neglectful of the child’s needs. The child is typically anxious and insecure.

b.     Anxious Avoidant (10%)

Anxious avoidant attachment is formed when the primary caregiver is distant and disengaged. The child is typically emotionally distant and does not explore their environment very much.

c.     Anxious Disorganized (5%)

Anxious disorganized attachment occurs when the primary caregiver is neglectful of the child’s needs, abusive, explosive, and/or when addiction is present. The child is typically depressed, angry, and oftentimes they stop crying altogether.


The Attachment Cycle


The attachment cycle occurs thousands and thousands of times throughout development. It begins with the child expressing a need through crying, whimpering, etc. The child’s body is in distress as evidenced by activation of the sympathetic nervous system and excitatory neurotransmitters. Excitatory neurotransmitters increase things such as heart rate and blood pressure. If the child’s needs are met consistently they are comforted and the body responds appropriately as evidenced by activation of the parasympathetic nervous system and inhibitory neurotransmitters calming down the body. The parasympathetic nervous system works to bring down the stress and alarm chemical in the body triggered by the sympathetic nervous system. When the caregiver responds consistently, this serves as a foundation for trust, self-worth, self-efficacy, and self-regulation. When the child’s needs are not met consistently the sympathetic nervous system fires at the drop of a hat and the excitatory neurotransmitters are consistently high. As stated above, the excitatory neurotransmitters trigger an increase in heart rate and blood pressure, which means the body is constantly on high alert. When the body is constantly on high alert, the potential for behavioral dysregulation, ADHD symptoms, depression, anxiety, and bipolar disorder symptoms are increased.


Building and Strengthening Attachment


Around 80-85% of children have the same attachment style as their parents (Atchley, 2019). Being aware of how you interact with your children and others can help you to be more mindful of how you respond to your child. Responding to your child’s needs in a consistent and dependable manner, especially in the first 3 years of life, helps to build the foundation for a secure attachment. Here are two more things that you can try in order to build and strengthen attachment.


1)    Mindfully interact with your child. Mindfulness is being in the present moment, so to mindfully interact means to be engaged in the present moment. Instead of sitting on the couch watching television while your child plays with Legos, mindfully interact with your child by getting on their level (i.e. sitting on the floor with them) and playing with the Legos with them. Engage your child by asking them questions about what they are building, what they would like you to build, and what they enjoy most about Legos. This communicates to your child that they are seen and that you are interested in their interests. What other ways can you mindfully interact with your child?


2)    Establish routines. This helps your child know what to expect and communicates predictability and dependability. You can have morning routines, bedtime routines, as well as greeting and parting routines. Establishing routines early in life helps build a secure attachment which then allows for the capability to self-regulate (refer to the attachment cycle section). When your child is able to self-regulate they are better able to handle unexpected situations. Refer to my blog on cognitive flexibility for more information about how to help your child through unexpected situations.

It is important to communicate to your child that you will be with them through the process of being flexible when unexpected things disrupt routines.


Link to blog on cognitive flexibility https://heightsfamilycounseling.com/blog/2018/8/22/your-flexible-brain


Atchley, A. (2019). Connection before correction [Powerpoint Slides].