As we saw several weeks ago, understanding our own attachment styles can help us be better parents or caregivers to our children. But identifying our own attachment styles is only half the battle—we also need to know how children reveal their attachment styles to us.
In the late 1960s and mid-1970s, when development of attachment theory began, a woman named Mary Ainsworth studied and compiled research on the four attachment styles—secure, insecure-avoidant, insecure-ambivalent, and insecure-disorganized. She performed careful in-depth observations in an experiment called the “Strange Situation.” A mother and child were placed in an unfamiliar playroom equipped with toys while a researcher observed their interactions through a one-way mirror. The child’s attachment pattern was determined based on the child’s reactions and responses to the mother’s leaving the room, the child being left alone, a stranger entering, and then the mother re-entering.
Here’s what the experiment’s findings mean for us today:
Children with secure attachment have parents who are willing and available to meet their children’s needs. While not perfect, caregivers who parent their children consistently respond to their child’s needs in stable, affirming, intuitive, and loving ways. Securely attached children are the freest to explore and take risks because they know their parents will be there for them to return to as a source of comfort and stability.
Children with insecure-avoidant attachment have caretakers who frequently fail to meet their physical or emotional needs. So, they learn that the communication of their emotional needs has no influence on their caregivers and are self-reliant from an early age. They typically want to be close enough to their caregivers to feel protected should the need arise but distant enough to avoid the pain of rejection or unmet needs. Despite looking detached or unruffled no matter what their caretakers do, these children have learned to mask their internal distress.
Children with insecure-ambivalent attachment are often wary of strangers, become distressed when their caregivers aren’t around, and are overwhelmed by opposing emotions when their caregivers are around. Sometimes these children’s caregivers are able to meet their child’s physical or emotional needs and sometimes they aren’t. Many times—because of their own internal, unresolved anxiety, trauma, or stress—the caregivers are unable to tune into their child’s needs, so their presence is intrusive instead of comforting. When their caregivers are around, children with insecure-ambivalent attachment often display anger (ambivalent resistant) or helplessness (ambivalent passive), which helps them feel in control of interactions and like they’re able to keep their caregivers’ attention. This type of attachment is characterized by a push-pull dynamic. The child essentially says, “Yes, I want you, so I will pull you toward me, but I don’t really know if you can meet my needs consistently, so I will push you away preemptively to control the situation through anger or helplessly shutting down.” These children don’t feel free to explore or take risks because they are often uncertain as to whether their source of security and stability will remain present.
Children with insecure-disorganized attachment don’t show any consistent pattern in their behavior. Sometimes they’re avoidant and sometimes they’re ambivalent. Contradictory behaviors include “overt displays of fear . . . misdirected or jerky movements, or freezing and apparent disassociation from emotions.” These children might engage in self-injurious behavior or put distance between themselves and their caregivers; at times, they might even seem frightened.
Do any of these descriptions sound familiar? Let’s take a deeper look.
If you answer yes to most of these questions, your child might have a secure attachment.
- Does your child initially seem upset when you leave the room but easily settle when you return?
- Is your child confident enough to explore the world around him or her, coming back to you only as a base of care and support?
- Is it rare for your child to show any disruptive behavior—like angry outbursts or self-injurious actions?
- Does your child show maturity for his or her age?
- Is your child able to show empathy for others?
If you answer yes to any of these questions, your child might have insecure-avoidant attachment.
- Does your child seem unaffected when you leave the room?
- Is your child comfortable interacting with strangers?
- Does your child typically seem just as unaffected when you return as when you left?
- Is your child interested in exploring the world around him or her or does he or she stick to what’s familiar?
- Is your child primarily self-reliant, even when you’re there to help?
- Does your child seem physically and emotionally independent?
- Has your child ever avoided eye contact or turned away from you when you returned?
- Does your child seem out-of-tune with his or her needs?
If you answer yes to any of these questions, your child might have insecure-ambivalent attachment.
- Is your child clingy? Does he or she refuse to let you go when you need to leave?
- Is your child anxious and guarded around people he or she doesn’t know?
- Does your child act like he or she doesn’t care that you exist when you return?
- Does your child act aggressive, angry, or helpless when you return?
- Is your child reluctant to make friends?
- Is your child moving toward independence or does he or she come to you for help with tasks he or she knows how to do?
- Even if you’re present, does your child seem to still fear strangers and remain disinterested in exploring?
- Is your relationship with your child characterized by a push-pull dynamic?
If you answer yes to any of these questions, your child might have insecure-disorganized attachment.
- Does your child respond inconsistently both when you leave and when you return? (Maybe sometimes your child acts ambivalent and sometimes avoidant.)
- Does your child ever engage in self-injurious behaviors?
- Are your child’s behaviors often contradictory—for example showing fear or freezing when you return after crying when you leave?
- Do your child’s behaviors often reveal a root emotion of confusion or fear?
- Does your child often act like he or she doesn’t know what to expect?
- Does your child have difficulty calming him or herself?
- Is your child likely to seek approval or comfort from you and then quickly withdraw?
If your child displays traits of insecure-avoidant attachment, insecure-ambivalent attachment, or insecure-disorganized attachment, don’t panic. Just like healing is available to you, healing is available to your child too. Even if your child is securely attached, you can always grow your relationship with him or her.
Here are some quick tips to help your child move toward a more secure attachment.
- Know your own attachment style and seek the help and healing you need. You can find a good list of counselors through Focus on the Family, The American Association of Christian Counselors, or even BetterHelp.
- Pay attention to and connect with your child, beyond asking “How was your day?” If you need help getting the conversation started, try Questions for Humans: Parents and Kids.
- Help your kids foster strong connections with other trusted adults in their lives because this helps them build a better sense of confidence and a deeper understanding that they are loved.
- Consistency is key. Establish a routine, even if you have a separate routine for travel and home.
- Above all, seek God. Ask Him to reveal to you any patterns in your own life that might be harming your child. Pray that He will give you eyes to truly see and ears to truly hear your child. Approach everything with an attitude of humility, patience, and love.
Want to understand more about attachment styles in children and how to pursue healing? Check out Susannah’s book, Restore: Remembering Life’s Hurts with the God Who Rebuilds.