In the 1950s by British psychologist John Bowlby developed attachment theory while working at the Child Guidance Clinic in London, where he had become interested in understanding the distress and upset children experience when separated from their primary caregiver. Bowlby defined attachment as a “lasting psychological connectedness between human beings.”, he believed that healthy attachment was binary – it was either present or not.
Mary Ainsworth expanded on attachment theory in the 70’s, she devised a standardized assessment for attachment behaviours in children called the Strange Situation Classification (SSC). Her research consisted of her observations of children as they were put through eight different scenarios where the child, its mother, and a stranger were introduced, separated, and reunited. Each scenario lasted three minutes. Mary Ainsworth scored the children’s behaviour based on four criteria: (1) Proximity and contact seeking, (2) Contact maintaining, (3) Avoidance of proximity and contact, and (4) Resistance to contact and comforting.8
After observing one hundred children, Ainsworth identified three, rather than the original two, main attachment styles: secure, insecure-avoidant, and insecure-ambivalent.9 This was the first study to support and expand on John Bowlby’s theory of attachment, and in 1990 two researchers, Mary Main and Judith Solomon, used Ainsworth’s SSC and added fourth attachment style that they called “disorganized.”10
Throughout Mary Ainsworth’s studies, the majority of children were securely attached to their primary caregiver features of this type of attachment are that the child will feel easily soothed and safe when with their primary caregiver. If the child becomes upset, they will turn toward their caregiver, or seek them out in some way for comfort. The care giver is a safe base from which the child can explore the world while being able to return to a place of safety if hurt or overwhelmed in some way.
The next observed attachment style is insecure-avoidant. Children with this style feel unable to count on their caregivers for care, so cannot attach securely. Perhaps their caregiver has been unable to be there for the child or has been dismissive of their needs, or otherwise rejecting of the child. This response could easily develop toward a parent who was emotionally or physically neglectful of their child, – there are a number of questions in the ACEs study that point to neglect. It is hard for people with these formative experiences to feel safe in the world, to feel that people are safe, reliable, and trustworthy, and that they themselves are lovable. In Ainsworth’s study, when a child is in distress and has this type of attachment, they do not seek contact with their primary attachment figure, they don’t show a preference between their primary caregiver and a stranger. This is because they aren’t sure who will help them or what adult figure can offer support and security.
With this attachment style children tend to be clingy and needy, but when the caregiver comes to their aid, the child rejects them and does not feel soothed. This attachment style forms in response to a primary caregiver that is not predictable so that even when the caregiver is trying to meet the needs of the child the child does not feel safe. Children can’t possibly process and understand the behaviour of their parent when sometimes they are loving and comforting and other times they aren’t. When they try to understand what is happening, they believe that they are the reason behind the adults changing behaviour, and develop the accompanying beliefs and behaviours that go with that assumption. It is important to note that while as an adult you may be able to understand the context in which your parent was unable to consistently meet your needs, perhaps they had a mental illness or a brain injury or something else happened that was beyond their control that made it impossible for them to meet your needs, your needs still were and are important.
The final style of attachment is disorganized. Children with this type of attachment will show a mix of attachment behaviours and may even appear to be confused or disoriented. They believe that this attachment style is caused by inconsistency from their caregivers—meaning that a parent may be soothing and helpful, but conversely can be fear-inducing and hurtful.
While the insecure-ambivalent style clings to their caregiver and then is not easily soothed, the disorganised child may not want anything to do with their caregiver, or other times cry until the caregiver comes and holds them and then they can be soothed easily. This attachment can be the consequence of abuse, the child associates the caregiver with love and support and also fear and pain, and may even go to the caregiver to be soothed about the abuse they have just experienced from them. Therefore, they oscillate between secure responses and insecure-avoidant ones. A person with this attachment style is unsure what they feel, or if they are safe. This is a strong base for the development of Post Traumatic Stress as it contains both the feature of abuse and of being powerless and stuck in the situation. Trauma bonding in abusive adult relationships strongly resembles this type of attachment