1. Securely attached
I’m ok, you’re ok (believed to be about 60-65% of children)
The caregiver was nurturing, consistent, empathic and responsive to the child’s needs, communicated appropriately with the child, and was healthy and supported in their parenting role. They have a secure base from which to explore the world about them. They find it fairly easy to get close to others, to depend on others and to have others rely on them. They are not worried about being too close to, or abandoned by others. They are able to access painful memories in a balanced way and will seek out support, trusting they will find it if they need it. They are likely to have securely attached children themselves as they are able to parent the way that they were parented themselves. They have learned to trust and know that their needs will be met.
Concept: I can affect my world. I am good, the world around me is good.
2. Insecurely attached
I’m okay, you’re not okay (believed to be about 15-20% of children)
The caregiver was unable to meet the child’s needs. This may have been through rejection, imperceptiveness to child’s needs, abandonment, or unresponsiveness. It could also be due to illness or separation from the child. The child feels as if the caregiver is not trustworthy or reliable and becomes resigned to meeting their own needs. They are more likely to be isolated and disconnected from others, that it is useless to look to others for comfort, and that they need to find it within themselves. They don’t mind being left at school or pre-school and might even prefer to be alone.
They may find it difficult to relate to others and are more likely to bully others as well, through difficulty in relating. They’re often overlooked by teachers as they seem okay. They are very controlling of their emotions and may even seem to be undisturbed by anything that others may find disturbing or to be uncaring and unbothered as their emotions are likely to be under-regulated. As adults, they may deny or not even remember childhood events or they may rationalise it and say it made them stronger and more independent. They often find it extremely difficult to be as close or intimate as their partner needs them to be. They find it hard to trust others or to depend on anyone other than themselves. They may have a tendency to dismiss the importance of relationships and replace relationships with work, alcohol or other drugs. They are likely to look after others, although they may be controlling and don’t tend to spend much time on self-reflection.
Concept: I can look after myself, better not to rely on others. I will make my own way in the world.
I’m not okay, you’re okay (believed to be about 10-15% of children)
The caregiver was inconsistent in meeting the child’s needs – sometimes available, responsive, loving, and perceptive, at other times, aloof, uncaring, distant, rescuing, or ‘smothering’. The caregiver may have intruded their own states of mind on the child or expected the child to be the parent in the relationship. Ambivalent/anxious children believe they are not worthy of being loved as they cannot draw and hold the attention of the caregiver. They felt there was no parent to turn to and may become fearful and angry at abandonment or being left. They are more likely to be disruptive at school and are likely to be the victims of bullying with teachers noticing them more and focusing on their vulnerabilities (Oh you poor thing, etc).
Ambivalent adults may find it difficult to leave their childhood behind. They may be easily flooded by memories and their feelings from childhood can often interfere with current relationships. They may also be still preoccupied by their old relationships. They find that others are reluctant to get as close as they would like. Their desire to merge completely with another person can sometimes frighten people away. They spend a lot of time worrying that their partner doesn’t really love them or won’t want to stay with them and are more likely to become co-dependent in relationships. They can be seen as self-absorbed, and may have an overwhelming fear of being abandoned. Being like this makes it harder to maintain relationships and when a relationship ends, it reinforces the belief that they’re not worthy of love. The thought of being alone is so scary for them that they may desperately try and find a new relationship when one ends. They may have over-regulated emotions and low self-confidence, and will often work below their ability level and feel scared about making decisions. They may appear to need endless support, advice and encouragement and may feel like they’re still a victim in life.
Concept: I need to be loved, why can’t I find someone who loves me as much as I love them? Everyone else is ok except me. I need someone to look after me.
I’m not okay, you’re not okay (believed to be about 5-10% of children)
The disorganised attachment style usually develops when children are scared of the caregiver and/or have suffered extreme trauma. Their memory of childhood can be distorted. Some parts may be missing completely, other memories may skip from scene to scene with no order whatsoever. There may be sounds and no visuals or visuals and no sound. It can be really hard for people in this category to separate what happened in the past and what is happening now as it may all be mixed up together. Because they themselves are so confused, when they try and talk about their traumatic experiences it often sounds unreasonable and strange to others. A combination of ambivalent and avoidant styles with beliefs and behaviours from both occurring, aperson with a disorganised attachment might be completely self-reliant one moment and then desperately need to be rescued the next. They can tend to question their sense of self and others and may feel they are not worthy of comfort or support. Neither do they feel others are trustworthy or available. They are more likely to have similar children. This category has the highest chance of continuation of intergenerational abuse and overly represented in prison populations (Fisher, 2011).
Concept: I can’t trust myself and I can’t trust you. I don’t know what to believe, the world is a confusing and dangerous place. I’m not safe.
Learn more about how understanding Attachment Theory can help with trauma recovery in the book:
Heal For Life, by Liz Mullinar AM, B.Th, M.Couns
How to Heal Yourself from the Pain of Childhood Trauma and Abuse
‘Heal For Life’ offers practical, neuroscience based strategies that support people to heal painful emotional triggers, and offers health professionals deeper insight into the needs of survivors who seek their help.
‘Described as “essential reading” by survivors and mental health professionals alike, Heal For Life offers a model to understand trauma, how it creates emotional triggers, how to ‘de-trigger’ and feel safe, and how to permanently overcome and heal childhood trauma.