Attachment Models

The important connections with our parents or other caregivers are called ‘attachment relationships’.  We carry these selective few attachment relationships forward inside of us in what are called “models of attachment”.  Understanding what kinds of attachment models we constructed in our early childhood can greatly help us understand how our lives are unfolding now.

An attachment model is in effect, the way in which our brains remember the attachment relationships we have had, or still have, and how we have adapted to these formative attachment experiences.  The models we carry with us in our minds are very influential in terms of:

  • How we feel
  • How we think
  • How we behave
  • How we connect with friends and partners

However, it is important to remember that:

  • An ‘attachment model’ is a summary of how a young person has adapted to the relationships they have had with important people in their life.  It’s not a sign of some problem inside of them rather a reflection of a learned response to real-life events, to their actual relationship in their early days.
  • A person can have more than one attachment figure, including our parents but possibly also a selective few older, stronger and wiser individuals that we turn to for protection and comfort.  Consequently, we can also have more than one attachment model that can be activated by different people and influence how we behave and react in different situations.

There are two broad types of models, one secure and the other non-secure. 

Secure attachment models support us living with flexibility, self-understanding and ease of connection with others.  Non-secure models come in several forms and each of these in some ways challenges our ability to be flexible, understand ourselves and connect with others.

If we’ve had secure attachment in our early childhood, our relational experiences have supported the development of integration in the brain and resilience of our mind.  We then enter the early adolescent stages with a more secure model, a state of mind that is filled with many of the prefrontal functions that emerge with integration strong and well developed. 

Alternatively, when we have had insecure attachments, the development of our non-secure models reflects states of non-integrated brain functioning.  With a history of insecure attachment, our brains may not enter the adolescent period with the same baseline of integrative growth that a securely attached person has been able to develop in childhoods.

There are four broad ways, within the attachment model, that we become attached to our parents or others who care for us:

Category of attachment Parental Interactive Pattern
Secure Emotionally available, perceptive, responsive
Insecure-avoidant Emotionally unavailable, imperceptive, unresponsive & rejecting
Insecure-ambivalent Inconsistently available, perceptive, resposive and intrusive
Insecure-disorganised Frightening, frightened, disorientation, alarming

Secure Attachment Models

If you had a relationship with a parent/caregiver who in a somewhat consistent way provided you with a sense of being seen, feeling safe, and being soothed, you will have a model of secure attachment.  This sense of security has been shown to influence both neural connections in the brain that support behavior, resilience and relational well-being.  This secure model lets a child/young person balance their emotions, understand themselves well, and engage with others in mutually rewarding ways. 

A safe, loving caregiver, who acts in a sensitive and attuned manner and makes an effort to repair ruptures in the relationship, is modeling appropriate emotional regulation” (Fredrich, 2006).

What secure attachment looks like

A baby is hungry and starts to cry.  The caregiver hears it crying, stops what they are doing and goes to the baby to see what might be causing it distress.  The caregiver picks the baby up tenderly, looks into its eyes and says “What’s wrong darling?  Do you want to play?  I know, I bet you are hungry, is that it?”.  The caregiver then takes the baby to the kitchen and prepares a bottle while talking to it and reassuring it.  They then give the baby the bottle while cradling it in their arms.  The caregiver looks into the baby’s face who is satisfied by the milk and warm interaction. 

Secure attachment is created by parents/caregivers through:

  • Perceiving, understanding and responding to a child’s signals of distress and needs in a timely, effective and appropriate manner
  • Being consistent with these interactions, allowing a child to develop an internal sense of being known, respected and responded to. This gives the child a sense that they can impact their world with success, “if I communicate, the world will be able to provide me with a way to get my needs met”
  • Expressing and sharing their feelings appropriately and helping children put emotions into words by saying things like “you seem happy today” “are you feeling angry about that”
  • Helping children learn that not everyone feels the same way that they do i.e. learn to differentiate their own feelings from others
  • Helping children learn how to calm themselves down.  That is something they learn best from being soothed when they are upset

Secure attachment is as much about offering a safe harbor of support to turn to when a child is distressed or tired as it is about supporting how they go out and explore the world.  With a secure launching pad, security supports the development of a resilient mind.  A secure relationship is central to the development of a positive self, empathic and sensitive interaction, and adaptive and flexible emotional regulation skill.  As a child becomes a toddler, this sense of security in their attachment relationships in internalised in their brains as a “state of mind” that is secure.  Not only do they feel good about themselves, about connecting with others and feel that their needs will be met, they also feel they will be able to have connections with others.  This is the solid sense of self that emerges for those with secure attachment models.

This ‘secure attachment model’ can be a real blessing when going out into the world and experiencing all the changes that becoming an adolescent means. 

Insecure Attachment Models

If instead, a child does not consistently feel as though they are being seen, safe and soothed, they will not feel secure in their primary attachment relationships.  In these cases the proximity seeking, safe haven and secure base experiences will not occur optimally.  This will leave a child with an insecure attachment model that persist throughout their lives and is carried forward in internal processes, directly influencing how the child interacts with others in the future.   

Such insecure attachments come in several forms: avoidant, ambivalent and disorganised.

The Insecure - Avoidant Model

If a child has had a relationship with a parent or caregiver that was filled with repeated experiences of them not been seen or soothed – they usually form an insecure attachment relationships which is called “avoidant attachment”.  A caregiver in this situation has often grown up themselves without emotional connection or communication, and therefore have a lack of emotion in their communication with the child.  This makes it difficult for the child to make sense of what they are experiencing.  The child then adapts when the caregiver is repeatedly unavailable or rejecting of them, by avoiding closeness and emotional connection to the caregiver.

What insecure-avoidant attachment looks like

A baby is hungry and starts to cry.  The caregiver doesn’t notice at first.  When the baby’s crying becomes more insistent, the caregiver looks up from what they are doing but returns to finish the job before checking on the baby.  The caregiver is quite irritated by the interruption and when they get to the baby says “Hey, what’s all the fuss?”.  Thinking the baby might need their nappy changed, the caregiver changes it in silence and then puts the baby back in the playpen and returns to what they were doing.  The baby then continues to cry, so the caregiver decides the baby needs a nap so put it in the crib.  When the baby continues to cry, the caregiver gets the baby a blanket and dummy hoping that will calm it and closes the door.  The baby doesn’t clam down and now, 45 minutes since it started to communicate its need, the caregiver thinks “Maybe it’s hungry”.  The caregiver notices that it’s been over four hours since the baby has been fed so they get a bottle ready and fed the baby, who then settles. 

This child learns that caregiver doesn’t always read their signals well, often not paying attention to subtle cues of the child's communication and therefore it remains in distress for a while before it's needs are met. When this is repeated the child learns that their caregiver is not very available to meet their needs or connect/understand them – not soothed and not seen.

A child/young person who has an insecure-avoidant attachment model characteristically is:

  • Wary and distrustful of intimacy and close relationships, possibly sabotaging or completely avoiding close relationships
  • Fiercely self-reliant, can burn up friendships and does not like to be comforted by others. 
  • Unsure if they can rely on other people
  • Internally feels a sense of “I don’t need this person for anything, because I have learnt that they give me nothing when I need connection or comfort”
  • Feeling a sense of disconnection for others and also from their own emotions and needs

The Insecure-Ambivalent Model

If a child has had a relationship with a parent or caregiver that was filled with repeated experiences of them being seen, safe and soothed but in a very inconsistent way – they usually form an insecure attachment relationships which is called “ambivalent attachment”.

In this situation, the caregiver’s communication is experienced as inconsistent and at times intrusive by the child.  Consequently, the child will never know what to expect and does not feel as though they can depend upon the caregiver for attunement and connection – a safe harbor is not reliable.

What insecure-ambivalent attachment looks like

A baby is hungry and starts to cry.  The caregiver sometimes knows just what to do but other times they act quite anxious and doesn’t feel confident that they have the skills to soothe the baby’s crying.  The caregiver stops what they are doing and runs over to the baby, picks it up with a distressed look on their face.  The caregiver starts drifting off… how difficult things have been when their boss told them they weren’t satisfied with their performance. This bought back memories when their father used to doubt their abilities and humiliate them at the dinner table in front of others, and that their mother got anxious at these times but did not stand up for them. The caregiver thinks of promises they made to never treat their own children like this or make them cry. 

The caregiver holds the baby still crying in their arms and thinks “this must be one of those times when they are inconsolable”.  The caregivers worried face and tense arm does not provide a sense of comfort or security for the baby.  The baby also does not understand that this anxiety has nothing to do with their own hunger.  The caregiver soon figures out the baby is hungry and give them a bottle.  Whilst the caregiver take some pleasure in seeing the baby happy, they continue to worry that it will start crying again and they won’t work out how to comfort it.

This child soaks ups the feelings of the caregiver.  That is often anxiety and fear and whilst all the child was feeling was hungry they are now also feeling fearful and anxious.  They have an internal sense that “I’m not certain whether my caregiver will be able to meet my needs, at least in a reliable way.  Sometimes they can, sometimes they can’t.  Which will it be this time?” – that’s ambivalence.

These children/young people characteristically:

  • Develop sense of anxiety and uncertainty about whether they can depend on their caregivers
  • Have a feeling of insecurity within the attachment relationship which continues forward in the child’s interaction with the larger social world, leaving them often prone to being clingy, jealous or dependent on others
  • Ongoing uncertainty that others can’t be relied upon for connection.
  • Has very low self-esteem
  • Often may feel mystified when people want to be their friends
  • Often incapable of calming their fears or soothing themselves and can rely on others to help when they are upset
  • Start romantic relationships anxiously and worry about whether they are worthy of the person they are with
  • Feelings of panic and being abandoned where there is distance or conflict in relationship
  • Being in love is filled with anxiety but being without it is unbearable

The Insecure – Disorganised Model

When a child’s attachment needs are unmet and their parents/caregivers behavior is a source of disorientation or terror, they may develop a disorganised attachment.  Usually this type of attachment occurs alongside another model.  In these cases, a child has repeated experiences of communication in which their caregiver’s behavior is overwhelming, frightening and chaotic.  This may be from a caregiver being depressed or irritable and yelling at the child, yelling at another caregiver or siblings or simply they look terrified themselves and the child soaks this up.  However, when the caregiver is the source of alarm, terror and confusion, a child faces a problem of having two, quite opposing circuits in the brain being activated:

  • The brain stem circuit that mediates the survival reaction is activated and the child is directed to flee or freeze in reaction to being terrified. 
  • The limbic-based attachment system is also activated when the child is feeling terrified which tells them to go to their attachment figure to be protected and soothed.

The child is then stuck between the impulse to turn toward the very source of terror from which they are attempting to escape.  As such, their attachment system becomes very fragmented, disorganised and chaotic.  This type of attachment model is seen a lot in children who have been abused by their parents/caregivers.

What insecure-disorganised attachment looks like

A baby is hungry and starts to cry.  Most of the time the caregiver’s interaction is similar to one of the other patterns however in moments of intense distress the caregiver acts differently.  The caregiver feels very uneasy when the baby cries, so as soon as it starts to cry, the caregiver jumps up, goes directly to the child and picks it up abruptly to stop the annoying crying.  In this tense state the caregiver holds the baby a little too tightly and whilst the baby initially is relieved at the caregiver’s arrival, the tightness of their arms feels a bit more constraining than comforting so the baby cries louder.  It is now hungry and uncomfortable. The caregiver senses this increasing distress which only increases how tightly the baby is held.  The caregiver thinks the baby might be hungry and so takes the baby to the kitchen and prepares the bottle.  Just before the caregiver is to give the baby the bottle, it falls on the ground and spills.  Surprised by the sound, the baby cries louder.  Now irritated by the spill, the baby’s relentless crying and their inability to provide soothing, the caregiver is unable to cope.  They feel helpless.  Their thoughts begin to fragment and memories of their own history of being maltreated by their parents come flooding back.  This makes the caregivers body tenser and increases their heart rate.  The baby then is whimpering and staring off into space.  Hearing the baby’s cries, the caregiver relaxes realising they have been distant.  When they call the babies name, it turns back toward them with a vacant face.  After a few moments the baby becomes more present.  The caregiver then gets another bottle and sits down to feed the baby.   As the baby drinks, it stares at the caregivers face and then looks away to the floor.  The caregiver is still shaken by the experience and is only half present.  Neither can really make sense of what happened.  

A child/young person who has an insecure-disorganised attachment model characteristically:

  • Has difficulty tolerating and regulating emotions
  • Learns that intense emotions are disorganising
  • Has difficulties making sense of own internal and interpersonal world
  • Has trouble in social communication and relationships
  • Has difficulties with academic reasoning tasks
  • Tendency toward interpersonal violence
  • Predisposition to dissociation
  • Difficulties coping with stress
  • Has impaired neural integration due to abuse and disorganised experiences
  • Increased chance of risky behaviours such as substance use, self-injury
  • Fragmented sense of self
  • Interpersonal relationships may feel unreliable

Circle of Security

After many years of clinical practice, Hoffman, Cooper, and Powell, created the Circle of Security (200) as a way to help carers understand what all children need to develop a “secure” attachment style, and then to explore what dynamics come into play when children haven’t had these secure experiences consistently.

Circle of Security – parent attending to child’s needs.

Circle of Trust – how to help child when your own world is turned upside down

Circle of Repair - helping child to trust the relationship

The key concepts that are useful to explore in this model are:

  • The notion of the carer as the child’s secure base and safe haven
  • The child’s need to feel safe in order to explore
  • The child’s need to know that they will have someone there for them when they need support

When children have frightening parenting. They learn quickly that the parent (and by extension all people) cannot be relied upon for regulation, for physical comfort, for reassurance and unconditional acceptance/love.  They learn to rely instead on themselves, and to send messages to people that others should stay away, that they don’t need comfort and relational intimacy.

Check out Circle of Security for more information.

Further Resources