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Therapeutic Care

Understanding Different Attachment Styles in Children

When we talk about attachment in childcare, we’re often referring to the attachment bond between a child and their primary caregiver. Children develop various attachment bonds throughout their development, but none is as significant as the one they develop with their caregiver.
Understanding Attachment Styles

The type of attachment a child develops with their caregiver is called an attachment style. There are four basic types of attachment styles that are recognised. Attachment styles influence how children feel, behave, and perceive the world around them. If children develop a strong, positive attachment with their caregiver they feel safer, more stable, more confident, and generally better prepared to explore the world.

However, children who fail to develop strong bonds with their caregivers often feel insecurely attached. This can lead to a myriad of different attachment issues and behaviours that can be challenging. Unfortunately, this is often the case with children who come into foster care.

In this article, we’ll help you identify your child’s attachment style, giving you a greater understanding of their behaviour and how they navigate your relationship. Recognising your child’s predominant attachment style will also help you better support them, aiding in their development of a more secure attachment style.

What Is Attachment Theory?

Created by British psychologist John Bowlby and later developed by psychologist Mary Ainsworth, attachment theory focuses on the relationships and emotional bonds between individuals.

A key part of attachment theory looks at how the early bond between child and caregiver impacts child development. Attachment occurs naturally between child and caregiver, with attachment preferences to a particular caregiver developing as early as 7-11 months of age in infants.

Attachment bonds lay the foundation for how children navigate relationships and the world around them. Attachment theory suggests that the quality of the bond between a child and their caregiver influences child development, determining how well they cope with the demands and stressors of later life.

What Are Attachment Styles?

Many parents or carers ask ‘what is my child’s attachment style’ along with how they can help children to feel more secure.

There are four basic patterns of attachment or attachment styles. These a generally recognised as Secure, Anxious, Avoidant and Disorganised.

Attachment styles are influenced by the quality of the bond that children develop with their caregivers during infancy and early childhood. Each of the 4 attachment styles come with unique behavioural characteristics that distinguish one from another.

The most common attachment style is Secure. However, looked after children – such as children in foster care – tend to display characteristics of an insecure attachment style. This is because many children who are looked after have experienced trauma, such as abuse or neglect and, as a result, may have a variety of attachment issues.

Secure attachment

A secure attachment refers to a bond that meets the child’s need for security, stability, and care.

Children who are securely attached are generally trusting, happy and able to build and maintain healthy relationships with the people around them. They are well attached to their caregiver and enjoy their company. They likely display distress when separated from their caregiver but are generally confident that they will return.

Secure attachment bonds allow for optimal mental development in children, helping them to learn self-regulation, trust, and self-confidence as they grow. Children with a secure attachment have learned they can trust other people to take care of them, as their caregiver has consistently met their needs throughout their childhood. As a result, these children have a positive view of themselves and of others around them and will generally remember their childhoods in a positive light.

As they mature, these children will typically demonstrate a healthy sense of self-awareness, be better at regulating their emotions, have greater independence, have better communication skills, be better at problem-solving and generally be able to maintain stronger relationships throughout their life.

Avoidant attachment

In comparison to securely attached children, children who have developed an avoidant attachment style are often emotionally distant and tend to avoid interaction with their caregiver, showing little to no stress when separated from them.

This often occurs if their caregiver has demonstrated similar emotional distance or intolerance to emotional expression throughout the child’s formative years. It may also occur due to abuse, neglect, caregiver absence or the lack of one consistent caregiver. Regardless, children whose needs are consistently unmet, or who are punished for relying on a caregiver, learn to avoid relying on others in the future.

As a result, children who have an avoidant attachment typically show no preference between their primary caregiver and a stranger. They may prefer playing with objects rather than other children, and may not enjoy physical contact with others, such as hugs. They also show greater independence and do not like to ask for help.

As these children develop and mature, they may appear to show greater independence and self-sufficiency than others but find it hard to tolerate emotional or physical intimacy with others. They may struggle to develop healthy, meaningful relationships with others and can be quite solitary in nature.

Anxious attachment

Most often, children with an ambivalent or anxious attachment display higher levels of insecurity and anxiety and may be more “needy” than other children.

Inconsistent caregiving is the most common cause of ambivalent attachments. This refers to caregivers who are preoccupied, neglectful, distracted or fail to frequently and consistently meet their child’s needs. Subsequently, the child feels unsure or uncertain about their caregiver due to these mixed signals.

Children with ambivalent attachments typically suffer from low-self esteem and may appear clingy, fearing abandonment. They may frequently seek the attention of their caregiver and become distressed when their caregiver leaves, as they have learned they cannot trust they will return.

In adult life, people with anxious attachments may continue to suffer from low esteem and feel insecure or anxious about their own worth in their intrapersonal relationships. Generally speaking, adults with ambivalent attachments require greater levels of reassurance that they are safe, loved and worthy.

Disorganised attachment

Combining both traits of avoidant and anxious attachment, the disorganised attachment style is often characterised by behaviour that is frequently contradictory.

Often, children develop disorganised attachment styles as a result of a frightening or unpredictable bond with their caregiver. The child therefore loves and cares for them as their caregiver, but simultaneously fears them. Disorganised attachment is also often seen in individuals who have been physically, verbally or sexually abused in their childhood. These children are distressed when their caregiver leaves and returns, as the caregiver represents both a source of comfort and fear at the same time.

Children with disorganised attachment styles might display a confusing mixture of behaviour, seeming to always be on edge, confused or disorientated. They may constantly crave the attention of their caregiver whilst also resisting or avoiding them. Children with disorganised attachment styles also have a hard time managing and regulating their own emotions, which can make maintaining relationships difficult.

As they mature, children with disorganised attachment styles may find it more difficult to feel at home within relationships, finding it hard to trust others. They may also continue to display inconsistent behaviour patterns, which affect all areas of life, including education and work.

Can attachment styles change?

While somewhat challenging, it is possible to change an individual’s, and children’s attachment styles from insecure to secure over time.

Cultivating a more secure attachment style can take time and effort. However, building and maintaining healthy, stable relationships (particularly with people who have a secure attachment style themselves) can go a long way in helping children to shift toward a more secure attachment style.

Therapeutic parenting approaches are useful for rebuilding trust in children who suffer from insecure attachment styles. Therapeutic principles like PACE provide a framework for supporting children who have experienced trauma or inconsistency throughout their development.

For foster children, therapeutic fostering provides them with the opportunity to regain trust. Fostering can help children transition from a dysregulated state into a regulated one, with the relationship between foster carer and foster child forming a new blueprint for healthy, secure attachment.

Read more on how to deal with attachment issues in children here.

Identifying your child’s attachment style is important for all parents and caregivers. In many instances, understanding their attachment style is an important first step in helping them to manage their behaviour and transition toward a more secure attachment.

At Compass, our children benefit from therapeutic support that is tailored to their individual circumstances. We deliver this with the help of our brilliant foster carers, all who receive high-quality training and support from our expert team of professionals.

Our training equips our foster carers with the skills and knowledge necessary to really make a difference to our children’s lives, helping them to achieve the best outcomes possible despite their tougher start in life.

If you think you could make a difference to the life of a child by becoming a foster carer, you can get in touch with us here.

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At Compass, we will always provide you with the support you require.