There’s been a lot of research in the field of Early Childhood Development regarding trauma and abuse. The effects of a traumatic childhood on future adult behavior and relationships have been well documented. Two contemporary psychologists, John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth have contributed much to our current understanding of this connection. Their research reveals how unmet childhood emotional needs can impact their future mental health and relationships.
John Bowlby’s research and that of psychologist Mary Ainsworth contribute to the current body of work known as “attachment theory.”
Why does it matter?
John Bowlby (1907–1990) was a British psychologist and psychoanalyst known for his “childhood attachments” theory. He performed extensive research on the concept of attachment and described it as a “lasting psychological connectedness between human beings” (Bowlby 1969). He theorized that childhood experiences directly influence adult development and behavior and concluded that individual attachment styles are established in early childhood wholly through infant/caregiver relationships.
According to Bowlby, the attachment phase takes place in the first three years of life. His research indicates that to develop a healthy sense of self, including a foundation for forming healthy adult relationships, we must feel safe in our key caregiver relationships. Traumatic experiences may negatively impact the child’s ability to form secure attachments in the future.
Here’s the thing: survivors of complex childhood trauma often have difficulty forming attachments to other people. This struggle creates a self-perpetuating cycle: an unfulfilled desire for connection leads to loneliness and isolation, which can lead to depression, risky, and self-destructive behaviors, which can lead to loneliness and isolation.
In 1970, Dr. Ainsworth expanded on Bowlby’s work in her paper “Attachment, Exploration, and Separation: Illustrated by The Behavior of One-Year-Olds in a Strange Situation.” In her research, she discovered three major attachment styles: secure, ambivalent-insecure, and avoidant-insecure attachment (Ainsworth and Bell 1970). They were expanding on that research in 1986 when Drs. Mary Main and Judith Solomon added a fourth attachment style called “disorganized-insecure attachment” (Main and Solomon 1986). Additional research supports their conclusions and the idea that early attachment styles can predict future behavior.
The Attachment Styles
The following is a description of the four attachment styles as per Drs. Ainsworth, Main, and Solomon:
A secure attachment style forms when a primary caregiver is mostly predictable, reliable, and trustworthy. If a parent or caregiver is a source of comfort, the child feels relaxed as they discover, learn, and play in their environment. As an adult, this person can develop meaningful connections with others and confidently deals with the inevitable disagreements.
An insecure ambivalent attachment style forms when a primary caregiver is unreliable, erratic, or unpredictable. There are times the child feels cared for, which are interspersed with times of being shouted at or rejected. These kinds of mixed messages often lead to the child feeling indecisive, hesitant, or doubtful. As an adult, this person may feel a sense of dependency combined with a fear of abandonment.
An insecure-avoidant attachment style forms when a primary caregiver is disengaged, distant, and unavailable. The child’s needs go unmet or are ignored, and they learn to take care of themselves, becoming self-reliant. As an adult, this person may have a dismissive attitude towards other’s emotional needs or lack the ability to experience intimacy with others.
A disorganized attachment style forms when a primary caregiver is chaotic and abusive. The caregiver is not a source of love and nurturing but of fear and trepidation. Kids still attach to an aggressive, cruel, or abusive parent because humans are born with a need for closeness. But we also have a strong need to escape danger. A child in this position will likely develop feelings of helplessness and hopelessness because they’re caught in the middle; they need and desire attachment and also need to escape danger. As an adult, this person will likely alternate between feeling fear or anger and defeat or depression.
It’s common to repeat the first relational patterns and attachment styles we learned as children. (Schwartz, A., 2019). Most of us have a “combination style” of attachment because we often have more than one parent or caretaker. Each of them treats us differently, and so we develop a combination of these four attachment styles.
Conscious awareness: Be aware and make conscious choices before acting. Self-awareness releases us from making impulsive and potentially damaging decisions. Learn about setting boundaries
Self-care: We can only choose to focus on and be responsible for ourselves, our own thoughts, actions, and behavior. The good news is that we can change ourselves with patience, persistence, and practice. We can take responsibility for getting our needs met, instead of waiting for someone to change or meet our needs for us. We are in control of ourselves and no one is responsible for us but us.
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About the Author
Drawing from her personal experiences of growing up in a dysfunctional household, Diane Metcalf has developed effective coping and healing strategies. With the assistance of professional therapists and mindful personal growth, she has honed her skills and now happily shares them with others who are interested in learning and growing.
As an experienced advocate, speaker, and writer, Diane is well-versed in topics such as narcissism, family dysfunction, abuse, and recognizing warning signs. Her extensive knowledge is drawn not only from her personal experiences, but also from her work in human service fields, including domestic violence, partner abuse, and court advocacy. She holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Psychology and a Master of Science in Information Technology.
Diane’s transformational books on healing and personal growth, such as the highly acclaimed “Lemon Moms” series, offer emotional support and guidance in understanding narcissistic traits and healing past wounds. Her approach emphasizes self-awareness, intention, self-care, and establishing healthy boundaries as essential components in the healing process.
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