By: Elizabeth Clements
Attachment theory suggests that our strategies for coping with distress develop during infancy. As an infant we rely on our primary caregiver and the way we are attended to helps shape our social and emotional development. These attachment styles have been divided into four categories, secure, anxious, avoidant, and disorganized/atypical. Each attachment style is dependent on the care the infant received and if the caregiver provided a safe and secure environment for the child to grow and explore. Around six months of age, the child can begin to understand how their needs will be met. This response from the caregiver shapes the child’s early foundation of processing distress.
A secure attachment, categorized as organized, is developed when the caregiver provides loving and sensitive care. This child felt secure and anticipated their caregiver to be attentive to their cries and needs. The attentiveness of the caregiver also allowed the child to feel safe in their presence reinforcing the secure attachment. For example, a mother starts by holding her child at a park, the child looks around and wants to get down to explore. Once the child is on the ground and walks a few steps a dog begins to bark loudly. The child is frightened by the barking and runs back to the security of his mother. In this example the child knows his mother will protect him and ease his distress.
An insecure-avoidant attachment style develops when the child’s needs are met with annoyance, or outright ignored. This child learns that when they face distress, no one is coming to aid them. As these children grow up, they avoid expressing their needs because they have been rejected. This style is organized because, again, the child understands how the caregiver will respond. These children learn to hide their needs and have difficulty navigating emotional and behavioral reactions.
An insecure-resistant attachment style develops when the caregiver is inconsistent in meeting the child’s needs. The child learns that if they respond in a negative way the caregiver is more likely to assist them. For example, a baby lets out a few small cries and no one responds. The baby becomes more distressed and begins to cry extremely loudly, after a few minutes the caregiver responds by picking up the baby silently and giving him a bottle. The child has learned that over exaggerated prompts for care are the only way to get their needs met. As the child grows this leads to poor emotional regulation and reactions that are not consistent with the stimulus. An atypical attachment is disorganized and generally developed when the caregiver is suffering from unresolved trauma and unable to meet the needs of the child. This child does not develop a strategy for dealing with distress.
We learn at a very early age how to cope with stress and negative emotions. If you or someone you know needs assistance in developing healthy coping skills or emotional regulation, please reach out to Samaritan Counseling, Michigan City Indiana (219.879.3283), and connect with a professional.