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  • Jessica Abegglen, LPC, NBCC

Attachment Theory: Why You NEED to Know About Attachment (As a Parent or Not!) [Part 2 of 3]

Back for round 2.

Quick overview of part 1... Bowlby and Ainsworth (the founders of Attachment Theory) determined that children will develop an internal working model (i.e. beliefs about themselves) in response to the type of care-giving and level of responsiveness they received from care-givers. A child's attachment style is shaped by their IWM. There are 4 attachment styles: Secure, Insecure-Resistant/Ambivalent, Insecure-Avoidant, and Disorganized. We will go over the fourth, disorganized, in part 3.

(Click here to read to whole post. I suggest doing so before reading on...)

So, as promised, in today's post we will delve into why attachment styles (and attachment theory) isn't just for understanding child development. In fact, it's essential for anyone, at any age, in any type of relationship, to understand their own attachment style. Get it yet? ITS IMPORTANT! EVEN AS AN ADULT!

Okay, moving on... In the 80's, researchers began exploring the parallels between infant and caregiver attachment and adult to adult relationships. And there are many parallels:

In both types of relationship (assuming it's secure) you feel safe when the other is nearby and responsive, you engage in close, intimate, bodily contact with each other, you feel insecure/worried/nervous when the other is inaccessible, you share parts of your world/discoveries with the other, and you are fascinated, and often preoccupied, with the other.

(Obviously there are an infinite number of ways in which these two relationships are VASTLY different... but that goes without saying... I hope. For the sake of argument, let's agree, there as some striking similarities.)

Acknowledging these parallels, researchers began exploring the way adults conceptualize their current adult to adult relationships and compared that to the reported attachment style they had to their parents/caregivers as a child. Well, it didn't take researchers too long to realize that the attachment style we develop as a child is often comparable to the relationships we have as an adult, and in fact, can be somewhat predictive of the types of attachments we form later in life. Okay, but how?

In part one, we talked briefly about a child's "internal working model" (IWM) and how the messages we receive from our caregivers (their ability to meet our needs, offer warmth and engagement, reciprocate affection, etc.) can shape the internal beliefs we create about ourselves and, therefore, dictate how we respond to others.

Here's an example of how this works: A toddler falls down and scrapes her knee. She cries and may be feeling scared, in pain, confused, etc...Parent sees toddler and rushes over to check her safety and the degree to which she is hurt. Parent soothes the child by holding her close, validates her feelings of being scared and hurt, sees to the wound and addresses any future safety concerns. Toddler feels comforted and safe, feels taken care of both physically and emotionally, and learns that her pain, her fear - her emotions - are valid and that her over all well being is important to her caregiver. She begins to learn that this caregivers can be trusted and will be responsive to her needs and therefore she will seek out the caregiver when needed, and retreat to her when feelings scared, because she trusts that the caregiver can and will take care of her.

This is a lovely internal working model. But not all of them are. And for most of us, our IWM's were constructed by a little of this kind of example, and a little of the opposite of this kind of example.

We don't outgrow these IWM's of self. We carry them with us through our adults lives and they play out in the relationships that we form with other adults. Our IMW shapes our interpretations of others' behaviors and therefore shapes how we respond to them and what we expect from them. It's why the characteristics of our adult attachment styles closely resemble the characteristics of our infant/caregiver attachments.

Here are the four types of adult attachment styles (which you will notice, resemble child attachment


  • Secure: Not worried about being abandoned because they are confident in their partner's ability to meet their needs and are comfortable with intimacy.

  • Insecure - Avoidant: Prefers independence and not being intimate with others. Not concerned with being abandoned because prefers to be alone.

  • Insecure - Anxious: Prefers to be close, often to a degree that others do not. Worried about being abandoned.

  • Disorganized: Worried about being left and uncomfortable with being close.

(check out the video to see/hear more about adult attachment styles)

Your internal working model is a beast to reprogram -- but it can be reprogrammed. You aren't destined to feeling insecure in all of your relationships for the rest of your life.

Working with a knowledgeable therapist who can support you in exploring your past experiences and how your attachment style plays out in your current relationships is a good first step. For some, you may need to reprocess any potential attachment trauma, (which we will talk about in part 3) and work on learning new interpersonal skills to use in your relationship with others.

So, there you have it. The attachments we have as kids prompt us to have similar attachment styles as an adult.

In Part 3, I'll introduce you to a concept called "attachment trauma," sometimes known as "developmental trauma," and the profound impact attachment trauma can have on our mental health and well-being. [Click here to read about what "trauma" means.]

Stay tuned!


P.S. Have you endured some kind of trauma, attachment or otherwise? EMDR is one evidence-based treatment for trauma offered by select providers with Abegglen Counseling. Click here or here to read more about EMDR.

Part of the information from today's post came from Dr. Chris Fraley, Psychology Professor and Researcher at the University of IL - Champagne.


If you are interested in scheduling an appointment with Jess, you can reach her via email:

or call our intake line: 608-709-6972

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[This article does not create a client-counselor relationship. This article is general counseling information and is not to be considered legal or medical advice. Please consult with your mental health professional before you rely on this information.]

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