Our relationships with ourselves and others are highly dependent on the relationship we have first built with our parents or primary caregiver in the first few years of life. During these periods, infants and children develop healthy emotional regulation as the parents or primary caregivers exemplify, encourage, and validate emotional expression and communicate affect-based language and emotion-regulatory strategies to the infant and child.
The effectiveness of one’s emotional regulation is closely linked to the quality of the attachment styles with the parent or primary caregiver; the quality of the attachment also depends very much on the parent’s or primary caregiver’s attachment style.
Attachment styles outline how our bond with our parents or primary caregivers sets the foundation for how we navigate relationships throughout life.
The four types of attachment styles:
Insecure Ambivalent Attachment
Insecure Avoidant Attachment
Insecure Disorganised Attachment
Note that an individual could have more than 1 type of attachment style. Each of the insecure attachment styles predicts different difficulties in emotional regulation.
1. Secure Attachment
Securely attached infants and children are usually distressed only by the separation. But would return to excited and contented play once they receive comfort from their parent or primary caregivers as they return.
Parents and primary caregivers of securely attached infants and children tend to play more with them. Additionally, these parents react more quickly to their children’s needs and are generally more responsive to their children than the parents and caregivers of insecurely attached children.
Securely attached children are more empathetic. These children are also less disruptive and less aggressive.
🔎 Signs of secure attachment style:
Able to trust others
Comfortable being alone
Ability to manage conflict well
Effective communication skills
Able to regulate own emotions
Ability to seek emotional support
Comfortable in close relationships
Ability to be emotionally available
2. Insecure Ambivalent Attachment
Insecure ambivalent, attached infants and children often show signs of distress on separation and ignore their parents or caregiver upon reunion, especially on the second occasion when the stress is greater. They remained watchful of their parents or primary caregiver and inhibited in their play.
Ambivalent attachment styles (also known as “anxious attachments”) are associated with overly needy behaviour. These individuals are often anxious and uncertain, lacking self-esteem. They crave emotional intimacy but worry that others don’t want to be with them.
🔎 Signs of insecure ambivalent attachment style:
Highly sensitive to criticism (real or perceived)
Needing approval from others
Difficulty being alone
Feeling unworthy of love
Intense fear of rejection
Significant fear of abandonment
Difficulty trusting others
🔎 Cause of insecure ambivalent attachment style:
Parent or primary caregiver is inconsistent with their attention, behaviour and care.
The parent or primary caregiver alternated between being overly coddling and detached or indifferent.
The parent or primary caregiver made the infant or child responsible for their feelings.
3. Insecure Avoidant Attachment
Insecure avoidant attached infants and children are highly distressed by separation and cannot easily be pacified upon reunion. They seek contact but resist by kicking, turning away, squirming or batting away when offered toys. They continue to alternate between anger and clinging to their parents or primary caregiver, and their exploratory play is also inhibited.
🔎 Signs of insecure-avoidant attachment style:
Dismissive of others
Hard time trusting people
A strong sense of independence
Avoid emotional or physical intimacy
Uncomfortable expressing own emotions
🔎 Cause of insecure-avoidant attachment style:
Parents or primary caregivers left the child to fend for themselves
Parents or primary caregivers expected the child to be independent
Parents or primary caregivers reprimanded the child for depending on them.
Parents or primary caregivers have been slow to respond to your basic needs.
When you express your needs or emotions, you are rejected by parents or primary caregivers.
4. Insecure Disorganised Attachment
Insecure disorganised attachment infants and children show a diverse range of confusing behaviours, including ‘freezing’ or stereotyped movements, when reunited with their parents.
🔎 Signs of insecure disorganised attachment style:
Fear of rejection
High levels of anxiety
Difficulty trusting others
Inability to regulate emotions
Caused of insecure attachment style:
Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE)
The child's day-to-day basic needs aren’t met.
Child abuse (physical, sexual and emotional)
Impact of insecure attachment style:
Changes in the brain's chemical.
Increase chances of anxiety and depression.
Poor and unhealthy relationships with ourselves and others (spouse, children, co-workers, friends, etc.)
Increase chances of substance abuse (drug, alcohol, smoking, etc.) and unhealthy addiction (sex, drug, alcohol, smoking, compulsive spending, compulsive eating etc.) as a form of coping strategies.
Barone, L., & Carone, N. (2020). Childhood abuse and neglect experiences, hostile-helpless attachment, and reflective functioning in mentally ill filicidal mothers. Attachment & Human Development, 23(6), 771–794. https://doi.org/10.1080/14616734.2020.1738510
Holmes, J. (2006). John Bowlby and attachment theory. Routledge.
Tatnell, R., Hasking, P., Newman, L., Taffe, J., & Martin, G. (2016). Attachment, emotion regulation, childhood abuse and assault: Examining predictors of NSSI among adolescents. Archives of Suicide Research, 21(4), 610–620. https://doi.org/10.1080/13811118.2016.1246267