Insecure Attachment

Attachment theory research tells us that infants will likely experience one of three types of insecure attachment if they do not get responsive, nurturing, consistent care in the early weeks and months of their lives.

While only the most poorly nurtured infants actually may develop attachment disorder (those who have lived in extremely neglectful environments), many others may still have attachment issues.

The first type of insecure attachment is called ambivalent attachment. This occurs when caregivers are inconsistent – sometimes answering infants’ needs quickly and responsively, and sometimes letting the infant ‘cry it out’. This may also occur if caregivers respond only to the physical needs – feeding, changing, etc, but ignore the infant’s need for human interaction and connection.

Looking at baby, touching, singing, talking about what we are doing, etc is very important for infants’ emotional development. Without this, babies do not ‘feel felt’, an expression coined by Dan Siegel in his book ‘Parenting From the Inside Out’. It can become very difficult for these babies to develop the qualities of compassion and empathy.

With insecure ambivalent attachment characterized by ‘only sometimes’ type of caregiving, babies learn that the world and their ability to have an impact on it is basically inconsistent – sometimes things happen, sometimes they don’t – sometimes all their needs are met, and sometimes only some of them are. Infants learn that others are not dependable or consistent. They often also do not learn or understand emotions – their own or others.

The second type of insecure attachment is called avoidant attachment, and occurs when caregivers are unresponsive to the infants needs – both physical and emotional. This is called neglect, and happens often in families where there is alcoholism and/or drug addiction, or in families who are just ignorant of what babies need. This happened in eastern European countries with babies in orphanages. These infants were kept contained in their cribs for the majority of each day, being taken out only to be fed or changed, and even those tasks were performed with little or no engagement with the infant.

In this environment, babies learn that they have no ability to impact their world, or to engage others. The world is indeed a cold and scary place in which no one really cares. In worst case scenarios these infants may become developmentally delayed, passive, may develop full-blown reactive attachment disorder. Human beings can actually die from lack of human contact, characterized by the worst-case scenario of avoidant insecure attachment.

The third type of insecure attachment occurs when there is domestic violence in the family, or physical or sexual abuse of the child. The human brain is hard-wired to seek comfort from primary caregivers when hurt or afraid, and another part of the brain is hardwired to run or fight (fight-flight) when danger is perceived. For infants with a caregiver who hurts them, or who creates chaos in their environment, a dual response is set up in the infants’ brain. This response looks like ‘I am hurt – I need comfort from you – you are the one who hurts me so I can’t go to you’. The infant has no way to make sense of this. This type of attachment is called disorganized, and is often characterized by a disassociative response, wherein infants have NO response, and in fact, are emotionally absent.

Whether infants have secure attachment or one of the types of insecure attachment, is pivotal to their growth and functioning in the world. It impacts whether they can form meaningful, connected relationships with other people, and affects how they see the world and their place in it, as they grow.