Attachment Continuum

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Attachment Disorders range in severity. In fact, the attachment continuum runs from securely attached through degrees of attachment issues all the way to those who suffer from severe attachment disorder.

It is important to understand this as some children suffer from mild, moderate or severe attachment issues and some from mild, moderate, or severe attachment disorders. Many adults also suffer from impaired attachments but they are not necessarily attachment disordered.

A child who does not receive proper intervention of a severe attachment disorder often ends up with a diagnosis on the lines of Borderline Personality Disorder, Anti Social Personality, etc. These are very serious illnesses.

So we need to understand that we all fall somewhere on the continuum – most of us fall between the secure attachment and weakened attachment states.

Adoptees are not the only individuals that can suffer from attachment issues. Adults who did not get their emotional and physical needs met in the first few years as well as families who have biological children who, for whatever reason, did not have a strong connection with their primary caregiver. Some of the causes of attachment problems are very subtle and often go unrecognized.

Attachment Types Definition

Secure Attachment - Child rests comfortably in mother's arms and makes good eye contact with child. Eye contact between mother and child is reciprocal and both of them feel at one. When mother leaves the child and separation occurs, the child feels distress. When mother returns, the child is delighted to see the mother and the mother is delighted to see the child. The child will quickly settle into mother's arms and refuel. The child will be ready for a nap or will be ready to venture into the world until he tires and is ready to refuel again. This process will be repeated thousands of times until object constancy is attained.

Anxious Avoidant - Characterized by anxiety and fright within the child because he does not feel safe when he attempts a secure attachment with mom. Mom may well be anxiously avoidantly attached herself and doesn't trust physical closeness. The child is aware of her discomfort and tends to keep the mother at a distance, thereby preventing the child from being injured should he attempt to attach and be rejected. He, however, does not allow the mother to get too far away lest his abandonment anxiety become too great and he should panic. This attachment style keeps the child in tension all of the time but prevents him from having an acute anxiety attack should too much separation occur or narcissistic injury should he be rejected.

Anxious Resistant - These children are insufferable and cry constantly because their mothers drive them crazy. Their mothers miss many cues as to the needs of their child and consequently, the children are constantly frustrated. Frequently these mothers are alternatively abandoning or intrusive. They may need to control their children for their own narcissistic gratification by intruding on them when the child does not want to be intruded upon. Or they alternatively ignore the child when he has a legitimate need to be met. These children are very angry, anxious and depressed. They frequently become personality disordered, borderline or narcissistically disordered delinquents.

Disorganized - This is the worst of all possible worlds, for these children usually combine an anxious resistant attachment with post-traumatic stress disorder resulting from child abuse. These children present as chaotic and their attachment style with their parents is frequently chaotic. Treatment of them is difficult because you are not only treating the traumatized attachment but also the trauma of abuse. They are frequently in a state of chronic hyperarousal and the effects on the limbic system in terms of hippocampal atrophy are dramatic. They do not have the ability to soothe themselves and do not trust soothing by others.

John A. Dicke PSY.D. J.D.
Licensed Clinical and Forensic Psychologist
950 S. Cherry St. #1116
Denver, CO 80246
(303) 782-9173
Child and Adolescents Psychotherapy Institute

The attachment styles that develop in childhood stay with us for a lifetime. They influence our feelings of security, the personal meaning given to our experiences, and the ability to develop and maintain closeness with others. We all have perceptions and behaviors across the continuum of attachment styles; however, we tend to adopt one primary style.

Secure Adults
Securely attached adults were raised in a consistent, reliable, and caring way. They learned early that the world is a safe and accessible place and others are viewed as dependable and supportive. They also learned that they are worthy of love and support. They are compassionate and responsive to others. They are flexible thinkers and able to explore options and ask for advice. They are accepting of differences and trusting in love.

Attachment injuries can occur when needs for comfort, closeness and security are not adequately met. The following attachment styles are influenced by varying degrees of attachment traumas.

Avoidant Adults
Avoidants experienced caregivers as unnurturing, dismissive and critical. Avoidant adults are uncomfortable with closeness and intimacy. They are emotionally distant, uncomfortable expressing needs or asking for help. Often they do not recall much of their childhood experiences. They are good in a crisis because of their ability to react with intellect and set feelings aside. They can be cool, controlled, ambitious and successful. They avoid conflict and tend to be passive-aggressive and sarcastic. They don't want to rely on anyone, fearing dependency or a perception of being weak.

Ambivalent Adults
Ambivalents had parents who alternated between warmth and availability and coldness and rejection for no apparent reason. Ambivalent adults are bossy and controlling and do not like rules and authority. They are impatient, critical and argumentative. They like to "stir the pot" and often sabotage getting what they want. They also can be creative, exciting, adventuresome, and charming.

Disorganized Adults
As children they had histories of abuse, neglect, or severe loss. Their parents were unresponsive, inconsistent, punitive and insensitive. They learned to view others as unavailable, threatening and rejecting. They are afraid of genuine closeness and see themselves as unworthy of love and support. Disorganized adults show many antisocial behaviors such as lack of empathy and remorse. They are selfish, controlling, refuse personal responsibility for their actions, and disregard rules. Their experience of severe attachment trauma makes them much more vulnerable to a variety of emotional, social and moral problems. They are at high risk for alcohol and drug abuse, abusing their own children and other forms of criminality.

Credits: Used with permission from:
Attachment Treatment and Training Institute, PLLC
32065 Castle Court, Suite 325
Evergreen, CO 80439
Phone: (303) 674-4029
Fax: (303) 674-4078

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