The attachment theory

65 views 12 pages ~ 3215 words
Get a Custom Essay Writer Just For You!

Experts in this subject field are ready to write an original essay following your instructions to the dot!

Hire a Writer

According to attachment theory, humans have a universal desire to develop close relationships and depend on significant others, sometimes known as attachment figures. This relationship begins in infancy and lasts throughout an individual's life (Foroughe & Muller, 2012). Secure, avoidant, anxious-ambivalent, and chaotic attachments are the four types of attachments. Except for safe attachments, all others fall into the insecure category. It is well known that newborn babies frequently create rapid connections with their primary caregivers, who are commonly mothers, but can also be caregiver nurses, maids, fathers, or related adults. Because of this early connection between the baby and the caregiver, it is generally postulated that the quality of that relationship affects the child’s subsequent development and ability to form stable and long-lasting interpersonal contact. For that matter, attachment serves as a conduit into that latter life, as children undergo adolescence to become adults and even sire children of their own (Stalker, Gebotys, & Harper, 2005). Therefore, the quality of attachment at infancy often influences the child’s personality and ability to form healthy relationships and request for social support.

Abnormal attachments are often products of disruptive infancy or early adolescent life. Childhood trauma is one of the most implicated reasons for future abnormal attachments. This trauma can be caused by child abuse, emotional disturbances, and related occurrences that can potentially alter the child’s developmental trajectory into adulthood. Busuito, Huth-Bocks, and Puro (2014) argue that childhood abuse has significant negative outcomes on survivors, which often last till adulthood. This is because the abuse often takes place during the crucial stages of child development and, in most cases, is done by individuals closer to the victims. Childhood abuse often causes child maltreatment, which causes physiological hyperarousal, cognitive impairments, structural brain abnormalities, and psychopathology (MacDonald et al., 2008). Childhood trauma is not relegated to child abuse alone, but to other events that cause disruptive impacts on the child like parental/caregiver rejection, abandonment, parental conflicts, divorce or separation, and related events (Foroughe & Muller, 2012). Bearing that attachment is a behavioral system, childhood trauma alters systemic relational expectations, emotions and behavior, resulting in subsequent internalization and externalization behavior among those affected (Minzenberg, Poole, & Vinogradov, 2008). Therefore, the attachment responses following childhood trauma are expected to be abnormal, and include insecure, disorganized, avoidant and anxious-ambivalent types. This paper is a research report on the effects of childhood trauma on attachment.

Childhood Trauma and Attachment

Childhood Trauma

Childhood trauma emanates from events that disrupt the normal growth and developmental patterns in children. The trauma can be physical, sexual, or emotional (Busuito et al., 2014; Minzenberg et al., 2008; Riggs, Cusimano, & Benson, 2011; Venta, Kenkel-Mikelonis, & Sharp, 2012), and majorly emanates from child abuse, parental conflicts (domestic violence), and divorce or separation, neglect, or rejection (Foroughe & Muller, 2012). Child abuse potentiates the holistic outcomes of sexual, physical and emotional maltreatment, while other forms of trauma mainly mediate emotional abuse (Riggs et al., 2011). This premise means that emotional abuse can occur in isolation or in relation to child abuse. All in all, irrespective of the source of abuse, childhood trauma results in maltreatment shown to exacerbate poor outcomes among adults who have experienced it during infancy, adolescence, or early adult life.

Epidemiological data shows that childhood trauma is prevalent. MacDonald et al. (2008) has conducted a study reporting that about 60% of men and 50% of women have experienced at least one traumatic episode during their childhood or their further development. However, the prevalence for episodic childhood trauma alone is about 15-43% of the children. It has been shown that most of the traumatic events are caused by closer significant figures like parents and caregivers, especially for childhood abuse. Busuito et al. (2014) observes that 80% of physical and emotional abuses, and neglect are committed by parents or caregivers, and of all fatalities emanating from these abuses, 75% are meted by parents. Given that parents and primary caregivers are behind the incidences of childhood trauma, the events are expected to transcend the infancy or childhood to adulthood. Firstly, these events are committed by primary attachment figures that are expected to create a sense of security and direction to the victims, culminating into social betrayal. Besides, these events occur during crucial developmental stages in a child’s life, causing a disruption of the normal development trajectory that has far-reaching consequences into the adult life (Busuito et al., 2014). These two aspects make it easier for adults with previous childhood trauma to develop secondary attachment strategies, which are conceptualized a long a continuum of anxiety and avoidance (Foroughe & Muller, 2012). Eventually, trauma victims experience psychopathologies that become manifested as mental health disorders, thereby impeding secure attachments that such individuals could have enjoyed if the traumatic events could have been avoided.

Attachment Theory

Attachment theory is a developmental-systemic framework that attempts to explain relational expectations, emotions, and behavior among adults, vis-à-vis their childhood experiences with parents or primary caregivers (Busuito et al., 2014; Foroughe & Muller, 2012; MacDonald et al., 2008; Minzenberg et al., 2008; Riggs et al., 2011). According to Riggs, Paulson, Tunnell, Sahl, Atkison, and Ross (2007), attachment is basically a collection of mental representations of self and others, formed during early parenting relationships, and usually projected into the future to influence personality development, interpersonal relationships, and mental wellbeing in adulthood. This construct implies that adult behavior systems are rooted in the early childhood experiences with parents or caregivers, which will largely determine if the child will develop maladaptive behavior and social isolation or seclusions, positive and trustworthy contacts with others, or favorable behavior. Rooted in Bowlby’s and Ainsworth’s developmental psychology and philosophy, the model universalizes the human need for close bonds of affection and dependency with attachment figures (parents and primary caregivers), facilitating the individual’s capacity to think about and relate with others (Foroughe & Muller, 2012). As a result, humans obtain attachment behavior systems that enable them to connect with attachment others in the course of their interpersonal relationships. This capacity to form attachment relationships begins in infancy with the mother and transcends adolescence to adulthood (Foroughe & Muller, 2012; MacDonald et al., 2008; Riggs et al., 2007; Riggs et al., 2011).

There are several distinct attachment relationships as demonstrated by the attachment research. One of them is secure attachment. In this kind of relationship, parents or caregivers provide protection and comfort to their infants, as well as consistent care (Foroughe & Muller, 2012; MacDonald et al., 2008; Riggs et al., 2007; Riggs et al., 2011). On their part, the infants respond to this consistent protection, comfort, and care by seeking proximity and contact with their parents or caregivers in situations they deem uncertain or fearful. The ability of the caregiver to provide care and security that is consistent with the infant’s needs that child to learn self-regulation skills, which subsequently lead to the notion that the world is considerably a safe place and significant others, can be generally be trusted (Foroughe & Muller, 2012; MacDonald et al., 2008). As a result, the individuals form trustworthy relationships (romantic and others) (Busuito et al., 2014), develop emotional security (Riggs et al., 2011), and have a high predisposition for social support (Foroughe & Muller, 2012; Stalker et al., 2005). However, infant-caregiver relationships may not always articulate in the secure framework, but rather through patterned discourse violations. These violations create the other forms of attachment that are considered abnormal. These include anxious-ambivalent, disorganized, and avoidant attachments. In anxious-ambivalent attachment, individuals experience reactive negative affect while relating with attachment figures (Minzenberg et al., 2008; MacDonald et al., 2008), and this type of relationship occurs because of the fear of rejection and abandonment. Those with avoidant attachment tend to create interpersonal distance with attachment figures by developing emotional and behavioral strategies that elicit excessive self-reliance (Busuito et al., 2014; Foroughe & Muller, 2011; Minzenberg et al., 2008; Riggs et al., 2007). For those with disorganized attachment, the approach-avoidance strategy seems central in relating with attachment figures because the caregivers invoke both “a haven of safety and a source of fear”, leaving the children disoriented or disorganized (MacDonald et al., 2008; Minzenberg et al., 2008).

Although the attachment theory is often clinically invoked in the psychological explanation of childhood experiences with respect to adult relationships and mental health functioning, it has not been devoid of criticisms. The critics point out the narrowness of the theory in overemphasizing maladaptive and psychopathological behavior on caregiver relationships with the child or adolescent, while ignoring the effects of nature on the adult’s behavior systems (Riggs et al., 2007). Besides, it is generally acknowledged that the attachment model is a self-report of the point in time adult experiences with their parents or caregivers (Minzenberg et al., 2008; Riggs et al., 2007), and these reports cannot be fully objective and valid to explain causality between those experiences and adult insecure attachments per se. These shortcomings have exacerbated doubts over the credibility of the theory in explaining adult maladaptive behavior and psychopathology. Despite these constructs, a lot of researches on developmental psychology and adult behavior or mental health disturbances modeled using attachment theory have shown strong associations between disruptive childhood events and attachment insecurity. In essence, attachment theory has facilitated explanations on the effect of childhood trauma on insecure attachment as demonstrated by the research reports below.

Effects of Childhood Trauma on Attachment Styles

Childhood trauma has varied effects on children and adults. Research has demonstrated that adults with prior histories of child maltreatment eventually develop insecure attachments (Busuito et al., 2014; Foroughe & Muller, 2011; MacDonald et al., 2008; Minzenberg et al., 2008; Riggs et al., 2007; Riggs et al., 2011; Stalker et al., 2005). The insecure attachment styles are varied, with some reporting being fearful, and subsumed; others demonstrate approach-avoidance in their desire to establish attachment relationships with their attachment others. Stalker et al. (2005) reports that individuals with intrafamilial sexual abuse describe themselves as more fearful and preoccupied than those without similar histories. Similarly, Busuito et al. (2014) reports that female survivors of childhood abuse describe having difficulties forming trusting intimate relationships with men, while those already in such relationships experience less satisfaction than those women who have no prior history of child abuse. Furthermore, Busuito et al. (2014) articulates that the survivors of abuse usually avoid romantic relationships for fear of rejection compared to those who have never had such histories in their development. Besides, having a history of abuse and being a woman are related to higher incidences of violence against women in romantic relationships (Busuito et al., 2014). On their part, Riggs and colleagues (2011) reportedly show that emotional maltreatment in children engenders psychological disorganization, which leads to emotional, relational and cognitive disturbances later in life. Since the impact of childhood trauma on attachment insecurities are varied, researchers have attempted to isolate these variables in the subsequent sections of this report with support from attachment theory.

Anxious-Ambivalent Attachment

Individuals demonstrating this type of attachment usually exhibit anxiety in relation to past experiences and attachment relationships (Foroughe & Muller, 2011; MacDonald et al., 2008). In their study of childhood abuse and post-traumatic stress disorder, Busuito et al. (2014) found high levels of attachment-anxiety among the participants. The participants were low-income women and child abuse, and attachments were self-reported using the Childhood Trauma Questionnaire (CTQ) and the Close Relationships Questionnaire Revised (ECR-R) respectively. Similarly, a study by Minzenberg et al. (2008) on childhood sexual abuse and adult social attachment disturbance shows that attachment-anxiety is correlated with recall impairments associated with sexual abuse. Their methodological constructs were related to those of Busuito et al. (2014). Other studies incorporating gendered samples found variable anxious-ambivalent attachment. Riggs et al. (2011), in the study of childhood emotional abuse and attachment processes among dating couples, proved women revealed higher levels of childhood emotional abuse and subsequent attachment anxiety than men. Riggs et al. (2011), focused on gendered relationships, gives additional information on the gendered variations to anxiety attachment.

Disorganized Attachment

This form of attachment arises from the approach-avoidance adult behaviors on caregiver relationships. According to MacDonald et al. (2008), caregivers in this type of attachment invoke both “a haven of safety and a source of fear”, eliciting incompatible behavior system that the child is unable to organize adequately. In their study to correlate childhood posttraumatic symptoms with disorganized attachment, MacDonald et al. (2008) employed a longitudinal design. Their research included 78 8.5-year old children participating in an on-going prospective study. Using self-reported clinical measures, the researchers established that 21% of the children at 12 months were insecure-disorganized/insecure other. Additionally, both the disorganized and non-disorganized attachment status strongly predicted for higher avoidance post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) clinical outcomes. As a result, children with disorganized attachment have increased risk for dissociative behaviors following traumatic events than those never exposed to such circumstances.

Avoidance Attachment

Individuals exhibiting this form of attachment generally tend to evade physical contact with their caregivers, because they are aware that their bids for affection or contact may be ignored or rejected altogether (MacDonald et al., 2008; Minzenberg et al., 2008). According to Foroughe and Muller (2011), these individuals rarely discuss attachment-related experiences or even remember their childhood experiences because of the traumatic nature of those events. In their study of avoidant attachment and trauma in dyadic psychotherapy, Foroughe and Muller (2011) have shown that traumatic childhood events cause avoidant attachment, which is manifested by evasive physical contact and inabilities to adequately remember childhood events. The researcher utilized a dyadic parent-child psychotherapy case study. Both the mother and the son, in the case, exhibited distant and strange interpersonal contact at the beginning of the therapy session, but later began modestly interacting after acknowledging and discussing their childhood experiences. Other studies, which have utilized different methodologies, have established a strong causality between childhood traumatic events and avoidant attachment. Studies by Busuito et al. (2014) and Minzenberg et al. (2008) have utilized self-reported measures to show that child abuse and sexual abuse respectively among women participants associated with avoidant behavior. A study by Riggs et al. (2011) has employed similar methodology and measures with a variable study population. Riggs and colleagues used couples to demonstrate the gendered variances in avoidant attachment to depict women as highly vulnerable to avoidant attachment emanating from traumatic childhood events.

Effects on Romantic Relationships, Learned Helplessness, and Depression

Romantic Relationships

Normally, secure attachment has been shown to mediate emotional intimacy with limited anxiety, and enduring sense of trustworthiness and self-worth (Busuito et al., 2014; Foroughe & Muller, 2011; Riggs et al., 2007; Riggs et al., 2011). The stable interpersonal contact enjoyed by individuals secure attachments arise from their earlier infant-caregiver relationships, where such contacts were objective, consistent and balanced (Foroughe & Muller, 2011). As a result, secure adults often form stable romantic relationships, because these adults often experience low levels of attachment anxiety and avoidance, and have adaptive skills that reflect their internal working models of self and others (Riggs et al., 2011).

However, insecure attachment is often associated with maladaptive and psychopathology. In their study, Stalker et al. (2005) found out that insecure attachment was related with inability to attract and use social support. 13.4% of the females in the study indicated lack of attachment figure because of insecurities. Another study conducted by Riggs et al. (2007), involving inpatients admitted to a trauma treatment program, discovered that insecure attachment was related to fear or avoidance in seeking romantic relationships. Besides, a study by Venta et al. (2012), involving trauma symptoms and borderline personality disorder, has shown that insecure attachment impedes romantic relationships. Given that insecure attachment spans fearful, dismissive and preoccupied attachment types with fearful and preoccupied attachments being highly implicated in romantic relationships disturbances compared to the avoidant or dismissing attachment styles (Riggs et al., 2007; Stalker et al., 2005). Therefore, of the insecure attachments, the anxious-ambivalent type is the most adverse to romantic relationships.

Learned Helplessness

Individuals with secure attachments often can maneuver helpless situations because of their strong adaptive personalities and low anxiety and avoidant predisposition (Busuito et al., 2014; Riggs et al., 2011). As result, adults with secure attachment can easily get out of helpless situations, since their cognitive processes are well attuned to getting out of such circumstances. However, the opposite is true for insecure attachment, where individuals oscillate between a continuum of anxiety and avoidance (Busuito et al., 2014; Foroughe & Muller, 2011; MacDonald et al., 2008; Minzenberg et al., 2008; Riggs et al., 2011). For personals with insecure attachment, those with anxious-ambivalent attachment experience the least learning regarding helplessness, just like in romantic relationships (Stalker et al., 2005).


Depression is a consequence of stress and related maladaptive or psychopathological disturbances. Given that secure adults have a high perception of self-worth, and experience very low incidences of anxiety and avoidance traits, they are less easily predisposed to depression compared to adults with insecure attachments (Busuito et al., 2011; Riggs et al., 2011; Stalker et al., 2005). Those with insecure attachment experience various incidences of maladaptive behavior, owing to the internalization and externalization aspects of their childhood trauma and related psychopathologies (Busuito et al., 2014; MacDonald et al., 2008; Minzenberg et al., 2008; Riggs et al., 2007). Depressive symptoms emanate from post-traumatic stress events, borderline personality disorders, and mental disruptions that accompany insecure attachments. Individuals with insecure attachments also have varied predisposition to depression with those who have fearful and preoccupied attachments being easily predisposed to depression than avoidant or dismissing attachment styles.


Attachment theory is a developmental-systemic psychological framework used to explain the relational expectation, emotions, and behavior among adults relative to their childhood experiences. Its operational premises are grounded on the psychological and philosophical constructs of Bowlby and Ainsworth, although other psychologists have contributed to the current modifications. This theory posits that human beings have universal need of attachment, which transcends infancy to adulthood. The attachment is made possible by attachment figures, who dictate the child’s future personality behaviors and interpersonal relationships.

The attachments can be categorized into secure, anxious-ambivalent, avoidant and disorganized. Secure adulthood is realized from consistent care, security and collaboration with primary caregivers, while the insecure attachment, encompassing all other remaining categories, emanate from childhood maltreatment, often in form of traumatic events. Because of the potential for internalizing and externalizing behavior from encounters involving these traumatic episodes, the person is predisposed to maladaptive and psychopathological outcomes, which cause mental health disturbances like depression. Since the attachment theory provides frameworks for understanding child traumas and associated outcomes, future research should focus on effective ways of dealing with insecure attachments as mediators of mental health disturbances.


Busuito, A., Huth-Bocks, A., & Puro, E. (2014). Romantic Attachment as a Moderator of the Association between Childhood Abuse and Posttraumatic Stress Disorder Symptoms. Journal of Family Violence, 29, 567-577.

Foroughe, M.F., & Muller, R.T. (2011). Dismissing (Avoidant) Attachment and Trauma in Dyadic Parent-Child Psychotherapy. Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy, 4(2), 229-236.

MacDonald, H.Z., Beeghly, M., Grant-Knight, W., Augustyn, M., Woods, R.W., Cabral, H., Rose-Jacobs, R., Saxe, G.N., & Frank, D.A. (2008). Longitudinal association between infant disorganized attachment and childhood posttraumatic stress symptoms. Development and Psychopathology, 20, 493-508.

Minzenberg, M.J., Poole, J.H., & Vinogradov, S. (2008). A neurocognitive model of borderline personality disorder: Effects of childhood sexual abuse and relationship to adult social attachment disturbance. Development and Psychopathology, 20, 341-368.

Riggs, S.A., Cusimano, A.M., & Benson, K.M. (2011). Childhood Emotional Abuse and Attachment Processes in the Dyadic Adjustment of Dating Couples. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 58(1), 126-138.

Riggs, S.A., Paulson, A., Tunnell, E., Sahl, G., Atkison, H., & Ross, C.A. (2007). Attachment, personality, and psychopathology among adult inpatients: Self-reported romantic attachment style versus Adult Attachment Interview states of mind. Development and Psychopathology, 19, 263-291.

Stalker, C.A., Gebotys, R., & Harper, K. (2005). Insecure attachment as a predictor ofoutcome following inpatient trauma treatment for women survivors of childhood abuse. Bulletin of the Menninger Clinic, 69(2), 137-156.

Venta, A., Kenkel-Mikelonis, R., & Sharp, C. (2012). A preliminary study of the relationbetween trauma symptoms and emerging BPD in adolescent inpatients. Bulletin of the Menninger Clinic, 76(2), 130-146.

April 19, 2023

Psychology Education

Number of pages


Number of words




Writer #



Expertise Human Development
Verified writer

MichaelR is one of the best writers in my opinion who is not only skilled as a writer but a great explainer. He has helped me nail down my Psychology task. A great person I shall approach again!

Hire Writer

This sample could have been used by your fellow student... Get your own unique essay on any topic and submit it by the deadline.

Eliminate the stress of Research and Writing!

Hire one of our experts to create a completely original paper even in 3 hours!

Hire a Pro

Similar Categories