Emotional attachment is the sense of emotional connection people feel toward others. Experiences during early childhood can shape a person’s emotional attachment type, influencing the relationships they form in adolescence and adulthood.
Psychologists coined the term “attachment theory” in the 1950s to describe the effect of early childhood interactions on personality and behavioral traits throughout life.
Specifically, attachment theory focuses on the early interactions between a child and their primary caregiver to define four attachment types.
This article outlines these types, possible signs of an unhealthy attachment, and information on how to seek help with an unhealthy attachment type.
In developmental psychology, the term “emotional attachment” refers to the relationship between a child and their parent or primary caregiver.
A 2021 article suggests that, during infancy, children use their primary caregiver as a secure base from which to safely explore their environment.
Emotional attachment develops whenever a child seeks safety and support from their caregiver during times of distress. How the caregiver responds to the infant’s distress shapes the infant’s emotional attachment type.
Children begin to develop emotional attachments to their caregivers at around
Organized and secure
Infants with an organized and secure (OS) attachment type are
The attachment is organized and secure because the infant knows the caregiver will respond to their needs.
Organized but insecure and avoidant
Infants with an organized but insecure and avoidant (OIA) attachment type are those whose caregivers react dismissively in response to their distress.
The child learns to avoid the caregiver because of the rejection they will receive.
Read more about avoidant attachment.
Organized, insecure, and resistant
Infants with an organized, insecure, and resistant (OIR) attachment type are those whose caregivers react inconsistently when responding to their infant’s distress.
The child learns to seek their caregiver’s attention, despite their caregiver’s tendency to provide unreliable and unexpected responses.
Disorganized and insecure
Infants with a disorganized and insecure (DI) attachment type are those whose caregivers practice unusual caregiving behaviors that may be fearful or abusive.
The attachment is disorganized and insecure because the caregivers perform these behaviors regardless of whether the infant shows signs of distress.
According to a
Conversely, disorganized attachment types are associated with behavioral and psychological issues.
Signs of an unhealthy emotional attachment
Children with disorganized attachment types
- increased sensitivity to stress
- difficulty controlling emotions
- increased tendency toward aggression
- low self-esteem
- increased risk of oppositional defiant disorder (ODD)
Adolescents with disorganized attachment types may have poor self-control and be at a higher risk of mental health conditions.
According to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP), children with emotional attachment issues can develop the following attachment disorders.
Reactive attachment disorder
Signs of RAD may include:
- difficulty seeking or accepting emotional or physical closeness from others
- difficulty forming emotional attachments to others
- a tendency to react aggressively when held, cuddled, or comforted
- decreased ability to experience positive emotions, such as love
- mood swings
- strong desire for control
- tendency to behave unpredictably
- disregard for discipline
Disinhibited social engagement disorder (DSED)
Disinhibited social engagement disorder (DSED) is an attachment disorder that may make it difficult for children to form emotional connections with others.
According to a
Signs of DSED in children may include:
- high levels of impulsivity and hyperactivity
- poor socialization skills
- lower than average motor skills
Emotional attachment types are shaped in early childhood but continue throughout adolescence and adulthood.
The article’s authors outline the following three adult attachment types and their potential impacts on relationships and physical health.
In times of stress, individuals with secure attachment types will typically turn to their partner for comfort and support. Based on their early childhood experiences, they may expect the other person to be available and responsive to their needs.
Individuals with an insecure-avoidant attachment type may be less likely to turn to their partner in times of need.
Their early childhood experiences may cause the expectation that their partner will be less available and responsive. Individuals with this attachment type may try to avoid distressing situations and retreat from others as a coping mechanism.
Individuals with an insecure-anxious attachment type may desire excessive closeness with their partner. Their early childhood experiences may cause them to worry that their partner will not provide the level of support they need.
Individuals with this attachment type may continually signal their distress and seek constant reassurance from their partner as a coping mechanism.
According to the
Grief is an expected reaction to the death of a loved one. However, complicated grief is especially intense or prolonged grief that significantly interferes with daily functioning and severely impacts mental or physical health.
Potential signs and symptoms of complicated grief include:
- constant preoccupation with the deceased
- intrusive memories of the loved one’s death
- excessive guilt
- suicidal ideation
If you know someone at immediate risk of self-harm, suicide, or hurting another person:
- Ask the tough question: “Are you considering suicide?”
- Listen to the person without judgment.
- Call 911 or the local emergency number, or text TALK to 741741 to communicate with a trained crisis counselor.
- Stay with the person until professional help arrives.
- Try to remove any weapons, medications, or other potentially harmful objects.
If you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide, a prevention hotline can help. The 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline is available 24 hours a day at 988. During a crisis, people who are hard of hearing can use their preferred relay service or dial 711 then 988.
Grief and secure attachment
An article from 2019 suggests that secure attachment types plays a significant role in preventing complicated grief in individuals who have lost loved ones to suicide.
The article’s authors suggest behaviors such as sharing personal experiences and seeking comfort from others may help to protect against complicated grief.
If someone feels that they are dealing with emotional attachment issues, they may consult a healthcare professional. Doctors may suggest speaking with a therapist, who can help a person identify the cause of their attachment issues.
A therapist may also provide strategies to help change an unhealthy attachment type or break an unhealthy attachment.
If a child shows signs of insecure attachment, a person can make an appointment with their child’s pediatrician. They may also consider requesting a referral to a child psychologist.
Emotional attachment types develop in early childhood when infants learn how a caregiver will respond to them in times of distress. A person’s attachment type can affect their ability to form healthy relationships.
People who believe they may have an unhealthy emotional attachment type may benefit from talk therapy.
A therapist can help a person identify the cause of their attachment issues and can provide tools to help them resolve these issues and improve their relationships.