Emotional attachment is the sense of emotional connection people feel toward others. Experiences during early childhood can shape a person’s emotional attachment type, making it secure or avoidant.

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.

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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 6 months of age, and their attachment type may influence how they develop emotionally and behaviorally.

Organized and secure

Infants with an organized and secure (OS) attachment type are those whose caregivers respond to their distress promptly, with appropriate love and care.

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 2022 review, having an organized and secure attachment type in infancy helps to protect against social and emotional issues in later childhood and adolescence.

Conversely, disorganized attachment types are associated with behavioral and psychological issues.

Signs of an unhealthy emotional attachment

Children with disorganized attachment types may experience the following:

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

Reactive attachment disorder (RAD) is a childhood disorder associated with social neglect and maltreatment in early childhood. This pattern of caregiver behavior is consistent with a disorganized and insecure attachment type.

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 2019 study, the disorder occurs due to caregiver neglect or a lack of opportunities to develop healthy attachments in early childhood.

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.

A 2019 article suggests individual attachment types can shape relationship behaviors, which in turn may affect stress levels and susceptibility to disease.

The article’s authors outline the following three adult attachment types and their potential impacts on relationships and physical health.

Secure

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.

Insecure-avoidant

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.

Insecure-anxious

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 National Cancer Institute (NCI), early attachment types may predict how individuals will react to loss. For example, they may indicate how likely a person is to develop complicated grief.

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:

Suicide prevention

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.

Find more links and local resources.

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Grief and secure attachment

The NCI cites older research from the 1980s, which suggests that individuals with secure attachment types are less likely to experience complicated grief than those with insecure attachment types.

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.