A Primer on Attachment Theory & Neurodivergent Brains
Updated: Apr 19, 2022
TW: Family dynamics, parental safety, dysfunctional families
Editor's Note: Large portions of this text are from Anna Lopez (she/her)'s talk on Attachment Theory in the Collaborative. For the sake of readability, I did not quote her directly throughout.
Attachment Theory is a framework, not a diagnostic tool. It gives us language to explain some of our relational patterns and reactions when we're afraid. Use what is helpful, ditch the rest.
What is Attachment Theory?
Attachment Theory is based on research done by John Bowlby, a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst. In observing orphans, Bowlby noted the lack of thriving even with suitable living conditions.
From birth to around 18-months to two years old, children need to feel safe through physical closeness and emotional closeness to a primary caregiver. When the attachment is disrupted in early childhood, it creates survival techniques in the brain that are carried throughout our lives.
All caregivers are initially seen as a secure base for the child to come back to feel safe, secure, and to co-regulate emotions.
Attachment is one specific and circumscribed aspect of the relationship between a child and caregiver that is involved with making the child safe, secure, and protected (4). The purpose of attachment is not to play with or entertain the child (this would be the role of the parent as a playmate), feed the child (this would be the role of the parent as a caregiver), set limits for the child (this would be the role of the parent as a disciplinarian) or teach the child new skills (this would be the role of the parent as a teacher).
Attachment is where the child uses the primary caregiver as a secure base from which to explore and, when necessary, as a haven of safety and a source of comfort. - Diane Benoit
What are the Attachment Styles?
Attachment styles are how an individual learns to find safety and security based on their early attachment to a primary caregiver. There are thought to be two types of attachment: secure and insecure. The insecure category is further broken down into three sub-types. Here's a short online survey to help identify your styles and a handy reference guide.
The four main attachment styles are: secure, avoidant, ambivalent, and disorganized.
When the child seeks comfort and the caregiver attunes (acknowledges and validates) them, a secure attachment is formed. If that attuning is disrupted, an insecure attachment style emerges.
A baby with secure attachment has a caregiver who responds when they cry. They expect their needs to be met and a consistent percent of the time the caregiver is successful. This results in an adult with a secure attachment style generally sees people as good, knows what they need, and expresses their needs. They value their partner and try to meet their needs, too.
IMPORTANT NOTE: The research shows that attuning to a child 30% of the time is enough to form a secure attachment.
A person with avoidant/dismissive attachment is independent, self-reliant, and may not be very in touch with their emotions or needs. In early childhood, their primary caregiver consistently doesn't meet their needs. Their cries are more often ignored, or maybe the caregiver doesn't know what the child needs and gives the wrong thing. It's the consistency of not meeting the needs.
The brain beautifully adjusts and helps us survive. The fact that we can survive, even if by less than ideal ways, is amazing. If the child's needs are not met, the brain goes into survival mode. The child stops asking for things. They become self-reliant, because they know they can't rely on caregivers to meet or understand their needs.
Anxious attachment style, also called ambivalent, happens when a caregiver sometimes meets the child's needs, but other times they don't. The child will cry out more because they don't know if they'll be answered. In some sense, they're protesting and asking for help with no idea if they're going to get it or not.
These anxious attachment folks are often seen as highly needy, hypervigilant about ruptures in relationships from the tiniest things they can misread communication with their loved ones they can misread body language, feel like they're not good enough, can be more codependent, relying on others. It can feel to the other person like being smothered or that they can never really do enough to make the anxious partner feel seen or secure.
Disorganized attachment is equal parts fearful/anxious and avoidant because the caregivers are scary and unpredictable. While a very small part of the population is predominantly disorganized, it's found in higher percentages in marginalized and underserved communities. Disorganized attachment is high in places where people live in survival mode, because they're homeless or low income, have generational trauma, experience more hardship.
In this scenario, the child is fearful and doesn't know what to expect from the caregiver(s). Sometimes the caregiver themselves can act scared, and sometimes they can be scary. The child doesn't know what they're going to get and so it's confusing to see what's going on in their caregiver. It's likely also confusing for the caregiver to be acting all over the place, but they don't know how to express their internal chaos.
What does your attachment style mean?
Our attachment style is somewhat fluid and it can change with healing/corrective measures. Each person has elements of more than one attachment style.
All of the attachment styles are under the umbrella of how we handle fear.
Fear of not being in control of situations or that something bad will happen to you or your loved ones
Fear you're just not as worthy as other people
Fear of being seen as weak or out of control
Attachment styles affect all sorts of relationships in our private and public lives. We can see evidence of them in how we interact with others at work or in romantic relationships, how we play or what hobbies we're drawn to, how we interact in team / collective environments like sports or spiritual communities, how we interact with a higher power, politics, aging, and on and on.
In interpersonal relationships, one of the hardest dynamics is when one person is anxious and one person is avoidant. The challenge stems from the anxious person pursuing conflict or resolution and the avoidant person withdrawing.
The more the person tries to move toward the other, the more the avoidant person will retreat. Another name for it is the pursuer-withdrawer, which comes from Sue Johnson who developed Emotionally Focused couples therapy.
How do attachment and the neurodivergent brain interplay?
The unique challenges of the neurodivergent brain present in ways that can be misinterpreted as attachment styles. Additionally, attachment styles can influence the intensity of some challenges related to functioning in a capitalist society.
For example, Jessa has a predominately anxious/ambivalent attachment style in relationships, which is based on a fear of abandonment causing them to misread cues negatively. When Jessa's partner, Morgan, asks them to put away the laundry, Jessa might feel a sting of judgment and give up meeting their own needs to make sure the laundry is always put away. Later Jessa is resentful of not meeting their need for rest and snaps at Morgan for being so demanding and judgmental.
Jessa is masking a fear of being unacceptable and ultimately left. If Morgan assumes Jessa's behavior is because their ADHD contributes to a lot of clutter and disorganization, they might be missing an important opportunity for healing their relationship.
Everyone (ADHD or not) needs to be seen and heard. When we are safe to explore the emotion behind our actions it fosters a more compassionate connection through empathy for the other.
When other people's behavior is a trigger for the conflict cycle, nobody is heard. In those moments, it's less about the person in front of you and more about your past attachments that were not optimal.
Acknowledging that this other person is not your caregiver and staying present in the moment can help everyone move toward a more secure relationship.
For neurodivergent folks, most of us have one or both parents with our brain type. They also spent all their lives trying to fit into a mold, and often want their children to be someone they're not. You may reflect and realize they didn't pay attention to you or they were constantly overworking to keep up with their peers so you never saw them. Unidentified neurodivergent ways of being can affect how we perceive relationships in the world.
We also experience a lot of mental and emotional overwhelm that we can't easily turn off.
We may look like we're anxiously attached, but it might be because we are overwhelmed. It can cause others to perceive us as too needy and move away from us when what we need is that secure attachment and nearness.
Our anxiousness is happening in our brain and it's not something we can just halt. We have less ability to control our negative feedback loops, so we need the security of regulating with other people.
We need someone else to be a secure base for us to move back towards to ground us so we can move back out into the world. A lot of people who don't understand us are not successfully doing that for us.
Masking becomes a survival skill. If you're inattentive, you can look avoidant. People can get upset when we're lost in thought (or our phone) if we struggle to transition back "into" the room. It could be mistakenly interpreted as avoidant.
You are not a hopeless robot.
Your attachment styles can change and you can learn to attach more securely. This framework supports growth and healing.
Anything you do to take care of yourself is supporting your mental health and growth. This is the work and you're doing it, friends.
What is your predominant attachment style?
What fear themes influence your moments of insecure attachment?
What can you do to start moving toward secure attachment?
How does your attachment style shift based on who you're around?