Attachment Styles and How You Can Change Yours as an Adult |

Attachment Styles and How You Can Change Yours as an Adult

Can you think back to some of your earliest memories of your mother or father when you were between 4 to 10 years old? Do you remember feeling safe and happy with them? Or perhaps a little distant, trying to grab their attention all the time? Or maybe even scared of them? It is important to know this because how you were treated by your parents or other primary caregivers in the first few years of your life greatly impacts how you treat your spouses, children, family members, close friends, and colleagues. The way you were attached to your parents reflects a lot on your current personality. 

There are four of these types of attachment styles among humans. They manifest during the early years of their lives with their parents or caregivers. Once established, the pattern of behaviour - whether negative or largely positive - remains the same for the rest of their lives; unless you wish to deliberately change it. If you have a generally negative set of behaviours that do not let people get close to you, then know that it is possible to change your attachment style through self awareness and learning how you can resolve your maladaptive behaviours. Usually, people would want to change their attachment style if it is causing problems in their current adult relationships such as with their spouse, close friend, or colleague. Once you find out what your attachment style is, in the next few paragraphs, you will learn how you can change your style into a much more positive one, in sha’Allah, God-willing.

British psychiatrist and psychoanalyst John Bowlby conducted pioneering work on attachment theory among children. The attachment theory claims that, when we are born, the relationship with our mother or primary caregiver impacts how we socially interact with the world for the rest of our lives, especially in our close relationships. Our genetic makeup and temperament also play a role in this relationship. It also affects how we build and perceive relationships as well.1 Therefore, depending on how the caregiver attunes to the child’s needs in their early years determines how the child will perceive and respond to people close to them in the future. If they think their caregivers are not meeting their needs – even if it is unintentional on the caregiver’s part – children will feel that way regardless. 

The Four Attachment Styles 

The four attachment styles are secure, anxious-ambivalent, avoidant-dismissive, and fearful-avoidant. Read on to see which category you fit into. 

Secure Attachment 

This attachment style is characterized by a person being comfortable expressing their emotions in their close relationships and, in turn, being able to receive the other person’s emotions and pattern of behavior with grace. 

Here is a description of a secure attachment in childhood and its impact on the future as an adult:

1. Behaving predictably toward your child.

In this instance, a parent responds to a child in a warm, open, and inviting manner when they are upset or require something such as a timely diaper change, a snack when they are hungry, or a hug when they are crying. This makes the child feel safe and assured that they can trust the caregiver to meet their needs.

In turn, a securely-attached adult would feel this kind of assurance from their partner, friend, or colleague, and be a reliable person to them as well. Secure children and adults are happy to take, give, share, and show empathy when they are distressed.2 They are comfortable being around people but prefer to be with their caregiver or trusted person. 

2. Stepping back a little and allowing your child to explore without interference. 

Being allowed to safely explore their surroundings makes for self-confident adults who are able to get around the world without an overwhelming sense of fear. They are more willing to take positive risks or pursue ambitious goals at work or meeting people. 

3. Valuing your child as a person rather than on what they achieve.

This type of attachment helps build their self-esteem. Expressing how proud and happy you are with them as a person rather than what they do unconditionally is key. They mostly grow into self-assured adults who do not need constant validation. 

Anxious-Ambivalent Attachment 

Also known as the preoccupied attachment style, the anxiously attached child has a caregiver who is unpredictable in responding to their child. They respond warmly at times, and harshly at other times, or do not even respond at all thinking that the child could self-soothe. This unpredictable behaviour by the caregiver keeps the child on edge confusing them, pushing them to work to gauge how the situation will unfold. It is the perfect recipe for anxious behaviour. This can create distrust within a child who is still desperately in need of the caregiver’s love so he/she clings to them, wanting their attention. 

By definition, ambivalence is when a person feels strongly for two conflicting ideas at the same time. They are then unable to make a decision, overwhelmed by their emotions. Many of you may realize you do this on a regular basis, and it may be because you do not receive consistent love and attention as a child during the attachment process.

1. Anxious-ambivalent children tend to stay closer to the caregiver.

They feel insecure about exploring their surroundings, and resist being soothed despite clinging to the caregiver. This neediness can extend to their teachers or close relatives. Anxious-ambivalent adults will constantly call or check in with their partner or close friend, receiving assurance that they are nearby, present, or wanting to know when they will be home. They will likely only go out in the world with that person, not alone, and also resist any attempts of being comforted by their close people – spouse, immediate family, or close friends. 

2. Throwing tantrums or being very upset to get the attention of their caregiver.

Children in this category due whatever is needed as an appeal to gain much needed affection and closeness. It is also a call to help them regulate their emotions. Self-regulation, if not taught, will be detrimental later in life. Adults will likely display:

  • Anger, tears, or other strong emotions in order to get the attention of their spouse, instead of being comfortable with distance or being vulnerable and open in a healthy manner in expressing their emotions. 
  • A  fear of abandonment when not with their spouse, close friend, or immediate family, making them very clingy and anxious.
  • Hypervigilant behaviour toward perceived threats to their close relationships so they will try to keep them close, causing much difficulty for the other person. 

3. Children will have difficulty focusing on tasks and have highly anxious habits. 

This sort of behaviour can lead to a misdiagnosis of ADHD when it is actually an anxious attachment. Adults can though later develop ADHD symptoms if they are unable to control their anxious habits or lack of focus. 

Avoidant-Dismissive Attachment 

Strict or emotionally distant caregivers who cannot tolerate their children’s expressions, rather expecting them to be independent and able to self-regulate themselves through difficult moments can create an avoidant or dismissive attachment in their children. 

1. Lack of emotional and physical closeness by the caregiver makes for children who react the same way back. 

22When the child reaches out for affection and reassurance, the parent or caregiver backs off or becomes reserved. They may even show disapproval in the face of the emotional display. Avoidant children then grow up to be adults who shy away from physical closeness or emotional vulnerability with close loved ones. According to the Attachment Project, “[avoidant adults] need love just as much as everyone else. However, their early years didn’t equip them with the ability to show and receive affection and emotional closeness.”3

2. The parent or caregiver may ask the child to toughen up and be independent even though children are not equipped to self-regulate their positive or negative emotions. 

Adults will then distance themselves as soon as they feel they are going through excitement or sadness from their partner or loved ones. And they are also likely to distance themselves from loved ones when they are going through something because they do not know how to regulate another person’s emotions let alone their own. 

Disorganized or Fearful-Avoidant Attachment

This type of attachment develops when a child’s parent or caregiver becomes a source of fear. It is the most difficult attachment to manage as it is imbued with fear, inconsistency, and possibly abuse. 

1. The child does not know if he/she will have his/her needs met. 

The parent or caregiver is highly unpredictable and fearsome. Adults with this attachment type will have no expectations from their close ones to meet their needs at all. 

2. Frequently involves trauma by the parent or caregiver. 

Physical, emotional, or sexual abuse causes the child to be detached from the parent figure. This can cause immense post-traumatic stress and mental dissociation. Trust for the caregiver will diminish, and affect future important relationships. Children in this category never truly adapt to the caregiver’s behaviour because of the unpredictability of their actions. And they always emotionally and physically keep a distance from them for fear of their safety. 

Adults with this type of attachment want to be loved and belong, and even show love; however, their past traumatic experiences with their caregivers make them ill-equipped to express these deep needs. They are afraid to open up to anyone and have a strong fear that their closest ones will hurt them. 

They have a fear of intimacy, avoid physical closeness, and highly expect inevitable rejection and disappointment to occur in any close relationship they develop; not believing that their partner will ever love and support them. This fear causes them to end a relationship before it deepens. This pattern of behaviour is self-sabotage and the person’s actions make for a self-fulfilling prophecy. 

To cope with their perceived inadequacy for love, adults with these experiences engage in substance abuse, aggressive behaviour, and abuse their own children – possibly causing generational trauma. 

Traits that make this attachment confusing frightening, and difficult to deal with are: 

  • Unpredictability in their actions and words
  • Unwarranted suspicion of you and other people
  • Lack of trust around people
  • Desire to be close but are unable to express it due to fear of rejection

How You Can Become An Adult With A Secure Attachment 

The last three insecure attachments can be tough to digest. You may relate or know someone who can relate to them. You may be concerned that people you know or love are doomed for life with these types of attachments because they manifest early in their lives. However, there is much hope to change that. 

Our brains are malleable and resilient. Its neuroplasticity is a beacon of hope for humans. Repeated positive experiences in healthy relationships can rewire our brains to change our insecure attachment into an “earned-secure” attachment.4

So, how can one gain an earned-secure attachment? Seeking help from Allah would be the first step in our journey toward bettering ourselves. After all, we are on this earth to gain His pleasure by spreading goodness through our words and deeds, as well as diminishing what is harmful. Finding people from within your family or community who have a secure attachment themselves (or even a revised earned-secure attachment) can also help. These people are comfortable expressing themselves and regulating others’ emotions. They do so by listening to you when you are upset or helping you during hard times. The earlier in life a person finds a secure caregiver or alternative support figure, the better because younger people are quicker to alter their brains than older ones.

We, as Muslims, should strive to relieve the distress of others and help them better themselves as our Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, said: 

“Whoever relieves a believer’s distress of the distressful aspects of this world, Allah will rescue him from a difficulty of the difficulties of the Hereafter. Whoever alleviates [the situation of] one in dire straits who cannot repay his debt, Allah will alleviate his lot in both this world and in the Hereafter. Whoever conceals [the faults of] a Muslim, Allah will conceal [his faults] in this life and the Hereafter. 


Thus, helping others is helping ourselves and, in turn, pleasing Allah. 

It is also highly recommended to engage a therapist if your past close relationships were fraught with difficulties and make it difficult to establish and maintain a close connection with your partner or family members. Therapists would then act as a surrogate attachment figure for insecure attached individuals as they help them process their past trauma, emotions, experiences, and guide them towards a more balanced perspective of them.. 

From your close loved ones and/or a therapist, you can expect to receive: 

  • Emotional support in allowing yourself to trust and rely on them for validation, support through hard and good times, and in supporting an increase in your self-esteem. 
  • Recognition of how your past experiences affected you and how to gain new perspectives on them. Processing your emotions attached to them and reflecting on how you can minimize them and learn from those experiences will help you move on. 
  • Guidance on changing your negative self-perception and worth. Learning not to be hard on yourself for what you did in the past, or beginning to stop thinking of yourself as the victim of how your early caregivers treated you are steps in the right direction. 
  • Management in how your thought and behaviour patterns occur. Pinpointing those negative thoughts and behaviours that cause the insecure attachment and then transforming them into positive ones will help one get closer to a more secure attachment. A therapist can educate you on identifying these patterns and help you make a conscious change in them. 

Overall, all it takes is for gradual self-awareness and a sustained willingness to change for the better to diminish our insecure attachment and grow towards a more secure one. 

Allah has given us families, friends, and colleagues. And each relationship was destined to teach us something about our purpose in this life. We are in this world to be tested. Perhaps dismantling our negative behaviours that spur from our insecure attachment is how we take away the harm in our world and spread peace and positivity within it. Therefore, we all should reflect on what our attachment is and how we can change ourselves to make for a better world and hereafter, inshaAllah, God willing. 

End Notes

1 Attachment Styles in Adult Relationships - Complete Guide

2 How a Secure Attachment Style Develops in Early Childhood

3 Avoidant Attachment Style: Causes and Adult Symptoms

4 From Attachment Insecurity to Earned Secure Attachmen

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