Crossing Adult with Child Attachment Styles — some thoughts

While preparing for an upcoming conference presentation, I created a matrix which crossed the four adult attachment styles (Autonomous, Dismissive, Preoccupied, and Unresolved) with the four childhood attachment styles (Secure, Avoidant, Ambivalent, and Disorganized.)  You may recall that each childhood style tends — without intervention — to lead into the corresponding adult style.

From this Vermont therapy practice, I have collected examples to fill each of the matrix blanks — Dismissive style parent seen with Avoidant style child, etcetera.  I don’t have much to fill the Securely attached child column, as they rarely have need of services.  But the other columns are busy.  A brief look at the patterns:

Dismissive style adults seen with Avoidant style children shows a combination in which both adult and child are working hard to avoid relationship and emotional vulnerability.  They seem to benefit most not only from acceptance and empathy, but also from my “speaking for” them to each other.  “Sorry, Dad, about what happened yesterday — I just didn’t now how to approach you to fix it, so I didn’t say anything…”  That makes sense, as all their practice has been at avoiding sharing their own inner awareness with another person.  “I’m fine.”

Dismissive style adults seen with Ambivalent style children are another matter.  The adult is trying hard to avoid conflict, while the child is busy seeking conflict in a bid to feel safe through control of the people and objects around them.  They tend to present with the parent intimidated and the child frequently dysregulated.  They benefit most from support for the adult to find their voice, step up to the plate and be in charge again.  Kids need parents (safe parents) and they need the parent to be in charge.  Because of child development realities, that’s the only way kids are going to be okay.

Preoccupied style adults, on the other hand, are looking for conflict, due to so much difficulty resolving issues from their earlier years.  Through no conscious fault of their own, the presenting problem is often one of drama.  One parent who daily clashed with his nine year-old asked me in hushed tones whether I thought that his daughter might need an exorcism.  (I didn’t.)  Unfortunately the dramas are rarely resolved, because they tend to be emotionally founded in unspoken hurts from the past.  Only when this is interpreted do the problems in the present lose their power and people become less stuck.

Combine a Preoccupied parent figure with an Avoidant style child, and you have a chase-and-evade dyad, not unlike some unhappy marriages.  But a Preoccupied style adult raising an Ambivalent style child will be a dyad often in flames — each person trying aggressively to force recognition and appreciation from the other, while both were denied these things long ago.

Not to paint too bleak a picture, the Autonomous style adult can usually make gradual headway with both Avoidant and Ambivalent style children.  Why?  They can rely on their own “secure emotional base”, and their own positive “internal working model” to carry them through long periods of the child’s dysregulation — while continuing to project their image of the child as capable and important.  That is an important image which children need from adults — a projection of themselves which they can absorb, test, push-against, even reject, but gradually internalize.

The Disorganized style child is usually the most challenging of the childhood styles, due to learning few ways to survive unpredictable maltreatment other than creating immediate chaos in the moment.  Parenting this style requires some skill and many outside supports.