Attachment Development Stages

Stages of Developing Attachment Styles

The process of developing into a harmonious well adjusted adult, or a socially dysfunctional individual starts in the womb. The womb should be safe and free from threats, but it is here some children who will develop Attachment Disorder start experiencing an unsafe world. If the mother is abused, the child will experience the mother’s fears and anxiety. It might even feel the physical impact of a fist in her stomach. Research has shown that a child whose mother suffered spousal/partner abuse while the child was in the womb is less stress tolerant than a child whose mother felt secure while pregnant.

The first harmful effect of a dysfunctional attachment in a baby is the loss of trust. Trust is something we are born with, like lungs and a heart. No child learns to trust, it is instinctive, inborn. Trust is the foundation for all our meaningful social interactions. But a child can learn not to trust through experience of neglect, fear and abuse, both physical and emotional.

Eight Months to Six Years

A healthy secure attachment is based on the trusting bond between child and parent, which developed in the first eight months. Between the ages of about eight months and two and a half years there develops between child and parent a sense of security that the parent is the child’s safe zone. This allows the child to move away from the parent with confidence and helps the child becomes aware of itself as an individual. This child has a secure attachment style.

This is where the child learns through interacting with adults the separation of identities. The parent soothing and comforting the child when it is sad, frightened or suffering discomfort, helps the child to learn that the other person can understand what the child is feeling, but does not have those feelings themselves. This also helps the child learn to regulate and control its emotions.

The child now develops over the following four to five years this ability to separate him or herself from others, and understand that other people are also independent with their own feelings and thoughts.

In a dysfunctional parent-child relationship, where there is abuse and/or neglect, the child learns that it cannot trust the parent. It does not see the parent as a safe zone and has to learn to cope with anxieties and fears when it moves into the big world on its own as best it can. The child is not soothed; it may be shaken, hit or ignored.

The process of separation of self in this case does not take place. How this evolves in life will depend on the child’s personality and the social environment the child grows up in. The child’s attachment system becomes dysfunctional and there are a number of attachment styles the child can form: avoidant, resistant and disorganized. Of these the disorganized is the most serious as this disorganized attachment system is the one most strongly associated with he development of serious disorders including violent behaviour disorders.

Since a healthy separation of self does not take place, the child assumes others feel like it does. When it is obvious that they do not, there is confusion in the developing mind. With the disorganized attachment system the confusion is great. There is both a fearfulness and a need for closeness at the same time. The need for closeness is vital for our emotional well-being, and the child, while having a negative view of itself, will see something good in the other person, but simultaneously will feel fearful aspect due to a low or negative sense of self and a fear of the other person.

The child wants to go close, but when it approaches the other person it wants to avoid them. They form an attachment quicker than an emotionally healthy child, but once formed the attachment becomes toxic. They have expectations based on their own negativity, and project it into the other person, assuming negativity in the other person. They seem to have an on-off relationship switch.

This behavior is not only directed towards adults, but also to playmates, forming friendships and breaking up more frequently than emotionally healthy children.

Seven Years to Puberty

Around the age of seven years the child undergoes a radical concept development. Before this the child was developing the concept of the independent person without being able to “see” from the other person’s perspective. Now the child is able to put itself into the other person’s view, what they are seeing and thinking.

This development can happen as late as nine years of age. This late development of an important fundamental concept we all need for a functioning socialization may explain to some extent a phenomenon, where a child develops what appears to be Oppositional Defiance Disorder which disappears spontaneously around the age of nine. It could be due to late developers struggling to comprehend something their peers understand, and when they have caught up in their development and are able to see others’ perspectives, they calm down and behave normally.

The child with a disorganized attachment system has not been able to practice and develop a sense of separation from other people. This child will have difficulty comprehending another person’s perspective. If they cannot develop this ability they try to make sense of a world they cannot understand, and stumble through to puberty socially confused.

These children older than six years can experience difficulties with their peers, as they may be attention seekers and thereby be unpopular, as this can take the form of hypersilliness. Also, these children do not understand social signals and are not fully aware of social boundaries, which can cause misunderstandings and conflicts with their peers. There can also be the conflict between overfriendliness and not being able to sustain a friendship.

Signs of Attachment Disorder are frequently seen in the behaviour of younger children. Many visitors to an orphanage think small children running up to them and hugging, holding their hand and craving attention are children’s starved of love. While the children are starved for love and attention, running up indiscriminately to strangers and hugging them is a pathological behaviour. This love starved behavior is followed by the child heading off in some direction apparently oblivious to the adult they had just hugged so lovingly. It is like they have an on-off switch.

The symptoms do not need to be clinically diagnosable to be a problem. Sub-clinical attachment disorder can develop into social and relationship problems that follow the child into their adult life and continue throughout life. Personality disorders, especially borderline personality disorder can be traced in many cases to a dysfunctional attachment as a child.


As teenagers they are three times more likely to experience anxiety and/or depression. The combination of poor social development, low self-esteem and the teenager’s natural desire for independence leads to increase the inner conflict already there, trying to make sense of a world they do not comprehend properly. They may still have difficulty with social signals and seeing things from another person’s perspective, which can lead to social difficulties and misunderstandings.

Besides the risk of developing Oppositional Defiance Disorder or even Conduct Disorder, the teenager left to him or herself may be laying the base for a personality disorder in early adulthood.

The child connects superficially to adults, but will reject a significant adult, especially when it comes to the guidance that a teenager needs when dealing with emotional and hormonal problems. Such a child might even behave well at school and when visiting friends, but be aggressive and rebellious towards the parents, adoptive parents or foster parents.

Sending them to a psychologist does generally not help these children. They have no problem bonding with a psychologist once a week; their problem is that they cannot bond with the parents. It is the parents that need the psychologist to guide them through the difficult task of encouraging their adoptive child/foster child to trust them. There can also be sessions with the psychologist, parent and child, but the psychologist on his or her own cannot help the child. A parent-child bonding is needed.


Adult Attachment Disorder is a poorly researched area, but this condition does exist. 60 % of homeless people in Poland have been raised in the orphanage system where there are the conditions that cause Attachment Disorder with a low carer to child ratio and where carers do not bond with any children. As adults they are vulnerable and have difficulty keeping lasting secure relationships. Some develop personality disorders such as Borderline Personality Disorder. There are great hidden costs to society from healthcare and lost work hours to social disruptions.

The next stage in the Attachment Disorder development is passing the problem on to the next generation. An insecurely attached adult, especially a mother who lacks the ability to form an attachment with their child will produce the next generation of children suffering from some degree of Attachment Disorder.

Agape Trust needs support to be able to help young people who have been raised in the orphanage system to adjust to a life outside the institution and lead meningful lives in their communities.


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