Models for coaching

Attachment Theory

Attachment Theory is a psychological framework that focuses on the emotional bonds formed between individuals and their caregiver and its impact.

Useful in coaching for Healing, Making a Change, Self-Awareness, Understanding Behaviour 

Attachment Theory Styles Diagram and Template

Attachment Theory has its roots in the work of British psychologist John Bowlby, who was interested in understanding the anxiety and distress experienced by children when separated from their primary caregivers. Attachment theory has since been expanded upon by various researchers, including Mary Ainsworth, who contributed significantly to our understanding of attachment styles and their impact on relationship dynamics and personal well-being.

In this help guide, we will delve into the history and key principles of Attachment Theory, explore the different attachment styles and their implications for adult relationships, and examine the practical applications of this theory in various contexts, such as parenting, education, and mental health.

How is Attachment Theory useful for coaching?

Although Attachment Theory will often focused on past or childhood experiences, it is also a helpful tool in understanding our current behaviour and reaction to situations. Attachment Theory can help us explore the underlying reasons behind the way we are and offer solutions to how we can move forwards more positively.

It’s this focus on our current mindset, awareness of our behaviour and what this means for our goals that makes Attachment Theory so useful for coaching. It offers another glimpse into our character and motivation, and in doing so, offers us ways forwards.

In coaching, we’ll often treat Attachment Theory in the same way we would a psychometric or personality test. It’s a useful tool we can use when it suits our needs, but we would never make it a catch-all for all aspects of a person’s life. As with all models, there’s the danger they pigeon hole someone into a single, one-dimensional solution. We are all complex individuals, formed by a multitude of factors. Attachment Theory is simply one of many coaching tools used when working on different coaching areas.

History of Attachment Theory

Attachment Theory was first introduced by British psychologist John Bowlby in the 1950s. His work was driven by a desire to understand the distress and anxiety experienced by children when they were separated from their primary caregivers. Bowlby’s research was influenced by ethological theories which emphasized the importance of innate behaviors for survival, as well as by psychoanalytic theories which focused on the significance of early experiences in shaping an individual’s emotional and psychological development.

Bowlby proposed that children are biologically predisposed to form attachments with caregivers, as these bonds serve an essential role in ensuring their survival. He believed that the quality of the attachment between a child and their caregiver has a profound impact on the child’s emotional and social development, as well as on their ability to form secure attachments in later relationships.

Mary Ainsworth, a student of Bowlby, conducted groundbreaking research on attachment styles in the 1970s. Her Strange Situation study revealed the different ways in which children respond to separation and reunion with their caregivers, leading to the identification of distinct attachment styles. These styles have been shown to have long-lasting effects on an individual’s relationships and emotional well-being throughout their lives.

The Attachment Behavioural System

Bowlby’s Attachment Theory revolves around the concept of the Attachment Behavioural System, which is an innate psychological system that drives individuals to seek proximity to their attachment figures, particularly during times of stress, fear, or uncertainty. This system is thought to have evolved as a survival mechanism, as maintaining close proximity to caregivers increases the likelihood of receiving protection, care, and support.

The Attachment Behavioural System is activated when an individual perceives a threat or experiences distress, prompting them to seek closeness and comfort from their attachment figure. The system is deactivated once the individual feels safe and secure, allowing them to explore their environment and engage in other activities. Bowlby believed that this system plays a crucial role in regulating an individual’s emotions and behaviors, as well as in influencing their expectations and beliefs about relationships.

Types of Attachment

Attachment styles can be broadly categorized into four main types, as identified by Ainsworth and later researchers:

1. Secure Attachment

Secure Attachment Style - Attachment Theory

Securely attached individuals tend to have a positive view of themselves and others and are able to establish and maintain healthy, satisfying relationships. They are comfortable with intimacy and trust, and are able to rely on their partners for support when needed. Secure attachment is characterised by the ability to effectively balance the need for closeness and autonomy, resulting in a sense of emotional security and well-being. Securely attached people are more likely to have positive outcomes in various aspects of their lives, such as higher self-esteem, better academic performance, and more successful social relationships.

2. Avoidant Attachment

Avoidant Attachment Style - Attachment Theory

Avoidant individuals tend to be uncomfortable with emotional intimacy and often attempt to maintain emotional distance from their partners. They may be reluctant to rely on others, fearing rejection or dependency, and may suppress their emotions as a self-protective mechanism. Avoidant attachment is characterised by a positive view of the self and a negative view of others, resulting in a pattern of emotional detachment and avoidance in relationships. This attachment style is often associated with difficulties in forming deep, lasting connections with others and may contribute to feelings of loneliness and isolation.

3. Anxious-Ambivalent (or Preoccupied) Attachment

Preoccupied Attachment Style, or Anxious-Ambivilant - Attachment Theory

Individuals with an anxious-ambivalent attachment style tend to be overly preoccupied with their relationships and often worry about their partner’s availability and responsiveness. They may be excessively clingy, possessive, or demanding, and may have difficulties regulating their emotions in response to perceived threats or rejections. Anxious-ambivalent attachment is associated with a negative view of the self and a positive view of others, leading to feelings of insecurity, anxiety, and emotional turbulence in relationships.

4. Disorganised (or Fearful-Avoidant) Attachment

Disorganised Attachment Style, or Fearful-Avoidant - Attachment Theory

Disorganised attachment represents a combination of anxious and avoidant attachment patterns, characterised by a lack of consistent strategy for regulating emotions and seeking comfort from attachment figures. Individuals with this attachment style may display contradictory behaviours, such as seeking closeness and then pushing their partner away, or appearing disoriented and confused in their relationships. Disorganised attachment is often linked to early experiences of trauma, abuse, or neglect and may result in difficulties in establishing trust and emotional stability in relationships.

Development of Attachment Styles

Attachment styles are believed to develop during infancy and early childhood, as a result of the quality of care and responsiveness provided by the primary caregiver(s). The nature of the caregiver-child relationship plays a crucial role in shaping an individual’s attachment style, with sensitive and responsive caregiving promoting secure attachment, and inconsistent, neglectful, or abusive caregiving increasing the likelihood of insecure attachment patterns.

The development of attachment styles is influenced by a complex interplay of genetic, environmental, and social factors. Research has shown that children’s attachment patterns can be influenced by factors such as the caregiver’s own attachment style, the child’s temperament, and the family’s social and economic circumstances.

It is important to note that attachment styles are not fixed and can change over time, particularly in response to significant life events or changes in the quality of the caregiving environment. However, early attachment experiences are thought to form the basis for an individual’s internal working model of relationships, which serves as a template for future interactions and expectations in close relationships.

Attachment Styles in Adult Relationships

Attachment theory has been extended to explain the functioning of adult romantic relationships, with the same basic principles and patterns of attachment observed in infant-caregiver relationships also playing out in adult partnerships. The attachment styles formed in childhood can have a significant impact on an individual’s ability to form and maintain healthy, satisfying relationships as an adult.

1. Secure Attachment in Adult Relationships

Securely attached adults tend to have positive and trusting relationships with their partners, characterized by mutual support, open communication, and emotional intimacy. They are comfortable with both giving and receiving care and are able to balance their needs for closeness and independence effectively. Securely attached individuals are more likely to experience higher levels of relationship satisfaction, commitment, and stability, and are less prone to experiencing relationship distress or engaging in destructive behaviors.

2. Avoidant Attachment in Adult Relationships

Avoidant adults often experience difficulties in forming and maintaining close, intimate relationships, due to their reluctance to rely on others or to express their own emotional needs. They may adopt a self-reliant and emotionally detached stance in their relationships, avoiding vulnerability and maintaining emotional distance from their partners. Avoidant individuals are more likely to experience relationship dissatisfaction, lack of emotional intimacy, and difficulties in trusting and depending on others. They may also be at greater risk for engaging in infidelity, emotional withdrawal, or other destructive behaviors in their relationships.

3. Anxious-Ambivalent Attachment in Adult Relationships

Adults with an anxious-ambivalent attachment style often experience difficulties in their romantic relationships, characterized by a preoccupation with their partner’s responsiveness and a heightened sensitivity to perceived threats or rejections. They may have a tendency to become overly dependent on their partners, seeking constant reassurance and validation, and may struggle to cope with separations or conflicts in the relationship. Anxious-ambivalent individuals are more likely to experience relationship dissatisfaction, insecurity, and emotional turbulence, and may be at greater risk for engaging in controlling or manipulative behaviors.

4. Disorganised Attachment in Adult Relationships

Disorganised attachment in adults can manifest as a pattern of unstable and unpredictable relationship behaviours, characterised by a lack of consistent strategies for regulating emotions and seeking comfort from attachment figures. Individuals with disorganised attachment may struggle to establish trust and emotional stability in their relationships, often experiencing difficulties in balancing their needs for closeness and autonomy. They may be prone to engaging in dysfunctional relationship patterns, such as intense emotional swings, passive-aggressive behaviours, or self-sabotaging tendencies.

Factors Influencing Attachment

Several factors can influence the development and expression of attachment styles, both in childhood and adulthood. These factors can include:


A child’s innate temperament, or characteristic patterns of emotional reactivity, has been found to influence the development of attachment styles. For example, children with a more difficult or irritable temperament may be at greater risk for developing insecure attachment patterns (Belsky & Pluess, 2009).

Caregiver characteristics

The caregiver’s own attachment style, as well as their sensitivity, responsiveness, and consistency in caregiving, can have a significant impact on the child’s attachment development. Caregivers who are secure in their own attachment relationships and who are able to provide sensitive and responsive care are more likely to promote secure attachment in their children (van Ijzendoorn & Bakermans-Kranenburg, 2019).

Family environment

The broader family environment, including factors such as family structure, socioeconomic status, and parenting practices, can also influence attachment development. For example, children growing up in families with high levels of stress or instability may be at greater risk for developing insecure attachment patterns (Cummings & Davies, 2010).

Life events and experiences

Significant life events and experiences, such as the loss of a loved one, the experience of trauma, or the formation of new relationships, can have an impact on an individual’s attachment style, potentially leading to changes in their attachment patterns and relationship functioning over time (Fraley & Shaver, 2000).

Genetic predispositions

Research has shown that genetic factors can play a role in the development of attachment styles, with certain genetic variants being associated with increased risk for insecure attachment patterns (Caspers et al., 2009).

Attachment Theory in Parenting

Attachment theory has important implications for parenting, as it highlights the crucial role of the caregiver-child relationship in shaping a child’s emotional and social development. By understanding the principles of attachment theory, parents can better support their children’s attachment needs and foster healthy, secure relationships.

The Importance of Responsive Caregiving

One of the key principles of attachment theory is that children develop secure attachment when their caregivers are consistently responsive and sensitive to their emotional needs. Responsive caregiving involves attending to a child’s signals and cues, providing comfort and support when needed, and helping the child to regulate their emotions and cope with stress.

By practicing responsive caregiving, parents can promote secure attachment in their children, which in turn can lead to a range of positive outcomes, such as improved self-esteem, better emotional regulation, and more successful social relationships.

Parenting Strategies for Promoting Secure Attachment

There are several parenting strategies that can help to promote secure attachment in children. These strategies include:

Providing a safe and nurturing environment: Creating a supportive and nurturing environment in which a child feels safe and secure is essential for promoting secure attachment. This involves providing a consistent routine, setting appropriate boundaries, and offering emotional support and reassurance when needed.

Being emotionally available: Parents can foster secure attachment by being emotionally available and attuned to their child’s needs, both in terms of providing comfort and support when needed and in celebrating their child’s achievements and successes.

Encouraging exploration and autonomy: Securely attached children are able to explore their environment and develop a sense of autonomy and independence, knowing that their caregiver is available as a secure base when needed. Parents can promote this sense of autonomy by encouraging their child to explore their environment and by supporting their child’s efforts to master new skills and challenges.

Modelling healthy relationships: Parents can also promote secure attachment by modelling healthy relationships in their own lives, both in terms of their romantic partnerships and their friendships with others. By demonstrating effective communication, emotional regulation, and conflict resolution skills, parents can provide their children with a template for successful relationships in the future.

Attachment Theory in Education

Attachment theory has significant implications for education, as it highlights the importance of secure and supportive relationships between teachers and students in promoting learning and academic success. By understanding the principles of attachment theory, educators can create a classroom environment that fosters secure attachment and supports students’ emotional and social development.

The Role of the Teacher as an Attachment Figure

In the context of education, teachers can be considered as attachment figures for their students, providing a safe and supportive environment in which students can explore, learn, and grow. A secure attachment relationship with a teacher can help to promote students’ sense of security and well-being, which in turn can contribute to improved academic performance, motivation, and social functioning.

Strategies for Promoting Secure Attachment in the Classroom

There are several strategies that educators can use to promote secure attachment in the classroom, including:

Creating a positive and supportive classroom environment: Teachers can create a positive and supportive classroom environment by setting clear expectations, providing consistent routines, and offering a range of learning opportunities that cater to students’ diverse needs and interests.

Building strong and supportive relationships with students: Teachers can foster secure attachment by developing strong and supportive relationships with their students, by showing genuine interest in their lives, and by providing emotional support and encouragement when needed.

Encouraging student autonomy and exploration: Teachers can promote secure attachment by encouraging students to take responsibility for their own learning, by providing opportunities for exploration and discovery, and by supporting students’ efforts to master new skills and challenges.

Modelling emotional regulation and effective communication: Teachers can also promote secure attachment by modelling effective emotional regulation and communication skills, by managing their own emotions in the classroom, and by engaging in open and honest communication with their students.

Attachment Theory and Mental Health

Attachment theory has important implications for mental health, as it highlights the role of early attachment experiences in shaping an individual’s emotional and psychological well-being. Insecure attachment styles have been linked to a range of mental health issues, including anxiety, depression, and interpersonal difficulties. Conversely, secure attachment has been associated with greater psychological resilience and well-being.

Attachment Theory and Psychotherapy

Attachment theory has been applied in the field of psychotherapy, with many therapists incorporating the principles of attachment theory into their work with clients. Attachment-based therapies focus on helping clients to explore and understand their attachment patterns and to develop more adaptive ways of relating to others.

Attachment-based psychotherapy may involve:

Exploring early attachment experiences: Clients may be encouraged to explore their early attachment experiences, to gain insight into how these experiences have shaped their beliefs and expectations about relationships, and to identify any maladaptive patterns that may be contributing to their current difficulties.

Developing a secure attachment relationship with the therapist: The therapeutic relationship can serve as a “secure base” for clients, providing a safe and supportive environment in which they can explore their emotions, challenge their beliefs, and develop new strategies for relating to others.

Promoting emotional regulation and communication skills: Attachment-based therapies may also focus on helping clients to develop more effective emotional regulation and communication skills, as well as on building resilience and coping strategies for managing stress and adversity.

Attachment Theory and the Treatment of Trauma

Attachment theory has also been applied in the treatment of trauma, particularly in relation to the impact of early childhood trauma on attachment patterns and mental health. Research has shown that individuals who have experienced trauma, abuse, or neglect in childhood are more likely to develop insecure or disorganised attachment patterns, which in turn can contribute to a range of mental health issues, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety, and depression.

Trauma-focused therapies, such as Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (TF-CBT) and Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing (EMDR), often incorporate elements of attachment theory, with a focus on helping clients to explore and reprocess their traumatic experiences, to develop more secure attachment patterns, and to build resilience and coping strategies for managing stress and adversity.

The Lasting Impact of Attachment Theory

Attachment theory has had a profound and lasting impact on our understanding of human relationships and emotional development. The work of Bowlby, Ainsworth, and their successors has provided valuable insights into the nature of attachment, the factors that influence its development, and the implications of attachment patterns for mental health, well-being, and relationship functioning.

As our knowledge of attachment theory continues to grow, so too does our understanding of the importance of secure and supportive relationships in promoting emotional well-being and resilience throughout the lifespan. By applying the principles of attachment theory in our own lives, in our relationships with our children, partners, friends, and colleagues, we can help to foster a sense of security, trust, and emotional well-being for ourselves and those around us.

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