The importance of attachment styles in both adolescents and professional caregivers


Zegers, M., Schuengel, C., van IJzendoorn, M., & Janssens, J. (2006). Attachment  representations of institutionalized adolescents and their professional caregivers:  Predicting the development of therapeutic relationships. American Journal of  Orthopsychiatry, 76 (3), 325-334.


The quality of a therapeutic relationship has long been emphasized as one of the most  important predictors of positive change. Much of the therapeutic relationship is about seeking and offering security and care, thus many studies have examined the role of attachment styles, “a set of conscious and/or unconscious rules for the organization of information regarding attachment-related experiences (early experiences with one’s parents or caregivers), feelings and ideations,” in the therapeutic alliance.  Studies suggest that differences in youths’ attachment styles may be important to address at the onset of treatment, including mentoring relationships, in order to select the most appropriate strategy for helping that individual. Thus, the current student examines the attachment styles of both the adolescent and their professional caregiver/mentor in order to see how they interact and impact the adolescent’s social behavior over time.


The current study focused on 99 adolescents (26 boys, 73 girls) from a youth treatment institution in the Netherlands. Adolescents (mean age = 15.8 years) were identified as at risk for delinquency, substance abuse, severe behavior problems, emotional problems, and/or family problems and were placed in this institution via court order. Several caregivers worked shifts with the adolescents, with one caregiver being assigned as a mentor for an adolescent, responsible for providing information, emotional and practical support, thus the attachment of the mentor and the adolescent were examined for each dyad.

The attachment style of both the adolescent and the mentor were assessed using the Adult Attachment Interview (AAI), a semi-structured interview about childhood experiences relating to one’s parents, how one views the influences these early experiences might have had and the current relationship with one’s parents.

Based on the rating of the AAI, individuals are classified as one of the following attachment styles:

  • Dismissing (Ds): indicating a deactivating strategy with respect to painful memories, either by claiming few memories of childhood, idealizing of parents, or derogatory dismissal of attachment figures
  • Autonomous (F): the participant is able to approach attachment experiences, even negative ones, in a reasonably objective and coherent manner
  • Preoccupied (E): characterized by a vague or angry discourse in the AAI; both indicate a continuing involvement and preoccupation with attachment experiences
  • Unresolved/Disorganized (U/d): characterized by lapses in the monitoring of reasoning or discourse when talking about loss or trauma, or if extreme behavioral reactions  in connection with these experiences is described

Questionnaires examining the relationship between the adolescent and the mentor, specifically the mentors contact with the adolescent and the psychological availability of the mentor were filled out by both members of the dyad at 3 months and between 9 and 12 months.


  • When compared to a typical sample of adolescents, adolescents in this institution had attachment styles that were significantly more “non-autonomous” ( insecure attachment representations)  meaning Dismissing, Unresolved/disorganized, or were unable to be classified.  The 7% of Dutch institutionalized adolescents who were classified as autonomous (secure attachment representations) was significantly less than 48% of the non-clinical group of adolescents.
  • The distribution of the AAI classifications of mentors did not differ from the typical population of adults.
  • Perceived psychological availability of non-autonomous mentors decreased over time, whereas the perceived psychological availability of autonomous mentors increased between 3 and 10 months.
  • Reliance on non-autonomous mentors decreased over time, whereas reliance on autonomous mentors increased over time.
  • At 3 and 10 months, hyperactivating adolescents were perceived as more hostile by non-autonomous mentors, whereas deactivating adolescents were seen as more hostile by autonomous mentors


Overall, this study focused on two important aspects of attachment relationships, psychological availability (or ability to act as a secure base) and an adolescents reliance on an adult (secure base use); social behavior across relationships was also studied.  Results showed that attachment relationships were able to predict changes in adolescents’ social relations over time (from 3 to 10 months). The more coherent the adolescent’s attachment, the greater increase in reliance on the mentor, as well as a decrease in avoiding contact with staff.  Mentor’s attachment styles were also predictive of changes in adolescents’ perceptions, with perceived psychological availability increasing for autonomous members and decreasing for non-autonomous members.

Thus, these results suggest that attachment representations (of both the adolescent and the mentor) can predict the direction of change in individual’s perceptions of social relations. This aligns with the notion that perceived quality of social interactions is a result of one’s accumulated relational experience over time and that these relational experiences are partly a function of one’s own attachment style and that of the individual with whom they are interacting.

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