S.T.E.A.M. Day

Attachment styles and why they matter

Psychologist Mary Ainsworth devised “the strange situation” to determine the strength and style of parent-infant attachments. In the strange situation, psychologists put a parent and child into a room and introduced a stranger as the parent snuck away. The stranger approaches the child, then the parent comes back in to comfort the child. Based on the child’s reactions, Ainsworth determined 4 types of attachments*. 

*Researcher Main and Soloman established Disorganized-insecure attachment based on Ainsworths’ work


Secure attachment

When the parents of securely attached children left the room they were visibly upset. When the parent came back they readily initiated and accepted comfort. Parents of securely attached children often played and interacted with them, and were responsive to their needs compared to insecurely attached children. Later in life, researchers observed that these children were more empathetic, had higher self-esteem, and were less likely to display defiant behaviors. 

Forming a secure parent-child attachment is expected, but a number of factors contribute to insecure attachment. Researchers noticed that parents who constantly interrupted their child’s activities or ignored them lead to insecure attachments and anxiety. 


Ambivalent-insecure attachment 

Ambivalent children were also visibly upset when left with the stranger, but did not seek out comfort when the parent came back. In some cases they expressed resentment or anger towards their parents. Ambivalent behavior reflects the consistency in parental responses; these responses tend to change from caring to annoyed quickly, and the child’s reception of the parents reflects this too. 

As adults, ambivalent children tended to display clingy, over-dependent behavior. In relationships they might be afraid to become too close to their partners, and as a result cycles in and out of numerous relationships. 


Avoidant-insecure attachment

In contrast, avoidant children showed no emotional reaction when left with the stranger, and showed no preference for their parents. In most cases, they did not reject attention from parents, but also did not actively seek it out. This type of attachment might be caused by parents who ignore or get annoyed when their child shows concern or uncertainty.

Later in life, these children usually have difficulty maintaining close relationships and struggle with sharing their feelings with others. This leads to usually short, inconsequential social and emotional relationships. 


Disorganized-insecure attachment 

A disorganized attachment style is characterized by a lack of clear attachment behavior. During the strange situation, they exhibit dazed, uncertain, or apprehensive behavior regardless of whether her parents are with her. This attachment style is typically a result of their parents being a simultaneous source of fear and reassurance. This creates a tendency to approach the attachment figure and a simultaneous tendency to move away from the attachment figure.

“Experiences of the caregiver as a source of alarm can lead to a disposition to move away, withdraw, or flee from the caregiver when future experiences of alarm occur. However, the attachment response directs an infant to seek safety from their caregiver.” – Granqvist et al. 

Although the long-term effects of this attachment style have not been examined in detail, researchers observed disorganized attachment styles more often in mistreated children (not implying all children with disorganized attachments are mistreated).