Mary Ainsworth’s experiment called The Strange Situation was conducted in the 1970’s and has been instrumental in understanding attachment. Her study involved exposing 12- to 18-month-old children to a series of situations to observe the way they interact with the world in the presence and absence of their caregiver. Her findings generated knowledge about four different attachment styles: secure attachment, anxious-ambivalent attachment, anxious-avoidant attachment, and disorganized attachment. Below, you will find a breakdown of each attachment style, a summary of the hypothesis underlying each style, and a brief overview of the concept of rupture and repair.
The Strange Situation experiment included observation of the child through tests such as being alone with their mother, having a stranger enter with their mother still present, their mother leaving them alone with the stranger, their mother returning, etc. These observations revealed that babies with a secure attachment to their caregiver appeared to explore their surroundings more readily in the presence of their mother, regardless of if a stranger was present or not. When their mother left, babies with secure attachment showed signs of distress, but were easily comforted upon the mom’s return. These observations indicate a secure attachment because these caregivers have been able to act as a secure base for their child. When children see their caregivers as a secure base, it fosters the child’s ability to feel safe enough to explore their surroundings. Becoming your child’s safe place also means that they are going to seek proximity to you in times of distress, which is what these children do when their caregivers return to the room after their brief separation from the child. Secure attachment is fostered through hundreds of interactions where the caregiver is consistently present for their child in times of stress.
The children with anxious-ambivalent attachment styles exhibited signs of anxiety and distress through each phase of the experiment. These children were distressed before, during, and after separation. Their caregivers were not able to easily console them upon reunion. It is hypothesized that this attachment style stems from a caregiver who is often inconsistent. Caregivers who are inconsistent in the way they respond to their child in times of distress often fail to act as a secure base for their child because their child is unsure how their caregiver will respond from situation to situation. Children require a high amount of predictability from their caregivers. Predictability fosters a child’s ability to regulate because they can rest in the knowledge that their caregiver will show up for them in times of hardship. Regulation creates a sense of safety so that children can explore and learn about the world around them. It is clear through this study that children with caregivers who are inconsistent in meeting their needs do not feel safe to explore in the presence or absence of their caregivers and this is likely due to the lack of safety and predictability that they experience in their daily lives.
The children with an anxious-avoidant attachment style were often perceived as having a flat affect at each stage of the experiment. They did not seem to explore much regardless of where their caregiver was and did not indicate signs of distress when they were separated from their caregiver. Upon reunion, their affect did not change. The hypothesis behind this attachment style is that these children likely have caregivers who are either absent or rejecting of their children. These children learn from an early age that their caregiver will either not respond at all or will not respond with loving-kindness and understanding. They have learned that it is not safe to express their emotions, and that their needs would not be met even if they did show emotion. Exploration of their surroundings is hindered because their caregivers are not a secure nor safe base for them.
These children often exhibit unusual behaviors in the presence and absence of their caregivers. Their behaviors upon separation vary and can include, loss of body control, high amounts of fear, or completely freezing/shutting down. Upon reunion, these children will often vacillate between connecting with their caregiver and disconnecting from their caregiver. Disorganized attachment stems from caregivers who instill fear in their children either through abuse or neglect. They have often experienced so much abuse and neglect that they are highly dysregulated, which is another reason you may see the bizarre reactions to separation and reunion. When a child has disorganized attachment, connecting with their caregiver is often confused as secure attachment. This is especially true for children with disorganized attachment who are adopted. However, this is not the case. Connection for these children is often done purely for the sake of survival. Simply taking a child from an abusive home does not automatically undo the years of trauma that have led to this way of interacting with the world and others. This will be discussed further in part four of this blog series.
To summarize, the way that children are parented has the greatest impact on a child’s method for relating to others and exploring the world. Children require a consistent parent who is attuned and responsive to their needs and emotional states. They need to feel that they have a safe and secure base with their parent so that they can regulate their bodies and emotions and take developmental steps forward. If any of the insecure attachment styles ring true for you or your child, it is important to understand that hope is not lost. Today, I have talked about many ways that ruptures can happen in relationships but in future parts of this series, we will talk more about how repair can also happen in relationships. Listed below are each of the sections I will be posting regarding the topic of attachment. If you, your child, or someone you know is struggling with issues related to trauma, attachment, etc., please contact me, Madison Slinkard, LCSW, through Psychology Today, or schedule an appointment at Little Rock Counseling and Wellness. I would be happy to talk more with you about treatment options!
Part One: The Biology of Attachment (already released on 10/5/22—can be found on our Facebook page or our website)
Part Two: Trauma and Attachment: Secure Vs. Insecure Attachments
Part Three: Attachment into Adulthood
Part Four: Neuroplasticity: Therapy for Attachment Issues
Part Five: Attachment and Regulation
Part Six: Attachment and Inner Connection
Part Seven: The Inner Working Model and Feelings of Self-Worth