Secure attachment

Secure attachment is classified by children who show some distress when their caregiver leaves but are able to compose themselves quickly when the caregiver returns.[1] Children with secure attachment feel protected by their caregivers, and they know that they can depend on them to return. John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth developed a theory known as attachment theory after inadvertently studying children who were patients in a hospital at which they were working. Attachment theory explains how the parent-child relationship emerges and provides influence on subsequent behaviors and relationships. Stemming from this theory, there are four main types of attachment: secure attachment, ambivalent attachment, avoidant attachment and disorganized attachment.[2]

Painting of Marcus Stone. Children in close relationship to both parents

Ambivalent attachment is defined by children who become very distressed when their caregiver leaves, and they are not able to soothe or compose themselves. These children cannot depend on their caregiver(s) to be there for them. This is a relatively infrequent case with only a small percentage of children in the United States affected.[3] Avoidant attachment is represented by children who avoid their caregiver, showing no distress when the caregiver leaves. These children react similarly to a stranger as do they with their caregiver. This attachment is often associated with abusive situations. Children who are reprimanded for going to their caregiver will stop seeking help in the future. Disoriented attachment is defined by children who have no consistent way to manage their separation from and reunion with the attachment figure. Sometimes these children appear to be clinically depressed. These children are often present in studies of high-risk samples of severely maltreated babies, but they also appear in other samples.[4]

Children who have a secure attachment to their primary caregiver will grow to have higher self-esteem as well as better self-reliance. Additionally, these children tend to be more independent and have lower reported instances of anxiety and depression. These children are also able to form better social relationships.[5]


Children who are securely attached typically are visibly upset as their caregivers leave, but they are happy upon their return. These children seek comfort from their parent or caregiver when frightened. In an instance when their parent or primary caregiver is not available, these children can be comforted to a degree by others, but they prefer their familiar parent or caregiver. Likewise, when parents with secure attachments reach out to their children, the children welcome the connection.[6] Playing with children is more common when parents and children have a secure attachment. These parents react more quickly to their children's needs and are typically more responsive to a child they are securely attached to than one of insecure attachment.[7] Attachment carries on throughout the growth of the children. Studies support that secure attachments with primary caregivers lead to more mature and less aggressive children than those with avoidant or ambivalent attachment styles.[8]

The relationship type infants establish with their primary caregiver can predict the course of their relationships and connections throughout their lives. Those who are securely attached have high self-esteem, seek out social connection and support and are able to share their feelings with other people. They also tend to have long-term, trusting relationships.[9] Secure attachment has been shown to act as a buffer to determinants of health among preschoolers, including stress and poverty.[10] One study supports that women with a secure attachment style had more positive feelings with regard to their adult relationships than women with insecure attachment styles. Within an adult romantic relationship, secure attachment can mean[11] both people engage in close, bodily contact, disclose information with one another, share discoveries with each other and feel safe when the other is nearby.


The Strange Situation was an experimental procedure developed by Ainsworth to study the variety of attachment forms between one- to two-year-olds and their mothers. Mothers at the time were their primary caregivers. The sample was made up of 100 middle class American families.[12] There was a room set up with one-way glass allowing the researcher to observe the interaction. Inside the room, there were some toys and a confederate, fulfilling the role of stranger. The Strange Situation had eight episodes lasting three minutes each. The behavior of the infant was observed during each phase. The mother, baby and experimenter were all together initially. This phase lasted less than one minute. Then the mother and baby were alone in the room. A stranger, confederate, joined the mother and infant. After a set time had passed, the mother would leave the room, leaving her child with the stranger. The children with a secure attachment to their mother would cry for a few minutes but were able to compose themselves and play with the toys. Once the mother returned, the children with secure attachments greeted them and returned to play. Sometimes, they would show their mothers the toys with which they had played. As the mother returned, the stranger left. Then the mother left and the infant was left alone. The stranger returned. Lastly, the mother returned and the stranger left. This strange situation became the basis of the attachment theory.[13]

More research was performed by Harry Harlow with monkeys. He utilized the strange situation to see if a monkey would go to a cloth mother or a mother that offers food to the baby. The baby monkey would choose to snuggle up to the cloth mother and felt secure. If the experiment was performed again without the cloth mother then the baby monkey would freeze up, scream, and cry. This study shows a secure attachment to something that is soft and comforting. Babies can feel the same way with blankets or stuffed animals. [14]


J.R. Harris is one of the main critics of attachment theory. She suggests that people assume that honest and respectful parents will have honest and respectful children, et cetera. However, this may not be the case. Harris argues that children's peers have more influence on one's personality than their parents. The common example used is a child with immigrant parents. The children are able to continue to speak their parent's original language whilst at home, but the children can also learn the new language and speak it without an accent, while the parents' accent remains. Harris claims that children learn these things from their peers in an attempt to fit in with others.[15] In the nature versus nurture debate within secure attachment, Harris takes a nature stance. She supports herself by stating that identical twins separated at birth showed more similarities in their hobbies and interests than twins raised in the same household.

Aside from the nature argument, there are three additional criticisms. The attachment is assessed during momentary separations. Since these brief situations can be stressful, this is a limitation in the theory. A better demonstration of the child's reaction might have come from a situation in which the mother left, but the child did not experience excessive stress. Another limitation with the attachment model is the assumption that the mother is the primary attachment figure. Attachment can be expressed differently with each figure. For example, children may cry when one figure leaves while they might have trouble sleeping when another leaves. Additionally, physiological changes can occur during this situation, and they were not accounted for.[16]


  1. ^ Ainsworth, Mary S. (1979). "Infant–mother attachment". American Psychologist. 34 (10): 932–937. doi:10.1037/0003-066X.34.10.932.
  2. ^ Reisz, S., Duschinsky, R., and Siegel, D.J. (2017). Disorganized attachment and defense: Exploring John Bowlby's unpublished reflections. Retrieved from
  3. ^ Cherry, K. A. (2006). What is attachment theory? Retrieved from
  4. ^ Colin, V., & Low, N. (1991, June 21). Infant Attachment: What We Know Now. Retrieved December 1, 2014, from
  5. ^ Cherry, K. A. (2006). What is attachment theory? Retrieved from
  6. ^ Cherry, K. (2014, January 1). 7 Things You Should Know About Attachment Styles. Retrieved December 2, 2014, from
  7. ^ Cherry, K. (2014, January 1). 7 Things You Should Know About Attachment Styles. Retrieved December 2, 2014, from
  8. ^ Cherry, K. (2014, January 1). 7 Things You Should Know About Attachment Styles. Retrieved December 2, 2014, from
  9. ^ Huber, B. (2014, March 27). Four in 10 infants lack strong parental attachments. Retrieved November 20, 2014, from
  10. ^ Fisher, Philip A.; Kim, Hyoun K. (2007-03-06). "Intervention Effects on Foster Preschoolers' Attachment-Related Behaviors From a Randomized Trial". Prevention Science. 8 (2): 161–170. doi:10.1007/s11121-007-0066-5. ISSN 1389-4986. PMC 2533809. PMID 17340186.
  11. ^ Fraley, C. (2010, January 1). A Brief Overview of Adult Attachment Theory and Research | R. Chris Fraley. Retrieved November 16, 2014, from
  12. ^ Fraley, C. (2010, January 1). A Brief Overview of Adult Attachment Theory and Research | R. Chris Fraley. Retrieved November 16, 2014, from
  13. ^ McLeod, S. A. (2008). Mary Ainsworth. Retrieved from
  14. ^ Van der Horst, F. C., & Van der Veer, R. (2008). Loneliness in infancy: Harry Harlow, John Bowlby and issues of separation. Integrative Psychological and Behavioral Science, 42(4), 325-335.
  15. ^ Lee, E. (2003, January 1). The Attachment System Throughout the Life Course: Review and Criticisms of Attachment Theory. Retrieved November 17, 2014, from
  16. ^ Papalia, D. E., & Olds, S. W. (1997). Human development. London: McGraw-Hill.