(See the Strange Situation article for more information on the procedure used to determine the type of infant-caregiver attachment.)
“A thing which has not been understood inevitably reappears; like an unlaid ghost, it cannot rest until the mystery has been resolved and the spell broken” (Freud, 1909).
There are four main types of attachment; secure, avoidant, resistant, and disorganized. Securely attached children use their mother as a home base from which to explore. When she is there, they are calm, and they check in with her occasionally. They may get a bit upset when their mother leaves and they will actively seek her out and go to her when she returns. Their crying goes away quickly. They are easily comforted by their mother and they calm down in little time (Berk, 2013; Feldman, 2014).
Securely attached infants have a main caregiver who is sensitive and responsive to their needs. When they cry because they are hungry, their caregiver feeds them. There is consistent care and these infants feel secure knowing that someone is there for them. Children with a secure attachment tend to have good social skills. They are more empathetic and less disruptive and aggressive than other children. Children who are securely attached at age one are more successful in their later relationships, have healthy self-esteem, and have fewer psychological problems when they get older than children with other attachment types. Most children in the U.S., about two-thirds or about 65%, are securely attached (Cherry, 2019; Feldman, 2014).
Infants with an avoidant attachment do not seek proximity or physical closeness when their mother is there; they go play by themselves. It may seem like they are ignoring her. After she has left, they don’t seem upset. They react to the stranger the same way as the mother. When the mother returns, they avoid her or are slow to greet her, acting like they don’t care if she’s there or not. When they are picked up, they don’t hug back (Berk, 2013; Feldman, 2014). What does this mean?
Children with an avoidant attachment may seem like little adults who don’t need affection, but physiologically when their caregiver leaves, their hearts race and they have just as much anxiety as the other children, they just don’t show it. When these infants were upset at home, their caregiver may have been insensitive or rejecting; ignoring them when they cried, ridiculing or being annoyed by them, so the infants stopped showing that they were upset, because that made them vulnerable to be hurt. As adults, these children stay away from emotional closeness. They may say their partner is too clingy but really, they don’t want to be vulnerable, to get rejected or hurt again, so they don’t open themselves up, and they may feel lonely. About 20% of 1-year-old children are classified as having an avoidant attachment (Cherry, 2019; Feldman, 2014).
Infants with a resistant or ambivalent attachment seek closeness to their mother and don’t explore the room in the Strange Situation. They stay very close to their mother, almost clinging to her. They seem anxious and worried. When their mother returns, they are very angry, sometimes hitting and pushing her. Many of these infants keep crying after she picks them up. They can’t be calmed down or easily comforted. This is a difference from securely attached infants who calm down easily (Berk, 2013; Feldman, 2014). Why might they act this way?
Infants with a resistant attachment may have caregivers who are inconsistent and unpredictable in their care; sometimes they respond, sometimes they don’t. These caregivers might get overwhelmed easily or may be dealing with their own issues. Since the infants can’t count on their caregiver they cling and get angry, not trusting that she’ll be there for them if they need her. Later on, children with a resistant attachment may have trouble maintaining romantic relationships. They may have inherited distrust of their partner and never feel totally confident in their partner’s love, because of this first relationship. About 10 to 15% of 1-year-olds are resistant (Cherry, 2019; Feldman, 2014).
While the attachment style in infancy tends to be mirrored in adult relationships, it doesn’t mean that all infants who are insecurely attached will have problems or that all securely attached infants will do great. Some research finds that avoidant and ambivalent children can do quite well. Ainsworth came up with the first three categories. Mary Main came up with a fourth type of attachment (Duschinsky, 2015; Feldman, 2014).
Infants with a disorganized attachment show a variety of confused, contradictory, bizarre behaviors when reunited with their mothers. They might go towards their mother but then not look at her or be calm and then start crying out of nowhere. They may freeze in place, sitting and staring at the wall or pinch themselves. Most of these children have histories of abuse. These infants are in an impossible situation; the source of their safety is also the source of their fear. They are the least securely attached of all children. Disorganized attachment is the most powerful predictor for serious problems including aggression, addiction, and serious mental health problems. About 5 to 10% of children fall here (Berger, 2018; Bockarova, 2019; Cherry, 2019; Feldman, 2014).
There is similarity in attachment patterns from one generation to the next. Mothers tend to respond to their infants the same way that their mothers responded to them (Bowlby, 1988). We do what we know until we know better. Are there cultural differences?
For infants from other cultures the Strange Situation could be an unnatural setting. In Germany for example, many infants are classified as being avoidant. Well, the German culture encourages independent play and these children are used to playing by themselves from a young age. In the Strange Situation these infants just go off and play and seem to ignore their mother, but they are just used to playing by themselves. In Japan, infants may stay with their mothers longer. If Japanese infants aren’t used to being separated from their mothers, then they will naturally act anxious and be very upset when she leaves them. It’s a new event, so you have to look at the culture too (Berk, 2013).
Berger, K. S. (2018). The developing person: Through Childhood and adolescence (11th
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Berk, L. E. (2013). Child development (9th ed.). Boston, MA: Pearson.
Bockarova, M. (2019). The forgotten attachment style: Disorganized attachment. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/romantically-attached/201909/the-forgotten-attachment-style-disorganized-attachment
Bowlby, J. (1988). A secure base: Parent-child attachment and healthy human development. New York, NY: Basic Books.
Cherry, K. (2019). The different types of attachment styles. Retrieved from https://www.verywellmind.com/attachment-styles-2795344
Duschinsky, R. (2015). The emergence of the disorganized/disoriented (D) attachment classification, 1979-1982. History of Psychology, 18(1), 32-46. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4321742/
Feldman, R. S. (2014). Child development: A topical approach. Boston, MA: Pearson.
Freud, S. (1909). Sigmund Freud quotes. Retrieved from https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/9658257-a-thing-which-has-not-been-understood-inevitably-reappears-like