Understanding Secure and Insecure Attachment

Dr. John Gerson, Ph.D.

John Gerson

Licensed Psychologist

It should be our goal as parents to raise our children to be secure people. Fortunately, most of us have implicit knowledge of the behavioral ingredients that combine to promote security. That implicit knowledge most likely comes from the lucky experience of having been parented by parents who were themselves “securely attached.”

Of course, not all of us have been so fortunate, and have experienced a particular quality of early mothering that deposited us as infants and toddlers in the category of “insecurely attached.” Richard Bowlby, the British Psychologist son of the father of Attachment theory, John Bowlby, notes that in the U.K. approximately 55-65% of the population are securely attached, and 35-45% insecurely attached.

These categories, securely and insecurely attached, are defined operationally through the observation of a toddler’s behavior upon separation and reunion with his mother. The observations are made through a one-way mirror which looks into a room where there are toys. To begin, mother and toddler enter the room, mother bonding with the child in some way and helping him to explore this new or “strange situation.” The experimental design and research called the Strange Situation is the work of Developmental Psychologist Mary Ainsworth, who used it in the 1970’s to describe secure and insecure behaviors with respect to attachment. These two attachment patterns are vividly seen in the interaction of two mother-child pairs in the following video:

Attachment Theory, and the experimentation it generated, has given us a framework within which to understand the meaning and psychological implications of a child’s behavior as it pertains to the quality of the bond that has existed between the child and the mother, or mothering partner. D.W. Winnicott, a renowned British Pediatrician and Psychiatrist whose writings cover the 1930’s to the mid 1950’s, famously said that there is no such thing as a baby, and by this meant that early in life the baby exists only in relationship with the mother, that it is the unit of baby-mother which must be perceived first of all. Winnicott also gave us the concept of the holding environment, and recognized that “early anxiety is related to being insecurely held.” Holding is of course physical, but it is also experienced without skin contact, through timing, or temporal patterns of engagement and non-engagement that exist between mother and child, and between people generally. These patterns notably include turn-taking, the rate of vocalization, pausing, reaction time, interruption, and resumption, and with facial and affect matching are important factors in promoting or discouraging intimacy. These concepts are drawn from the work of infant researchers Beatrice Beebe, Frank Lachmann, Alan Sroufe and others.

In considering infant mother interaction, and ways in which infant and mother either stay on track with each other or disengage as a way to regulate some stress that has been created in either partner through the interaction, it is important to recognize that perfection is not the goal. In fact, it has been shown that efforts to perfectly match the affective and temporal patterns of the child are counterproductive to the establishment of secure attachment, and may instead produce attachment strategies referred to as avoidant. These efforts may express anxiety or concern on the part of the mother, which motivates her to need too much responsivity from her infant before he is comfortable enough to engage her. Her turning away, a tactic designed to down-regulate the stress of her frustration and feelings of rejection may reciprocally motivate her infant to subsequently become very focused, or hypervigilant upon her. This sub-optimal interactive pattern, if not repaired, has been shown to be predictive of insecure anxious-resistant attachment patterns. As each partner in this dance has become too dependent on the other for comfort and security, what family therapist Salvatore Minuchin has been called an enmeshed family system may evolve. Marital researcher John Gottman has found a high degree of tracking and vigilance to exist in disturbed marriages.

On the other hand, too little engagement, or low levels of interactive tracking is also predictive of insecure attachment. Instead, infant researchers have found that the secure attachment patterns are the product of interactive tracking which is moderate, that is, neither too much nor too little. Goldilocks couldn’t eat the porridge which was not hot enough or too hot; it had to be “just right.” Just right interactive patterns, or dances, are those which leave each partner with space to achieve personal comfort and to re-engage from a base of being “in one’s self.”

The following video, Secure Attachment and Key Persons in Day Care with Richard Bowlby, is very explanatory of these ideas, and particularly includes Alan Sroufe’s reassuring remarks about the value of moderate levels of interaction; your child only needs you to be “mostly patient, mostly reliable, mostly responsive, mostly understanding:” http://youtu.be/GhrMvzd5ZiU

The key value to the establishment of a “secure base” for the child is that it allows and promotes exploration of the larger world. Toys are manipulated, novelty is stimulating. In Winnicott’s language the child of a secure mother for the most part doesn’t have to be “concerned” about her, and can “go on being,” that is, exploring, playing and developing in accordance with his own template and desires. When he’s tired or stressed he can return to the safety of his secure base, and return to his larger world once emotionally and physically re-stocked. This dance is of course what we need and expect from healthy families and healthy marriages. This sequence is beautifully demonstrated in the following video, which more strictly follows the regimen of Ainsworth’s Strange Situation, as it involves not only a strange room, the appearance and disappearance of the mother, but also the appearance and reappearance of a stranger: http://youtu.be/i5MudJ7yxkE

The measure of secure attachment in these experiments is the readiness of the child who has become distressed due to separation from mother to be soothed and settled so that once again he can feel emotionally safe enough to explore his world. This is also the measure of secure attachment more broadly, and can be seen in the school age child who is able to tolerate being away from his mother to be in kindergarten and grade school, form relationships with other children characterized by trust, friendliness and turn taking, and return to home base to re-charge. The re-charging process may be difficult for his parents, as the stress he’s had to undergo to maintain himself at school and “keep it all together” may come out in unruly behavior at home, including displays of anger. Healthy parents must be able to understand and endure these periods. The securely attached school age child is able to more or less achieve the highest level of maturity he can at school, and uses the existence of the secure base at home to regress, let it all out, rest, and be soothed.

The insecure resistant ambivalent child shown in the first video is experiencing what has been referred to as the “need-fear dilemma;” he both needs the mother for comfort, but something in his history with this mother has instilled fear and distrust that he will find what he needs. Reunion with his mother is characterized by a combination of his using his mother’s body for postural support and being angry at her coincidentally. It was speculated in this video that earlier in his life his mother’s availability had been too inconsistent to promote secure bonding. This interactive pattern, as well as those between children and depressed mothers and children whose mothers or mothering partners are emotionally disturbed or chronically angry, has been shown to be predictive of insecure attachment at age 20. Bowlby notes that the attachment category can shift from insecure to secure if the parental environment becomes healthy enough to effect repair. It is likely, however, that even with the provision of healthier parenting in childhood, or healthier models of relating in intimate adult relationships, that vulnerability to insecure attachment characteristics is potential.

The insecurely attached school age child has difficulty exploring the larger world, and as a result will have difficulty forming relationships with other children characterized by trust, friendliness, and turn taking. Depending upon the nature of the insecure attachment pattern, his behavior with other schoolchildren may be sullen, withdrawn, avoidant, aggressive, or some combination of these. Of course, these interpersonal difficulties will hamper this child’s emotional freedom to explore the larger world, that is, to appreciate novelty and to learn.

The insecurely attached parent may react to his school age child’s difficulties with a mixture of adaptive, caring responses and withdrawing, angry, blaming or despairing responses. Of course, this mixture perpetuates the child’s experience of not having a secure base, and this child may internalize his parents’ attitudes and develop a faulty self image. The dance in this family is certainly an unhappy one in which none of the members feels particularly trusting in family life. Consultation with a mental health professional is strongly recommended for this family.

The following video dramatizes insecure ambivalent attachment through dance, and is followed by the dancer’s commentary: http://youtu.be/UqI1FnjJdls



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