Attachment Theory and The Strange Situation

Attachment Parenting, a term first coined by Dr. Sears, is used to describe a parenting style that focuses on developing a secure attachment between child and caregiver.  It consists of 8 principles (click to learn more from Attachment Parenting International):

One of the worries often brought by those new to attachment parenting is that it will make kids that are clingy and overly dependent on their parents.  So, what does the science say?  Attachment Parenting is actually based on research into Attachment Theory.  Attachment Theory, originally postulated by psychiatrist and psychoanalyst John Bowlby, uses psychology, brain science, and evolutionary biology to define the normal and abnormal development of human relationships.  The core tenet is that early attachments, formed in infancy, effect the future cognitive and social development of a child.

There are four types of attachment patterns: Secure, Anxious-resistant, Anxious-avoidant, and Disorganized.  These can be arranged on a continuum based on level of anxiety and avoidance.

In order to research this theory the Strange Situation Protocol was designed.  Wikipedia has a good summary of this research set up.

The ‘Strange Situation’ is a laboratory procedure used to assess infant patterns of attachment to their caregiver. In the procedure, the mother and infant are placed in an unfamiliar playroom equipped with toys while a researcher observes/records the procedure through a one-way mirror. The procedure consists of eight sequential episodes in which the child experiences both separation from and reunion with the mother as well as the presence of an unfamiliar stranger.  During this time the behaviors of the baby are recorded and categorized into one of the attachment patterns. 

  • Secure – securely attached babies explore freely when their caregiver is present, engages with strangers, are upset when the caregiver leaves and happy when they return.
  • Resistant – this type of insecurely attached baby does not explore the strange place, is wary of strangers, is highly distressed when the caregiver leaves, but ambivalent when they return.
  • Avoidant – this type of insecurely attached baby is noted by overt avoidance of the caregiver upon their return.  This baby will treat the caregiver and stranger the same – with ambivilance.  This baby will squirm to get down when held, turn their face away, or crawl the other direction when the caregiver returns.

How could this effect the future development of a child?  Luanne Pierce discusses longer term effects of early childhood attachment in her look at the work of Larry Brentro, Martin Brokenleg and Steve Van Brockern in their book Reclaiming Youth At Risk.  Using life-stages based on Native American beliefs, they look at each stage and how initial attachment (stage 1) effects each subsequent step.  Here is an overview:

So what’s going on here?  If full-term breastfeeding, cosleeping, babywearing, and other Attachment Parenting practices would seem to make kids dependent, how do they end up making kids more independent?  Bowlby postulates that proximity-seeking behaviors in infants (those skills that help mommy and/or daddy to stay close by) are biologically programmed to elicit a response in adults.  Based on the pattern of response they get they develop an internal working model of self and others that tells them “I have a safe and secure place from which to go out and explore the world.”  This makes them more confident in their abilities and resilient to setbacks.  On the other hand a child who has no or scattered patterns of response is not really sure of the world or their abilities and this can lead to the myriad problems seen in the chart above.

The best news?  Bowlby says that children’s overall attachment pattern isn’t set in stone until 5 years old. If a child is displaying characteristics of an avoidant or resistant attachment, there are therapies that can help reverse the trend and lead to a happier family life and a more successful, balance child.

For more information, watch this video of Bowlby’s Attachment Theory:

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6 thoughts on “Attachment Theory and The Strange Situation

  1. Great post honey. So many people compliment that Aellyn is such a happy baby. I know it is because we practice attachment parenting. She definitely falls into the category of “secure”.


  2. Great post!! Loved reading the condensed AP material. It was very informative and you can see very clearly by watching Aellyn that it is working. keep teaching me – I want to be the best Grandma ever.


  3. This is a great post. I had read about the study before. I love that my children are growing up to be so independent. I love what AP has done for our family.


  4. Same with me! People are constantly gushing over how happy and how well-behaved my 11.5 month old is… I’ve always responded to his cries and cues (with a healthy dose of “Go play by yourself while I blog!”) and taken him everywhere with me. You just have to tune out the doubters and go with what feels right and seems to work with your baby.


  5. Pingback: Attachment Parenting, Attachment Theory, and Being “Attached”

  6. Pingback: Attachment Styles | teresa2003blog

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