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Attachment Theory: Securely attached children and adults (Part 2)

April 25, 2011

I remember facilitating psychotherapy groups for adolescents a few years ago. One of the topics that always led to interesting discussions was that of Relationships. Whenever this topic came up, especially when discussing past or current partners, there were two words (among others…these are teens, remember) that were always mentioned: ‘secure’ and ‘insecure.’

Why did you leave him?

“I left him because he was so insecure. He was always jealous of me talking with other guys.” Or, “I need to find someone who’s more secure with themselves.”

As adults, we’ve often used these terms to describe someone we have dated. However, very few of us understand the origins of these words or what they really mean.

Am I Secure or Insecure? An Experiment on Attachment

In the 1960’s and 70’s, Mary Ainsworth wanted to explore Bowlby’s attachment theory in greater depth. From his concepts, she devised an experiment that has become the hallmark for measuring whether children will be “secure” or “insecure” in their relationships. Her experiment was called The Strange Situation. It involved having a child play in the same room with their primary caregiver (usually the mother). After a few minutes, the caregiver would then leave the room. In some manipulations of the conditions, a stranger would enter the room and try to comfort the child. In other experimental conditions, a stranger was not present.

In all situations, the child experienced distress when the caregiver left the room. The objective of the experiment, however, was not to monitor the level of distress upon the mother’s departure. The tell-tale measurement of attachment was how the child responded when the mother re-entered the room.

Secure Attachment

In total, Ainsworth identified three attachment patterns (a fourth was added later). The first pattern identified was that of a securely attached child. Securely attached children were those who sought proximity or contact with the parent after they re-entered the room. Also, these children did not require much attention in order to be comforted. Just holding them abated their tears and fears. After being comforted, the child soon felt secure enough to continue exploring the rest of the playroom. Essentially, the term “securely attached” came from the observation that these children felt comfortable exploring their world (i.e., the playroom) because they trusted that their “secure base” (mom or caregiver) was there to protect and soothe them should something negative happen.

Securely attached children have a healthy Internal Working Model (IWM) of what a soothing, safe, and secure base provides for them. When they enter into a relationship as adults, these children will be less likely to depend on their partners for fulfilling their emotional needs of security and safety. Because of their securely attached relationships in childhood, they have learned to calm and soothe themselves when a distressing event occurs, and will be less anxious or distressed than adults who were insecure or anxious as children.

In next week’s blog, I’ll write about the other attachment patterns (e.g., insecure, anxious/avoidant), how these behaviours are expressed in adulthood, and some of the criticisms of attachment theory.

Hoping your week is filled with much knowledge and growth….

Dr. Richard Amaral

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