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“I miss you…but I’m going to show you that I’m really mad!” Insecure Attachment (Part 3)

May 3, 2011

In last week’s blog, I spoke about The Strange Situation, an experiment devised by Dr. Mary Ainsworth for identifying the different ways that children (and theoretically, adults) relate to others. The first attachment style that I discussed was Secure Attachment (click here for last week’s blog). In today’s blog, I’ll briefly discuss the other types of attachment patterns. As you read through, think of how you (or someone you’ve dated) illustrated these patterns in relationships.

Insecure Attachment Patterns

When the caregiver returned to the playroom after being gone for a few seconds, some children were ambivalent about her presence. That is, they wanted to get close to mom in order to be comforted, but sometimes hesitated from approaching her. It was almost as though they were saying, “I want to get close to you, but I’m still mad at you for going away. So, I might let you hold me, but I’m going to continue pouting and make it difficult for you to comfort me.” They wanted to be comforted by their mother, but would not show this emotion when they were held or picked up. This type of insecure attachment pattern is known as anxious-resistant.

Another group of children showed little or no attention at all upon the mother’s return. They may even have run away or avoided the parent altogether. Such children were so disengaged from the parent that even when a stranger entered the room, these children showed little or no emotion. It’s almost as though their behaviours were saying, “I’m so mad at you for leaving that I’m going to avoid you altogether. And if you try to comfort me, I’m just going to ignore you.” This group of attachment behaviours is known as anxious-avoidant.

Disorganized/Disoriented Attachment

The fourth attachment pattern that was later identified was disorganized/disoriented attachment. What another psychologist, Dr. Mary Main, found characteristic of this style was that when the mother or caregiver returned to the room, the child would attempt to return to the mother for comfort, but would then stop or freeze as they got close to her. Or, they would let themselves fall to the ground altogether. Ultimately, these children did not seek to be comforted by their parent, and instead tried to find their own means for comfort. What Main and her colleague Hesse found amongst mothers of children with disorganized/disoriented attachment is that these mothers suffered major losses or experienced serious trauma and were severely depressed during their child’s early years (see reference below).

Criticisms of Attachment Theory

In essence, attachment patterns are related to the primary caregiver’s level of engagement in responding to their child’s cues and behaviours. In theory, highly engaged mothers have securely attached children. Conversely, disengaged parenting fosters insecure attachment.

A criticism of attachment theory is that it does not consider the impact that the child’s behaviour has on the mother’s level of engagement. There are many mothers and parents who make consistent efforts at engaging with their children; however, because of the child’s temperament, or other uncontrollable circumstances (e.g., the child has a developmental disability), the parent may not be reading the child’s cues properly, and therefore do not engage with the child. Similarly, even though some parents are very engaged in responding to their child’s cues, the child may perceive the mother as disengaged. In the end, it is important to recognize that there are many factors that contribute to raising securely and insecurely attached children.

Hoping your week is filled with much knowledge and growth…

(Richard Amaral is a registered psychologist who provides psychotherapy to all age groups on a variety of issues).


Main, M and Hesse, E (1990). “Parents’ unresolved traumatic experiences are related to infant disorganised attachment status”. M.T. Greenberg, D. Cicchetti and E.M. Cummings (eds) Attachment in the Preschool Years. Chicago, University of Chicago Press. pp. 121–160.

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