What is Secure Attachment?

April 20, 2017

What is Secure Attachment?

We recently sat down with (Provisional Psychologist) Alistair Stronach to talk about all things Attachment (Not the Breast type) We talked through a series of questions with Alistair with all things attachment. 

We wanted to delve into this subject further and really be able to give you some solid information on this very important emotional bond between child and parent.

We would also like to thank Alistair for his time on this matter for all of our mums.


Can you firstly explain the term ‘Attachment’?

Attachment refers to the lasting psychological connectedness that can develop between two people, of any age. In terms of children, it usually refers to the emotional bond that develops between parent and child, although it can develop with anyone who is a child’s primary caregiver (e.g., grandparent, uncle or aunty, foster carer). The quality of the attachment develops over time as the child interacts with their parent(s), particularly in the first two years of life, although attachment bonds continue to develop beyond this period in a child’s life.

 Can you explain what Secure Attachment is and why it is so important?

The type of attachment that a child develops with their parent(s) or caregiver is partly determined by the interaction between the two and partly by the parent/caregiver’s attitude towards their own attachment figures (their parents etc). There are four patterns of or types of attachment that have been described: Secure, Anxious Avoidant, Anxious Ambivalent, and Disorganised.

Secure Attachment is characterised by a number of key features

  • Wanting to be close physically to the Attachment figure
  • Retreating to the Attachment figure when sensing danger or feeling anxious
  • Exploring the world knowing the Attachment figure will protect the child from danger

Attachment has been explained as a mechanism for children to learn how to regulate/control/master their own emotions, and this is heavily influenced by how their caregivers regulate their own emotions. As children become better at expressing their needs and emotions, they learn self-regulation skills. Attachment also impacts on the child’s sense of identity, capacity to influence the world around them, and their early understanding of themselves and others.

 Is there a difference between Bonding and Attachment?

Yes – while Attachment refers to the relationship a child develops with their caregiver, Bonding is the process of the development of the attitude the caregiver has towards the child. In parents, the Bonding process often begins at the point in time when they discover they are pregnant, and this process can be influenced by whether the child is planned, the health status of the mother during pregnancy and issues such as Post Natal Depression.


 How do we identify a lack of Attachment?

All children develop an attachment to their caregivers. What varies is the type of attachment that develops (Secure, Anxious Avoidant, Anxious Ambivalent or Disorganised)

Secure Attachment = in this instance the child is able to separate from their caregiver(s) and explore the world around them, and the return of or to the caregiver(s) is met with positive emotions. The child prefers the caregiver(s) to strangers, and seeks comfort from the caregivers when frightened. The child is comfortable with both intimacy and autonomy, and has a positive view of themselves and others.

Anxious Avoidant Attachment = the main behaviour observed in this child is to never show outwardly a desire for closeness, warmth, affection, or love. Anxious Avoidantly Attached children tend to seek proximity, trying to be near their attachment figure, while not directly interacting or relating to them.

Anxious Ambivalent Attachment = Children with an Anxious Ambivalent attachment style tend to cling to their attachment figures and often act desperate for their attention. However, following separation, when children with Anxious Ambivalent Attachment style are reunited with their mothers, they are confused, dazed or agitated; staring off into space and avoiding direct eye contact with her. Yet, these children usually cling to their mothers. They remain intensely focused on their mother, but do not seem to be satisfied or comforted.

Disorganised Attachment = Children are born with the instinct to seek care from adults around them; their very survival depends on it. So they are highly motivated to form an adaptable strategy to get their needs met, even by a far from perfect or unsafe caregiver. A Disorganised Attachment style develops when there is no organised strategy that works for the child. Their caregivers’ behaviour is unpredictable, so no organised strategy allows the child to feel safe and get their needs met without fright and terror.


When separated from and then reunited with a caregiver, a child with a Disorganised Attachment style expresses odd or ambivalent behaviour toward the caregiver, (i.e. first running up to them, then immediately pulling away, perhaps even running away from the caregiver, curling up in a ball or hitting the caregiver.)  The child’s first impulse may be to seek comfort from the caregiver, but as they get near the caregiver, they feel fear to be in their proximity, demonstrating their disorganised adaption.


What kind of obstacles are there to creating a Secure Attachment style?

Physical and Psychological health issues for parents can impact on the development of a Secure Attachment style. For example, a mother trying to cope with Post Natal depression may struggle to also be attuned to her child’s emotional needs. Inconsistent or unpredictable caregiver behaviour, caregiver hospitalisation or imprisonment, multiple separations from a caregiver, or abandonment by a caregiver can also act as obstacles to a child developing a secure attachment style.


Can the parent’s wellbeing affect Secure Attachment?

Absolutely. A caregiver’s ability to regulate their own emotions and become and remain attuned to the verbal and non-verbal cues of their child, and be able to put themselves into the mind of their child, can significantly impact on the type of Attachment style that a child develops.


Are there crucial milestones associated with secure attachment to look out for as the child grows?

Research has found that a child’s attachment develops in the following order:

Asocial (0-6 weeks)

Very young infants are asocial in that many kinds of stimuli, both social and non-social, produce a favourable reaction, such as a smile.


Indiscriminate Attachment (6 weeks to 7 months)

Infants indiscriminately enjoy human company and most babies respond equally to any caregiver. They get upset when an individual ceases to interact with them. From 3 months infants smile more at familiar faces and can be easily comforted by a regular caregiver.

Specific Attachment (7 – 9 months)

Special preference for a single attachment figure.  The baby looks to particular people for security, comfort and protection.  It shows fear of strangers (stranger fear) and unhappiness when separated from a special person (separation anxiety). 

Some babies show stranger fear and separation anxiety much more frequently and intensely than others, but nevertheless they are seen as evidence that the baby has formed an attachment.  This has usually developed by one year of age.

Multiple Attachment (10 months onwards)

A baby becomes increasingly independent and forms several attachments. By 18 months the majority of infants have form multiple attachments.

Research indicates that attachments are most likely to form with those people who respond accurately to a baby's signals, not the person they spent more time with.

Many babies have several attachments by 10 months old, including attachments to mothers, fathers, grandparents, siblings and neighbours.  The most important element in forming attachments is not who feeds and changes the child but who plays and communicates with him or her. Therefore, appropriate and timely responsiveness appears to be the key to attachment.


Is there such thing as an Attachment disorder?

Not as such, although exposure to the trauma that is associated with significant caregiver neglect or frequent changes in caregiver, and a child’s reaction to that trauma, are strongly associated with Reactive Attachment Disorder and Disinhibited Social Engagement Disorder. Insecure Attachment styles are associated with a number of psychological health issues in later life, such as Anxiety and Depression.


Why is it so important to create a good Attachment with your child?

Research has shown that a Secure Attachment style creates mental processes that enable a child to regulate their emotions and attune to others. Securely attached children also have self-understanding and insight, empathy for others and appropriate moral reasoning.

In turn, these processes support the foundation of “executive functioning skills”. These entail a range of key skills that enable children to focus, hold and manipulate information, solve problems, make decisions, persist at tasks, inhibit impulsive behaviour, set goals and monitor their progress. These are all skills that a child needs for academic learning in the classroom.

How do we create a Secure Attachment?

As caregivers for a child, we can help them to develop a Secure Attachment style through providing sufficiently consistent, responsive, sensitive, appropriate and predictable care and support. We don’t have to be perfect; we just have to be good enough. You can help your child to build a Secure Attachment style through such things as:

  • As babies, looking at them with happy eyes and a smiling face
  • Holding and hugging them
  • Reacting to them predictably
  • Talking to and with them
  • Reading to and with them
  • Enjoying activities together and helping them
  • Delighting in them as they try new things and develop skills
  • Encouraging them to explore the world around them and to be curious
  • Comforting them when they are upset
  • Talking with them about their emotions and how to respond to them
  • Encouraging them to look at the world through other’s eyes

As caregivers, we strive to be:

  • Bigger
  • Wiser
  • Stronger and
  • Kinder

Whenever possible, follow your child’s lead. Whenever necessary, take charge

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