Understanding Secure and Insecure Attachment


Understanding Secure and Insecure Attachment
How Does it Affect Adult Relationships?

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 45-55% 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 this 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.

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