Understanding Secure and Insecure Attachment


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

The measure of secure attachment in these experiments is the readiness of the child who has become distressed due to separation from mother to be soothed and settled so that once again he can feel emotionally safe enough to explore his world. This is also the measure of secure attachment more broadly, and can be seen in the school age child who is able to tolerate being away from his mother to be in kindergarten and grade school, form relationships with other children characterized by trust, friendliness and turn-taking, and return to home base to re-charge. The re-charging process may be difficult for his parents, as the stress he’s had to undergo to maintain himself at school and “keep it all together” may come out in unruly behavior at home, including displays of anger. Healthy parents must be able to understand and endure these periods. The securely attached school age child is able to more or less achieve the highest level of maturity he can at school, and uses the existence of the secure base at home to regress, let it all out, rest, and be soothed.

The insecure resistant ambivalent child shown in the first video is experiencing what has been referred to as the “need-fear dilemma;” he both needs the mother for comfort, but something in his history with this mother has instilled fear and distrust that he will find what he needs. Reunion with his mother is characterized by a combination of his using his mother’s body for postural support and being angry at her coincidentally. It was speculated in this video that earlier in his life his mother’s availability had been too inconsistent to promote secure bonding. This interactive pattern, as well as those between children and depressed mothers and children whose mothers or mothering partners are emotionally disturbed or chronically angry, has been shown to be predictive of insecure attachment at age 20. Bowlby notes that the attachment category can shift from insecure to secure if the parental environment becomes healthy enough to effect repair. It is likely, however, that even with the provision of healthier parenting in childhood, or healthier models of relating in intimate adult relationships, that vulnerability to insecure attachment characteristics is potential.


The insecurely attached school age child has difficulty exploring the larger world, and as a result will have difficulty forming relationships with other children characterized by trust, friendliness, and turn-taking. Depending upon the nature of the insecure attachment pattern, his behavior with other schoolchildren may be sullen, withdrawn, avoidant, aggressive, or some combination of these. Of course, these interpersonal difficulties will hamper this child’s emotional freedom to explore the larger world, that is, to appreciate novelty and to learn.

The insecurely attached parent may react to his school age child’s difficulties with a mixture of adaptive, caring responses and withdrawing, angry, blaming or despairing responses. Of course, this mixture perpetuates the child’s experience of not having a secure base, and this child may internalize his parents’ attitudes and develop a faulty self image. The dance in this family is certainly an unhappy one in which none of the members feels particularly trusting in family life. Consultation with a mental health professional is strongly recommended for this family.

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