Different types of attachment

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Read about different types of attachment that a baby or child might develop. Attachment issues, such as disorganized attachment, are discussed.

Key points

  • Attachment is the emotional relationship between a baby or child and their caregiver.
  • There are several types of attachment including secure, insecure/avoidant, insecure/ambivalent/resistant and insecure/disorganized/disoriented.

Attachment is the emotional relationship between your baby and you, their caregiver. Attachment goes both ways: from you to your baby, and from your baby to you. It is the system of behaviours your baby displays in order to get and stay close to you. Generally, your baby will seek to make contact with you when they are frightened, upset, tired or ill. They signal this by crying.

In the 1950s, psychiatrist John Bowlby proposed that a baby’s tie to their caregiver is formed out of a number of behavioural responses that develop in the first year of life. The baby ensures their own survival by attracting the attention of their caregivers. Usually, the most important caregiver is the one who responds most frequently to their signals for closeness.

All babies are born relationship ready. Babies are also born with attachment-based behaviours (crying) that cue their caregiver when they are in distress and need them be close.

Attachment is the emotional relationship that develops between a baby and their caregiver. Attachment is developed based on the behaviours/response a caregiver has when the infant cues distress and needs closeness, and the infant’s understanding of how their caregiver will respond to their crying.

Caregivers across cultures have different parenting expectations and may even vary in how they parent. For instance, in some cultures, the words “I love you” do not translate. These parents will say this emotion is conveyed through the tone they use when speaking to their child. It is important to take time to understand an individual’s parenting history (how they were parented) and how they parent.

There are a number of ways that your baby will try to seek and maintain contact with you. Their first way of communicating is through crying, and they will cry when they need you at times of distress. Grasping your finger, smiling and eventually reaching out to you are ways that your baby will show their connection to you at times of play and exploration.

Your baby’s attachment pattern will slowly emerge over the first year of their life. As your child gets older, their sense of attachment will influence how they perceive and interact with other people.

Types of attachment

In the 1970s, a psychologist named Mary Ainsworth developed a system for classifying the relationship between children and their caregivers. They did this by using a research procedure called the Strange Situation. This involved a number of episodes where children were observed while they were left with their parent alone, a stranger alone, a stranger and the parent or totally alone in an unfamiliar playroom. Ainsworth evaluated how the children reacted to these stressful situations. They looked at:

  • how much exploring the children did with their parent present
  • how much they showed distress when their parent left the room and they were separated
  • how they related to their parent compared with a stranger
  • how they acted when reunited with their parent, that is, how quickly the children were able to return to calm

Through her research, Ainsworth was able to show that children tend to take on a specific attachment type, described below, which affects how they react in stressful situations. The type of attachment that defines a parent-child relationship is shaped by a parent’s caregiving responses to their child, particularly when the child is frightened, tired, upset or ill.

Secure attachment

The majority of children have secure attachment. These children tend to trust that when they are in distress, they can count on others to help them. Because of this, they are better able to enjoy playing and exploring their world, especially in the context of other relationships. They are distressed by their primary caregiver's departure from the playroom, and they are easily comforted by the caregiver's sensitive and soothing reactions upon their return. A child with secure attachment is better soothed and trusts their caregiver to return them to a calm state.

Caregivers of secure children are sensitive to their child's signals and are receptive and accepting of their child's distress. They are also consistent in applying comfort, particularly when their child is ill, hurt, upset or frustrated. They show positive feelings towards their child, and their ability to understand what their child needs leaves the child feeling understood and loved. Therefore, they are careful not to overwhelm their child by being overly intrusive with their own needs. Instead, they give their child as much freedom as possible to explore the world independently, while at the same time ensuring that their child is safe.

When caregivers respond consistently in an attuned and accepting way, babies and children learn that someone is there to support and protect them, especially in times of distress. With this reassurance, children feel free to explore the physical and social world confidently, knowing they can return to the safety of a caregiver if any situation becomes frightening or overwhelming. With this advantage, babies and young children will encounter many opportunities to learn new skills, and they are able to take full advantage of them. Knowing that the parent always offers a safe haven from which to explore the larger world is the basis of a secure attachment.

Insecure/avoidant attachment

Less than a quarter of children have an insecure or avoidant attachment style. A child with avoidant attachment does not appear to be bothered or distressed by a caregiver's absence and will often ignore the caregiver upon reunion. They appear to manage without distress during separations from their caregiver at times when separations should be more stressful. These children can also sometimes look like they are not connected to the distress of other children or adults. A child with avoidant attachment has learned to push down or ignore their own feelings of distress, so they become very good at not showing them.

An avoidant attachment pattern can occur if the caregiver does not provide adequate comfort when the child is emotionally upset, ill or hurt. These caregivers may become hostile, ignoring or rejecting if their child shows negative emotions. They may be accessible to their children at times, but they are insensitive to cues of distress when their children require comfort and support. Caregivers may show more delight and acceptance of their children when the children are cooperative and are showing positive emotions. The children learn that they are more accepted by their caregivers during these times and less accepted when they have negative emotions.

Under these circumstances, a baby or young child learns that the caregiver is unwilling or unable to provide comfort in times of distress. Consequently, these children learn to avoid their caregiver and try to manage their distress on their own, with limited success, in order to avoid the caregiver's rejection or hostility. When a caregiver leaves, these children do not seem bothered by the caregiver's absence, but their preoccupation with toys or other objects in the environment reflects their active avoidance of the caregiver when they are reunited. The child's need to manage their distress without the caregiver's help creates an added burden for the child and causes them to have trouble believing others will help them if they run into trouble. This causes their exploration and learning to be more limited than that of securely attached children.

Insecure/ambivalent/resistant attachment

Less than 15% of children have an insecure/ambivalent/resistant attachment pattern. A child with this type of attachment style tends to become very upset when left alone and very hard to calm. They are reluctant to explore their environment, even when the primary caregiver is close by, and they might not respond well to the caregiver's attempts at soothing and calming. The child's behaviour may look worse during this time of attempted comfort by the primary caregiver. Instead of calming, the child may be whiny, unhappy, impulsive, needy, tense, angry and intense. They can also act helpless at times.

Caregivers of children with resistant attachment may be overly anxious and can be overprotective and interfering at times, promoting more corrective behaviours rather than attuned behaviours. Attuned behaviours are aimed at helping the child feel understood both in distress and in play. The caregiver tends to be inconsistent in response to their child's signals of distress. Sometimes these caregivers respond well, while at other times, they fail to notice the child's needs for comfort or do not provide the necessary support.

Babies and young children in these situations learn that the caregiver is unpredictable — sometimes comfort is provided; sometimes it is not. Given this unpredictability, babies and young children learn to exaggerate their emotional responses in order to attract and keep their caregiver’s attention. These children can be very hard to settle, perhaps because they fear that they will lose their caregiver's attention once they begin to calm down. Since children facing these challenges are more concerned with keeping their caregivers involved in their comfort, their exploration of the world is restricted, and so are their opportunities for learning new things.

Insecure/disorganized/disoriented attachment

Another 10% to 14% of children fall into a fourth category: insecure/disorganized/disoriented attachment. A child in this pattern seems to have no strategy for coping with separation or reunion. Their behaviours are often confusing to others as well as to themselves. They may demonstrate behaviours such as freezing, dissociating or appearing frightened. They may want to be close to their caregiver but strike out at the same time. This happens because the child is unsure about the safety of the caregiver in relation to their distress. Often, the caregiver has caused the distress, which causes the child to be confused about wanting to be close to the caregiver and stay away from the caregiver at the same time. Disorganization is considered an extreme form of insecurity.

Children who fall into the disorganized pattern cannot predict what will happen if they approach their caregiver for comfort. At times, caregivers may seem frightened and unable to cope when their child is in distress. At other times, caregivers may be frightening for the child, displaying extreme anger and hostility. This pattern of behaviour places the child in an impossible situation when distressed; the child wants to seek comfort but is afraid to do so.

Caregivers who have behaviours that are experienced by the children as frightened or frightening may be depressed, suffering from trauma and/or have addictions to substances that get in the way of knowing what their child needs. For similar reasons, they may be abusive towards their child or affected by their own trauma, abuse or severe loss. Disorganized attachments are seen frequently in homes where children are exposed to violence and abuse.

Further information

For more information about attachment, please see the following pages:

Development of attachment

Attachment: What you can do

Attachment and premature babies

Last updated: April 12th 2023