What Is Secure Attachment and How Does It Develop?

Published on: 13 Nov 2020

Human connection is fundamental to our health and well-being. We are all impacted by those we keep close to us. Fostering relationships comes naturally to some people, while it can be a constant challenge for others. Many factors can explain the ease with which we establish a relationship, but the attachment we feel towards our parents is a key influence on our ability to engage in meaningful relationships of all kinds.

From the day we are born, the bond we have or lack with our parents affects our development. This goes on to impact our ability to form bonds with others beyond our caregivers. Having a secure attachment with your parents helps you create healthy bonds in all future relationships. This may sound like a lot of pressure on parents, but it is something that can grow over time and even change later in life.

What is Attachment Theory?

Psychologist Mary Ainsworth led ground-breaking research in the 1970s that ultimately led her to develop attachment theory. Ainsworth conducted experiments with babies to observe how their bond with their caregivers impacted them. Called the “Strange Situation,” Ainsworth observed babies’ responses both when their caregiver left the room and when their caregiver left the room when a stranger was there.

Ainsworth concluded that the bond between caregiver and child shapes the child’s emotional well-being and ability to form healthy relationships. This bond, or attachment, is formed by the caregiver’s care of the child in the first year of their life, and it has a lasting impact on childhood and adulthood adjustment.

According to Ainsworth’s attachment theory, an attachment figure is often a child’s mother, but it can be any primary caregiver, such as a father figure, grandparent, sibling, or adopted caregiver. This attachment figure should be a stable provider and a calm presence for the child. This means that the baby must be able to count on their attachment figure to become securely attached. And this attachment should help a child regulate their emotions and feel comfortable exploring their environment as they grow.

What Are the Four Attachment Styles?

Attachment theory holds that there are four styles of attachment bonds that a child can develop. Secure attachment is the ideal connection, as it implies that the child is well adjusted. Avoidant, ambivalent, and disorganized are other attachment styles and produce outcomes with insecure bonds and potentially negative long-term results for the child.

Secure attachment

Secure attachment is the healthiest form of attachment. It describes an attachment where a child feels comforted by the presence of their caregiver. Securely attached children feel protected and that they have someone to rely on. Children with secure attachment prefer their caregiver over strangers, seek comfort in their caregiver, and are comfortable exploring their environment with their caregiver present.

Secure attachment is seen as crucial to healthy development because it has lasting impacts on an individual. By growing up with a sense of stability and care, securely attached children find it easier to investigate and interact with the world around them .

Into adulthood, secure attachment translates into higher self-esteem, more long-term healthy relationships, and an increased ability to trust others for social support. Since they grow up with a positive caregiver relationship, securely attached children can replicate a healthy bond with others, in all types of relationships.

Avoidant attachment

Avoidant attachment is one of the insecure attachment styles developed in attachment theory, characterized by a child who avoids their caregiver and does not seek comfort from them. These children will show little to no preference for their caregiver over a stranger. They will not seek out their parents when in times of distress.

Avoidant attachment is formed when a child feels they cannot consistently count on their caregiver to comfort and care for them. An avoidant child sees no preference for their caregiver over a stranger because it’s possible the stranger may be more attuned to their needs than their actual caregiver.

Those who grow up with an avoidant attachment are more likely to have challenges with intimacy later in life and be closed off from social relationships. By not growing up with a close connection to their caregiver, they have trouble finding a healthy connection to others in their life.

Ambivalent attachment

Another type of insecure bonding is ambivalent attachment, also called anxious preoccupied attachment. Children with this insecure attachment are clingy to their caregiver, yet when their caregiver attempts to comfort them, the child remains distressed. This can be hard for the caregiver because they are consistently unable to soothe their child, which can lead to a negative cycle of interaction. The child wants to be close with their caregiver but doesn’t fully trust them for support.

As a child with ambivalent attachment grows, this bonding style will often lead to clinginess and distrust in other types of relationships that develop in their life.

Disorganized attachment

Children with disorganized attachment, also called fearful-avoidant attachment, will show an inconsistent connection with their caregiver and often hold fear towards them. The child must rely on the caregiver for survival, but the caregiver is also a source of fear. This is because their caregiver is sometimes there for support and sometimes unavailable or emotionally damaging, so the child doesn’t know when they can count on their caregiver to meet their needs.

This type of attachment style often occurs in homes with abuse, leading to insecure attachment from trauma. It will often contribute to mental health issues in adulthood, like substance abuse and borderline personality disorder.

The Developmental Milestones of Attachment

The first year of life is crucial in developing secure attachment. An attachment style between child and caregiver will be formed by the end of the first 12 months. These are the stages an infant will go through in developing attachment:

Pre-Attachment Stage: Newborn to 3 months

  • Babies show no preference for their caregiver yet.
  • They are soothed by anyone who takes care of them.

Indiscriminate Attachment: 6 weeks to 7 months

  • Babies show some preference for their primary caregivers.
  • They are still soothed by those who aren’t their caregiver but are better at differentiating between strangers and those they know.

Discriminate Attachment: 7 months to 11 months

  • Infants will show a clear preference for one caregiver.
  • They will be upset if separated from their primary caregiver.
  • Babies will now show anxiety around strangers.

Multiple Attachments: from approximately 9 months on

  • Babies can now bond with people other than their caregiver.
  • They can be soothed by people other than their caregiver who they’ve bonded with, such as grandparents and older siblings.

Naturally, attachment isn’t set in stone by the time a child turns one. Rather, attachment bonds continue through early childhood because a child still relies on a caregiver. These bonds can change over time and attachment style has the potential to change, though the first year of life is a large determinate in long-lasting attachment disposition.

How to Create Secure Attachment with Your Child

New parents are often nervous about what’s best for their childhood to set them up for lifelong success. Early childhood is a pivotal time to create a secure bond with your child and so bonding to create a secure attachment with your child is one of the best approaches to focus on when considering approaches to parenting.

In daily life, infants use crying or laughing to communicate with you. How you respond will shape their attachment to you in early childhood. Babies pick up on your emotions in response to their needs through the power of nonverbal communication.

Nonverbal communication

In the early months and years of your child’s life, nonverbal communication is a foundational part of the connection you form with your child. While quality care is important, being a perfect parent is not what makes or breaks a secure attachment. Nonverbal communication plays a big part in secure attachment, which means cultivating a bond with your child through physical and emotional cues.

Positive nonverbal communication in practice means having open body posture, holding eye contact, and using calm facial expressions. It includes using a gentle touch when holding and comforting your child. Speaking to the child with calmness and understanding is also important, even when the child cannot speak yet.

Infants and young children can pick up on your emotions through nonverbal cues, which is why cultivating a calm and reassuring presence is so important. Ensuring the child feels supported emotionally as well as physically from birth is what will create a secure attachment between you and your child.

Obstacles to Secure Attachment

If raising a child was easy, then everyone would have secure attachment to their caregiver, but many challenges come with the territory. Understanding those challenges can help set you up for success to develop a secure bond with your child. Raising a securely attached child is fully possible, as many if not most parents are able to prioritize the needs of their child and fully support them.

Considering your own attachment style can be helpful when assessing the bond you’re fostering with your child, as well as planning for any challenges that may come up for you. If you grew up with a secure attachment to your caregiver, consider what they did well and learn from that. If you have determined that you were raised with an insecure attachment, know you can raise your child to be securely attached. Prioritize your child’s needs and practice the support you may wish you had yourself as a child.

One of the most important things a parent can do is to be self-aware. Staying in touch with your own emotions and having a good support system is important. An infant can feel the emotions of their caregiver, which plays a large role in the type of attachment that’s formed. Parenting can be difficult, but staying calm and supporting your child will help prevent your own emotions from getting in the way of forming a secure bond.

We also live in a world full of endless distractions — the news, busy calendars, and the constant notifications of our phones. It can be hard to limit these distractions but do your best to put the needs of our child first. Daily life is when secure attachment is formed so prioritize limiting these distractions.

Secure Attachment in Adulthood

Attachment style affects our ability to form healthy relationships into adulthood, including romantic relationships and friendships. Those who grew up with secure attachments learned how to form positive bonds with others, applying the skills they learned from their caregiver to adult relationships. Growing up with a secure bond helps an individual feel supported in life because they were able to develop into who they are knowing others care for them. This is something we all need.

Research has shown insecure attachment can be a contributor to mental illness as an adult, leading to conditions such as depression, anxiety, and substance abuse, among other issues. Insecure attachment also often leads to low self-esteem, challenges with intimacy, and an inability to trust others as an adult.

Of course, your relationship with your parents or caregivers into adulthood is impacted by your attachment style to them as a child. Just like any relationship, this can change over time. However, the initial bond you form with them does impact your closeness to them into adulthood in most cases.

Is Attachment Important?

Humans are complex beings, so no single factor will be the determinant of your life story. Attachment is just one aspect of upbringing among many that affects who you become, but it is an important one. Securely attached infants most often become healthy children and stable adults. The outcomes of insecure attachment, however, can be detrimental to all aspects of a person’s life.

Everyone has the potential to form healthy bonds. Even if you grew up with insecure attachment, you can still live a full life with healthy relationships. Processing unhealthy relationships or trauma in therapy is a great step toward healing from insecure attachment. Working on developing healthy social skills can help you shift towards or maintain a secure attachment style in your life. This can lead to happier relationships and deeper connections, ensuring positive mental health for you and your children.

If you’re concerned about your own attachment style or the attachment you’re forming with your child, speaking with a licensed therapist can be a great way to help prioritize growing that relationship in a healthy way. If you’re looking for a convenient, inexpensive option that fits your schedule, online therapy might be a good place to start.

Talkspace articles are written by experienced mental health-wellness contributors; they are grounded in scientific research and evidence-based practices. Articles are extensively reviewed by our team of clinical experts (therapists and psychiatrists of various specialties) to ensure content is accurate and on par with current industry standards.

Our goal at Talkspace is to provide the most up-to-date, valuable, and objective information on mental health-related topics in order to help readers make informed decisions.

Articles contain trusted third-party sources that are either directly linked to in the text or listed at the bottom to take readers directly to the source.

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