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Mary Ainsworth's Theory of Attachment

Updated on February 11, 2012

What is Your Attachment Style?

Mary Ainsworth's theory of attachment explains the different styles of attachment that can occur between a child and caregiver. The types of attachment can also be applied to romantic relationships. Knowledge of the theory of attachment is very important, because it can indicate whether or not your child has formed a healthy emotional bond with you. In addition, it can show you if your attachment to your significant other is healthy or not.

Couple's Embrace by Ellen Rose Krawiecki

The Theory of Attachment Began with John Bowlby

John Bowlby is considered the father of attachment theory, because he set the foundation for the theory of attachment. Mary Ainsworth and other psychologists tested his original theory and added on to his findings.

"The propensity to make strong emotional bonds to particular individuals is a basic component of human nature." - John Bowlby

What are the Characteristics of Attachment?

John Bowlby's attachment theory defines the characteristics of attachment as proximity maintenance, safe haven, secure base, and separation distress. These key concepts guided Mary Ainsworth and other psychologists in learning more about attachment

Proximity Maintenance

The desire to be near people you are attached to.

Safe Haven

When feeling frightened or threatened, you return to the person you are attached to for comfort and safety.

Secure Base

The attachment figure is like a base of security from which you can explore the surrounding environment.

Separation Distress

When the attachment figure is not present, you feel anxiety.

Hug by Deanna Mentzer
Hug by Deanna Mentzer

How does the Theory of Attachment relate to Romantic Relationships?

The styles of attachment predict how people will act and think as an adult. If a child develops a secure attachment early in life, then he is more likely to also be securely attached in romantic relationships. This attachment style has an effect on both his behavior and thoughts toward relationships. For example, if you are securely attached, then you are inclined to believe that love is enduring. On the other hand, someone who has an avoidant attachment style tends to perceive romantic love as temporary and rare.

Keep in mind that your attachment style as a child is not necessarily your adult attachment style. There have been cases of securely attached children becoming ambivalently attached and vice versa. Just as no type of love is set in stone, no type of attachment style is permanent.

Why can your attachment style as a child differ from your style of attachment as an adult?

Styles of attachment are not set in stone, because many different external factors play a role. Have you ever heard about nature vs. nurture? Your interactions with other people and life experiences help shape your beliefs, behavior, actions, and thoughts, whether you like it or not. No one is immune to outside influences.

Strange Situation

Mary Ainsworth's famous Strange Situation experiment tested and expanded upon John Bowlby's original revolutionary ideas.

A Mother's Love by Danielle Laurin
A Mother's Love by Danielle Laurin

Secure Attachment in Children

Mary Ainsworth's theory of attachment notes that securely attached children become obviously upset when their guardian leaves and are visibly happy when the caregiver returns.

Your child is securely attached if...

He goes to you for comfort when scared.

He accepts touch that you initiate.

He exhibits positive behavior when you return.

He noticeably prefers you over a stranger.

What causes children to become securely attached?

Caregivers play with them often.

Parents respond quickly to their needs. For example, changing a diaper immediately.

Guardians are very responsive to them.

Why should a child be securely attached? Because...

She will be more empathetic.

She will be less disruptive.

She will be less aggressive.

She will be more mature.

Example of Secure Attachment

Without proper and healthy emotional communication between the caregiver and child, the child develops an insecure attachment. The types of insecure attachment are ambivalent, avoidant, and disorganized.

Ambivalent Attachment in Children

Mary Ainsworth's theory of attachment found that children with ambivalent attachment were very distressed when the parent left and did not appear to be comforted by the caregiver's return. Ambivalently attached children will either act aggressive toward the parent or refuse comfort.

Your child is ambivalently attached if...

He is wary of strangers.

He doesn't seem comforted by your return.

What causes children to become ambivalently attached?

The caregiver is not consistent.

The guardian does not respond to the child predictably.

Why shouldn't a child be ambivalently attached? Because he may...

Have anger problems.

Feel like people cannot be trusted.

Become demanding.

Have low self esteem.

Become dependent.

Become clingy.

Create conflict for attention.

Avoidant by Dante
Avoidant by Dante

Avoidant Attachment in Children

According to Mary Ainsworth's theory of attachment, children with an avoidant attachment style do not seek contact or comfort from parents.

Your child is avoidantly attached if...

He tends to avoid you.

He shows no preference between you and a stranger.

He doesn't go to you for comfort.

What causes children to be avoidantly attached?

Neglect.

Feeling rejected by the caregiver.

An irritable, angry, or hostile parent.

Why shouldn't a child be avoidantly attached? Because he may...

Feel unworthy of love.

Feel unloved.

Think that others are unavailable to him.

Shut down emotionally as a coping mechanism.

Act as if he doesn't care, but deep down he does.

Hide his feelings, thoughts, and emotions.

Become aggressive and hostile.

Be disruptive.

Sometimes a child can develop a disorder from insecure attachment, such as reactive attachment disorder.

Love by Hohepunkt
Love by Hohepunkt

Secure Attachment in Adults

According to the theory of attachment, secure attachment in adults leads to long term, trusting relationships.

You are securely attached if...

You have good self esteem.

You can share your feelings with others.

You enjoy close and intimate relationships.

You seek out social support.

Anxious by Sec0ndhandsmokex
Anxious by Sec0ndhandsmokex

Ambivalent Attachment in Adults

This theory of attachment declares that ambivalent attachment in adults leads to relationships that feel cold and distant.

You are ambivalently attached if...

You are reluctant to become close and intimate with others.

You worry that your significant other does not love you.

You are extremely distressed and upset when a relationship ends.

Avoidant Attachment in Adults

This theory of attachment states that adults with an avoidant attachment style do not devote much emotion into a relationship.

You are avoidantly attached if...

You have difficulty with intimate relationships.

You are not distraught when a relationship ends.

You use excuses to avoid being close and intimate.

You think about someone else during sex.

You do not support your partner during upsetting periods.

You do not share your thoughts, feelings, or emotions with your partner.

Hug by Karl Sandy
Hug by Karl Sandy

What is Your Romantic Attachment Style?

If you would like to know your romantic attachment style, then take this test. You can also ask your significant other to take it.

Longer test.

Hostile by Theatrical Illusion
Hostile by Theatrical Illusion

Disorganized Attachment

After Mary Ainsworth's contributions to the theory of attachment, Mary Main discovered a fourth type of attachment, disorganized.

A child with disorganized attachment...

Thinks that people cannot be trusted.

Has poor social skills.

Feels anxious or sad.

Lacks self control.

Becomes frustrated easily.

Has behavioral problems.

Acts aggressively.

Can become controlling.

What causes disorganized attachment?

Abuse.

Trauma.

Emotional neglect.

Physical neglect.

Changes in caregiver.

Lack of attunement.

Undiagnosed illnesses.

Health conditions left untreated, such as ear infections.

A hostile, frightening, and angry guardian.

Separation from caregiver.

The caregiver has serious problems, such as a mental illness, drug addiction, or addiction to alcohol.

Understanding Disorganized Attachment

Insecure by Crazyworld1
Insecure by Crazyworld1

Is it Too Late to Fix Insecure Attachment?

Recent studies indicate that it is never too late to change your attachment style to secure. The way to improve the emotional bond between you and your child is to learn what he finds comforting. Each infant is unique, so what soothes and calms one child may not work effectively for another.

What To Experiment With

Tone of voice

Eye contact

Speech rhythm and rate

Body movement

Facial expression

Gesture

Posture

Timing, intensity, and voice modulation

Examples of Common Soothing Activities

Singing

Touching

Rocking

Moving

Feeding

When attempting to attune with your child, you should also be in a calm state of mind. Being angry or frustrated will make your attempts virtually useless. Calm yourself down first.

Share emotional experiences with your child. When your kid is feeling happy, share that feeling with him. If your child is feeling sad or angry, empathize with her, even if it's over something silly. Remember that things adults find silly or stupid can be important to children. Think back to times you felt upset as a child. Surely, you can remember a time you were very upset over something that actually wasn't a big deal. If someone told you "Knock it off; you are being stupid. It's no big deal." imagine how you would have felt. Therefore, it is just as important to share and understand negative experiences with your child as positive events.

[Thanks to Rajiv Sharda Photography for Image]

What is Attunement?

What type of attachment style do you have? Is it the same or different from your childhood attachment type?

Please leave a comment!

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    • earthybirthymum profile image

      earthybirthymum 5 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      We have always practiced attachment parenting ala Dr. Sears, which I discovered more than 23 years ago. I didn't realize it had a name back then, I always referred to it as instinctual/primal parenting. Great Lense! Many Blessings

    • Gypzeerose profile image

      Rose Jones 5 years ago

      Back with my newly grown angel wings to give this a well deserved angel blessing.

    • AlexandraHeep profile image

      AlexandraHeep 5 years ago

      Smart and deep. This kind of stuff should be taught in parenting classes, or even in high school instead of the ridiculous stuff they teach in home ed. Everyone knows how to make babies, but we all could use guides for raising them.

    • Gypzeerose profile image

      Rose Jones 5 years ago

      This is very deep - I have bookmarked it to come back too. My sister worked with child abuse victims and she often spoke of the effectiveness of attachment theories in healing. This will help anyone as we try to understand human relationships.