Secure Attachment: The Research

Is "Attachment Parenting" a science? Yes.

Decades of research, including longitudinal studies, shows that as securely attached babies get older, they form better relationships with others, have higher self esteem, are more flexible and resilient under stress, and perform better in every aspect of life, from schoolwork to peer interactions..

But what is a Securely Attached baby? A baby who trusts that his parent will respond to his needs in a nurturing manner.

All this research started with the fascinating discovery that babies respond in particular predictable ways to “The Strange Situation,” a lab protocol involving a brief but stressful separation from the mother. In this experiment, the mother plays with the 12 month old in the lab, in the presence of the experimenter (a stranger). Then, the mother briefly leaves the baby in the room with the stranger. The most important part of the experiment is how the baby responds when the mother quickly returns to the room.

1. Secure

These babies protest the parent’s departure and are easily comforted by the parent when he or she returns. These babies, referred to as Securely attached, turn out to have better relationships with the parent to whom they’re securely attached, but that’s not all. As they develop, these children are ranked as better adjusted in virtually every way, including interpersonally and academically.

2. Resistant/ambivalent

These babies protest the parent’s departure but reject comfort from the parent upon his or her return. They have learned that their parent is not always dependable in meeting their needs and find it hard to be comforted by the parent.

As they mature, these children stay focused on seeking the reassurance of relationships, but because of their anger and neediness they tend to create unfulfilling involvements. Their focus on the search for love keeps them from appropriately attending to other age-appropriate developmental tasks, such as learning and experimenting with independence. These children often become over-involved with peers in an attempt to fill unmet attachment needs.

3. Avoidant

These babies may not protest the parent’s departure and they do not seek comfort upon the parent’s return. These toddlers do not express age-appropriate comfort needs, apparently because they assume those needs will not be met in the relationship. But when we hook these babies up to physiological monitors, we notice that their hearts are racing. They're showing signs of extreme stress from the separation -- and yet they're hiding that stress, clearly having learned that it's more adaptive to hide their feelings.

Although they seem more independent in this laboratory situation, they are no more independent at home or in school, and in fact are rated by daycare teachers as more whiny and demanding than other babies the same age.

As they grow older, these children find their emotional needs overwhelming and frightening, and thus repress them. Unless they have the opportunity to experience therapy or another transformational love relationship, they may not develop much capacity for intimacy. While they may succeed in school and sports, their lack of social skills often limits their happiness and even their career success.

So how do you raise a securely attached child?

You allow all emotions. You soothe when they're upset. You make sure they feel safe. You see and accept who they are. Carl Rogers calls this unconditional positive regard. Dan Siegel calls it the 4 S's: Safe, Secure, Seen and Soothed.

The best predictor of whether your child will be securely attached?

Whether you've come to terms with your own emotional history. So you don't have to have had a perfect childhood. But you do have to reflect on your early attachment history. Simply by bringing your awareness to your early emotional life, you're making the unconscious conscious. That heals the places where you yourself didn't feel seen, safe, secure or soothed. That's what allows you to give that to your child.

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