What is a Secure Attachment Style?
In Attachment Theory the most healthy relationship between a mother and baby leads to “secure attachment”, and this is the best indicator of a stable personality which is comfortable with intimacy and long lasting relationships based upon trust. Indeed the hallmark of a secure attachment in babies and toddlers is the degree to which they can take comfort and be consoled by their mothers in stressful situations. An ability that transfers to taking comfort in intimate adult relationships as they mature.
In the Minnesota longitudinal study around 60% had secure attachment styles. A similar figure to other population assessments.
How is a Secure Attachment Established?
There are two principal behaviours of a mother which form the foundation of a secure attachment.
Contact-comfort is the term used to described physical comfort such as cradling, hugging and stroking that’s given to children when in distress. The highlighted words of this behaviour are “when in distress”. It’s not to say that physical comfort has no effects when a child is not distressed, but rather the evidence irrefutably shows that a child who does not receive contact-comfort “when in distress” will manifest emotional and psychological developmental issues – described in the other attachment styles – which manifest into many of the behaviours found in adult DSM-disorders. The importance of this is difficult to exaggerate. All bonding starts with this type of physical experience. While a baby is being comforted in this physical way, hormones such as oxytocin are released into its system and also the mother’s. Oxytocin has potent anti-stress effects and it promotes bonds of trust between those who experience it. As a baby becomes distressed, its stress hormones, such as cortisol, rapidly elevate. Its biological and psychological states becomes preoccupied with focusing on a threat. If left to stew in this cocktail of stress hormones, the baby’s appetite for learning and exploration will be severely arrested.
If contact-comfort is received when distressed, however, the oxytocin effects will quickly dispel the stressed state, and exploration and learning will be re-asserted immediately. At the same time strong bonds will form between mother and child. Contact-comfort is thus vitally important and a secure attachment cannot be formed without it.
Face-to-face contact with mother. The initial contact-comfort reduces stress and opens up pathways to learning through exploration whilst at the same time causing the baby to begin to trust its mother more than anyone else in the world. Naturally both contact-comfort and face-to-face interaction are implicit parts of breast feeding. Only we’ve just started to understand the importance of these two vital experiences over the past half-a-century, or so, and at first they were disputed by those with ideological beliefs that conflicted with the evidence – such as Behaviourists.
Indeed, it’s only been in the past two decades that the brain imaging research of neuroscience has shown beyond doubt the crucial role it (Face-to-Face contact) plays in the developing brain. Nature has set these two functions up in complementary alliance with the development of the right hemisphere. Responsible for regulating emotions and non-verbal communication throughout the lifespan, the right brain is in a growth spurt in the first year-and-a-half of life. The non-verbal face-to-face communications between baby and mother, which normally happens constantly through this special period, are literally being used as a sort of software update for the unfolding genetically-based bundle of emotions which will form in the right brain anyway. Mother’s facial expression are used to modify these innate reactions to be relevant to the present day environment. It seems as if this process is part of the building blocks of intimacy too, for people without secure attachments have trouble with intimate relationships.
In addition to females having evolved without facial hair so they can better communicate non-verbal facial expressions, neuroscience has so far evidenced a number of evolutionary adaptations which too seem part of the primary caregiver attachment process.
1. Females are more capable of reading emotional expressions on faces.
2. Women have a greater array of emotional expressions.
3. Women are better at expressing those emotions on their faces.
4. Babies show greater interest (brain activation) in processing facial features of women and especially their mother’s face.
5. There is more space in all our brains for processing the faces of females.
6. When face-to-face with their babies, mothers’ sense of empathy is activated.
7. When face-to-face with their babies, mothers have the part of their brain that processes highly rewarding experiences activated.
8. When face-to-face with their babies, mothers have the part of their brain which enables them to function better with intense emotions, reduces fear and aggression activated.
9. When face-to-face with their babies, mothers have the part of their brain which is involved in cognition deactivated so their behaviour is more intuitive (subconscious) when interacting with their babies. Intellectualisation is turned-off to promote attending to the non-verbal cues from feelings which her baby is eliciting.
10. When face-to-face with their babies, mothers have a part of their brain which produces negative emotions, fear and aggression deactivated.
11. When face-to-face with their babies, mothers get multiple parts of their brain that regulate emotions specifically around processing faces activated.
12. When face-to-face with their babies, mothers have the part of their brain associated with deeply instinctive sensing, gut feelings, and evoking pleasant feelings of caressing activated.
13. When face-to-face with their babies, mothers have cognitive biases which enable them to mirror a babies facial and emotional expressions activated.
It’s evidenced that a secure attachment does NOT predict the degree to which babies/toddles become upset when separated from their mother or the degree they become distressed by perceived environmental threats, yet it does predict how quickly they calm and recover from these situations when receiving contact-comfort. Because securely attached children are soothed almost instantly by their mother’s contact-comfort, they experience less trauma from stress and are more readily available to explore and learn from new experiences. A guideline that stands true for children of different temperaments and irritability status.
The work of Schore in gathering a multitude of different research in developmental psychiatric-neuroscience shows that temperament is most probably formed, or most developmentally effected, within the face-to-face interactions of the mother-child relationship in the first two years of life. Nevertheless, secure attachments which are initially formed from comforting babies in distress are increasingly influenced by wildly different relationship variables from mothers of varied characters. A display which shows contact-comfort as the foundation of security for a diverse amount of healthy personalities. Contact-comfort creates stability, yet different face-to-face communications cause vast differences within that secure relationship that themselves effect the degree of security.
Nested within the face-to-face communications of the mother-child unit are the more intimate expressions of social emotions and responsiveness to subtle changes in expressions. These emotional communications are tremendously meaningful for babies who instinctively read their cues through, touch, facial features and tone of voice, for these meanings help shape the development of the right brain that is in a growth spurt in the first year-and-a-half of life, regulates emotions throughout life, and are interwoven into the stress regulating functions of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA-axis).
Boy and girls brains mature a different rates, and females are better at reading emotional cues than are males. Indeed, the more slowly maturing male brain may well be an evolutionary strategy to limit the initial excitement of emotionality in favour for more cognitive processes – whose part of the brain goes into a growth spurt in the 2nd and 3rd year of life. Thus creating complementary perceptions of reality for each sex that are intrinsically based upon the same brain systems yet specialised to maximise effectiveness in each realm (emotional and cognitive). The subcortical areas of the brain, which include the right hemispheric emotional processing units, develop first. At the same time, the first year of life, the brain is doubling in size whilst using attachment behaviours (contact-comfort & face-to-face expressions) to epigenetically sculpt the development of the growing networks.
What Evidenced Behaviours Do Parents of Securely Attached Children Exhibit?
The evidenced behavioural differences between parents of securely attached children and those children with resistant or avoidant attachment styles are many. Far too many to list in this article. Below are some important behaviours which set parents of secure children apart.
The degree of emotional availability, sensitivity to baby’s needs, and response times for attending to baby’s communications (i.e. quality of care) are shown to alter attachment styles quality and status when either increased or decreased, and so proving that the long lasting personality traits described as attachment styles can and do change according to the quality of relationship a person receives with a most trusted individual. A personality is not defined for a lifetime by its initially received treatment, only put on a pathway heading in a specific direction. That course can be altered. One evidenced example, from many, is of a six month increase or decrease in quality of care for children in their first two years of life having the power to change attachment styles dramatically – from insecure to secure and vice versa.
The first two years of life are when children are at peak sensitivity, and so also vulnerability, to attachment behaviours.
Ratings of maternal joy, pleasure and gratification in feeding babies at 6 months are directly correlated with increases or decreases in secure and insecure traits, and this is true even when nursing skills in attending cues and needs of babies were matched. Meaning the “emotional tones and expressions” of the caregivers played a consequential role on personality development and trait formation.
Due to such a stark difference in behaviours associated with parents of securely and insecurely attached children the Cooperative-Interference Scale was created to define the likely developmental trajectories of children whose parents exhibited these behaviours.
Parents of securely attached children treated them in a more cooperative fashion – as opposed to an intrusive fashion – and were available as a resource for their children.
Toddlers who had parents cooperate in problem solving tasks (who helped the child fix the problem but did not complete it for them) learnt to use parents as a recourse for problems when they reached the limits of their abilities. Children of non-cooperative parents developed quick frustration reactions that manifested fussiness and anger instead of enthusiasm. In turn this led to parents losing patience and the two becoming stuck in an argumentative struggle, so the solving of the problem became a background issue. Dysfunction breeds dysfunction.
Parents of securely attached children showed more understanding of a child’s will to explore and allowed play activities to be child led.
Parents of securely attached children did not violate the parent-child boundaries of their relationship. They did not treat their children as their peers or adults, but they treated them appropriately for their age. A parent is a provider and resource, and parents of securely attached children did not break this boundary, so they did not use their children to fulfil their own needs – such as to replace their longings of intimacy with an absent partner.
What Evidenced Beneficial Outcomes Do Securely Attached Children Experience?
One of the most profound benefits of secure attachment is the degree to which it engenders a mentality of seeking, enjoying and sustaining intimate relationships based upon trust. All the other attachment styles have varying difficulties with this aspect of life.
They are shown to be more empathic (emotionally literate), and express more positive emotions and less negative emotions than the other attachment styles.
Securely attached children and adults are generally more competent (especially socially), cooperative, enthusiastic around problem solving and resilient when faced life stresses. Secure children in play were shown to seek resolution to conflicts, and narratives where accidents took place were followed by some attempt to repair the situation. If a limb was broken, an ambulance and hospital would be introduced as the next play scene for example. This defined them from the other attachment styles who seemed preoccupied with other matters.
Because of their responsive and involved nature, they are often viewed as, and selected as, leaders within group settings. The secure personalities within a group who are not leaders show high levels of engagement in the overall functioning of the group.
All of the above features, no doubt, contribute to why securely attached children were often less aggressive, fussed and whined less, and showed least negative emotions across all settings.
Securely attached children do NOT victimise others, and fight against those who try to victimise themselves. Indeed, they often intervene to help other victims.
Victimisation is heavily associated with avoidant attachment styles. In every case of systematic victimisation of other children by use of sarcasm, derision, rejection or overtures, or other verbal hostility or hostile gestures such as sticking out the tongue, the perpetrator had an avoidant attachment style 100% of the time. The victim was always another child with either an avoidant or resistant attachment style.
When a secure attachment style was paired with an avoidant, they either engaged in counter-assertiveness or kept a mutual distance.
When a secure attachment style was paired with a resistant, they tended to form nurturing relationships.
When two resistant attachment style were paired, play was typically low level, but no victimisation occurred.
When two avoidant attachment styles were paired, the weaker child was exploited.
When a child was injured or upset in class, it was securely attached children who most often aided the distressed by such actions as getting the teacher.
Teachers were shown to treat children differently according to their attachment style even though the teachers had no knowledge of the styles or research data.
Children with secure histories; teachers were engaged and affectionate (as they were with the other two groups as well), but they also treated them in a respectful, age-appropriate, matter-of-fact way. They were rated high on Expectations for Compliance but low on Control, Anger Nurturance/Caregiving, and Tolerance (i.e., they held out high standards for these children). Such a relationship would support and expand the child’s emerging competence.
Positive teacher relationships further excelled their development as they got the most out of schooling.
What Statistics & Findings Also Underpin Secure Attachment?
When children of 24-months were organised into groups rated on competency levels, those who were securely attached at 18-months accounted for 70% of the competent cluster whilst being only 42% of all children. A developmental trajectory which continued to increase into adulthood.
In relation to the longitudinal research from which these statistics originate, authors wrote, “indeed it is possible to predict child functioning by age 3 ½ from prior relationship history and prior adaptation, even when the caregiver is not present.”
Based on attachment assessments at 18-months, 84% of the most competent group at age 4 ½ had been securely attached.
Using teacher rankings:
12% of secure children were in the top half of their class for dependency compared to 90% of the other attachment styles.
Securely attached children were almost always those ranked with the highest self-esteem and self-confidence.
Those with secure histories were significantly more frequently in the company of peers, and less frequently isolated or in the company of adults alone.
Securely attached children were found to excel in keeping interpersonal boundaries intact. A correlation of .48 throughout childhood and into adulthood was found. An incredible finding which confirms there’s something special about secure attachment and establishing personal boundaries. The huge amounts of time that these people, as babies and toddlers, spent intimately interacting in their mother’s arms would seem to be at the root of boundry formation and boundary maintenance throughout society.
1. Dr A Schore’s presentations of research in developmental neuroscience at various conferences.
2. Development of the Person: The 30-year findings of the Minnesota Longitudinal Study into Risk and Adaptation from Birth to Adulthood.