What Is Secure Attachment? Psychology, Definition, And Applications
Updated November 20, 2019
Reviewer Whitney White, MS. CMHC, NCC., LPC
Have you ever wondered why some people seem to have a natural comfort level with nearly every relationship in their lives? An individual's natural ability to form secure attachments and connections throughout their lives likely began with a secure attachment in early infancy. Moreover, the ability to build trusting relationships probably improved over the person's lifetime.
Attachment is a word used by psychologists to describe the relationship between children and their caretakers, usually the mother. Attachment bonds are classified as an insecure attachment bond or a secure attachment bond. While it is easiest to form a secure attachment bond with an infant, attachments can be formed at any time or age.
An insecure attachment bond occurs when a child's need for understanding, comfort, and security are not met, which prevents the child's developing brain from organizing itself effectively. This can affect emotional, mental, and physical development and can lead to difficulties in learning and forming relationships later in life.
There are three types of insecure attachments: Avoidant, Ambivalent, and Disorganized.
Insecure attachments are characterized by inappropriate reactions to the presence of or "attachment to" an infant/child's mother. For example:
- Ambivalent Attachment- Children are wary of strangers. They're distressed when parents leave and don't feel comfort upon their return. Individuals with ambivalent attachment hesitate to form close relationships, worry that their partners don't love them, and become distraught when relationships end.
- Avoidant Attachment- Children don't feel comfort from parents, may avoid them, and don't show a preference for parents over strangers. Adults with this attachment style may avoid intimacy, invest little of themselves in romantic relationships, and be unwilling or unable to share their innermost feelings with others.
- Disordered Attachment- Children show a mix of avoidant and resistant behavior and may seem dazed, apprehensive, or confused. They may also be inclined to act as a parent or caregiver to their parents, siblings, or others. This attachment disorder is most often seen in the homes of children who have experienced physical or sexual abuse histories, who have psychologically impaired parents, and/or parents with substance abuse.
A secure attachment bond ensures that a child will feel secure, understood, and calm. These feelings optimize a child's brain development in the nervous system. These feelings help provide a child with a foundation that promotes a feeling of safety, which results in healthy self-awareness, empathy, trust, and an eagerness to learn. Children prefer their parents to strangers and can separate from them, knowing parents will return to them. Children with secure attachments seek comfort from their parents when they're scared. They tend to be social individuals who have trusting, lasting relationships, and good self-esteem.
Developmental milestones related to secure attachment
Evaluating a child's progression in the stages of developmental milestones is one way to determine if there are attachment issues. Because children who have secure attachments exhibit an eagerness to learn, it is easy to identify those who have insecure attachments by referring to age-appropriate developmental milestones.
During well-child visits, a pediatrician or nurse may ask questions about a child's development and interact with a child to evaluate the ability to perform some of these milestones. If a child falls behind, this could be an indication that some type of intervention is needed. Keep in mind, a child who does not meet all developmental milestones does not necessarily have something that would indicate a serious problem. The guide to developmental milestones is used as part of an assessment, not a stand-alone assessment. Age-appropriate development milestones include, but are not limited to:
Birth - 3 months
- Follow and react to bright colors, movement, and objects
- Turn toward sounds
- Show interest in watching people's faces
- Smile back when you smile
Between 3 and 6 months
- Show joy when interacting with parents
- Make sounds, like cooing, babbling, or crying if happy or unhappy
- Smile a lot during playtime
Between 4 and 10 months
- Use facial expressions and sounds when interacting, like smiling, giggling, or babbling
- Alternate back and forth with gestures (giving and taking), sounds, and smiles
Between 10-18 months
- Play games, like peek-a-boo or patty cake
- Use sounds like "ma", "ba", "na", "da", and "ga"
- Recognize his or her name when called
Between 18 and 20 months
- Know and understand at least 10 words
- Use words, gestures, and signals to communicate needs, like pointing at something, leading you to something
- Demonstrate familiarity with people or body parts by pointing or looking at them when named
At 24 Months
- Know and understand at least 50 words
- Use two or more words together to say something like "want milk," or "more crackers."
- Show interest in playing with other children by giving objects or toys to others
- Respond to questions about familiar people or objects not present by looking for them
At 36 Months
- Put thoughts and actions together, like "sleepy, want a blanket," or "hungry for yogurt" and going to the refrigerator
- Enjoy playing with children and talking with other children
- Answer "who," "what," "when," and "where" questions without too much trouble
Obstacles to creating a secure attachment bond
Obstacles to creating a secure attachment bond may first appear when the child is an infant. A parent may deeply love their child, but not be equipped to meet the needs of a child's immature nervous system. Infants cannot calm or soothe themselves, so they rely on caregivers to do so. However, if a parent is unable to manage his/her own stress or to regain calm and focus in stressful situations, it will be difficult to calm a baby.
Older children still look to parents as a source of safety and connection. Unfortunately, if a parent is frequently angry, depressed, anxious, or preoccupied, he/she may not be able to provide a source of safety and calm. Therefore, the older child's physical, emotional, and/or intellectual development may suffer.
How a Child's Well-Being May Affect the Secure Attachment Bond
Experience shapes the brain, and this is especially true for newborns whose nervous systems are largely undeveloped.
- When a baby experiences difficulty in the womb or during the birth process, during a cesarean birth, for example, their nervous system may be compromised.
- Adopted babies or those who spend time in neonatal hospital units away from a parent may have early life experiences that leave them feeling stressed, confused, and unsafe.
Fortunately, as the infant brain is so undeveloped and influenced by experience, a child can overcome any difficulties at birth. It may take a few months, but if the primary caretaker remains calm, focused, understanding, and persistent, a baby will eventually relax enough for the secure attachment process to occur.
A child's experience and environment can affect his ability to form a secure attachment bond. However, unavoidable circumstances may affect the bond. While the situation may be unavoidable, children may not understand. The child may feel as if he is "in the way" or no one cares. In response, the child may begin to distrust others and feel unsafe.
Can Insecure Attachment Bonds Be Repaired?
Let's face it. Life is not always perfect. Sometimes, despite our best efforts, things don't happen the way we plan. Fortunately, because the brain is capable of changing and repaired, insecure attachment bonds can be repaired. In some instances, once the insecure attachment is repaired, the secure attachment bond is stronger than it may have initially been.
Children are not developed enough to recognize that an attachment bond is insecure. Therefore, it is up to the caregiver to address issues that need to be repaired. If you notice that there are developmental delays with your child, or if you feel like you need help learning to develop secure attachments with your child, reach out for help.
As previously mentioned, your pediatrician or primary caregiver can assess your child's progress within developmental milestones and can advise you on any possible remedies for the delay. If you feel that the difficulty in establishing a secure attachment bond is emotional, either for you or your child, seeking the help of a mental health counselor or therapist can be very beneficial.
Whether you choose to engage in in-person or online counseling (such as that provided by BetterHelp), mental health counselors can be a great resource for learning effective communication and coping skills as you learn to be a caregiver to your infant/child and begin to establish secure attachments. Below are some reviews of BetterHelp counselors, from people experiencing a range of issues related to childhood and parenting.
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Developing secure attachment bonds is crucial for the emotional and physical well-being of children. Understanding how to communicate with your infant/child will help in the development of secure bonds. Even the most loving parents may face situations where developing secure attachments may not feel easy. With the right tools, you can move forward to a fulfilling life - no matter what you've experienced in the past. Take the first step today.