A child is in a room, playing with toys. At one point, her mother walks out of the room, leaving the child alone with a stranger. Less than three minutes later, her mother walks back into the room. How does the child respond?
One child cries hysterically and is calmed immediately when her mother walks back into the room and picks her up.
Another child acts as if nothing has happened, both when her mother leaves and when she returns. She simply continues to play with the toys.
A third child cries when her mother leaves, and cannot be calmed upon her return.
What does this study reveal about parent-child interactions? And why does it matter?
In the middle of the last century, a research psychologist, Mary Ainsworth, conducted the study above, entitled “infant-strange situation.” But she wasn’t paying attention to what the child did when the mother was not in the room. Rather, her main focus was on what the child did when the mother returned. This research was directed at understanding the different relationships children have with their parents. Before looking at the results of the infant-strange situation, first, it might be useful to understand the various types of attachments that children can have. In their book, Parenting from the Inside Out, Drs. Daniel J. Siegel and Mary Hartzell describe four different types of attachments:
Secure attachment: Secure attachments occur when children have consistent, emotionally connected communication with their parents (or primary caregivers). This consistency is important throughout, but especially during emotional distress. When children feel that they are understood and protected on a consistent basis, they develop secure attachments. This initial secure attachment provides a safe haven for future interactions with the world. In other words, if a child has a secure attachment with a parent, he will be more likely to have positive social interactions in the future.
Siegel and Hartzell outline what they call the ABCs of attachment:
Attunement: Lining up your thinking and emotions with those of your children. Often, attunement is achieved through nonverbal signals passed between parents and children without their realization.
Balance: If your children are in tune with your consistent and rational emotions, they can balance their own body, emotions, and state of mind.
Coherence: Once they achieve balance in their own body, emotions, and state of mind, your children can easily learn how to become interpersonally connected to others.
Parents do not always regularly achieve the ABCs of attachment, and sometimes this can mean that children are not securely attached. There are several insecure attachments:
Avoidant attachment: Parents who misread their children’s nonverbal cues and are not attuned cannot respond to their children’s needs with regularity, inadvertently teaching their children that they cannot provide a safe place for them. Later on in life, this leads children to anticipate that those around them will not be able to meet their needs. For that reason, children who have avoidant attachments to their parents will be emotionally unavailable to others.
Ambivalent attachment: Some parents are great at reading certain nonverbal cues, but not others. Or, if a parent is consistently stressed at work, she might only be able to pay attention to her children on weekends, when her work stress is secondary. These children learn that sometimes their needs are met, but at others times, their needs are misread. This leads them to be wary of future interactions with others, as they never know if they will be responded to or ignored.
Disorganized attachment: This type of attachment often comes from abusive experiences. Not only are children’s needs often unmet, in these types of attachments children quickly learn that if they need something, they might be punished for it (such as when a baby learns not to cry for milk because she will only be hit if she does). This attachment style is not only painful to grow up with, it also teaches children not to trust those around them, making it very hard for them to create new relationships in the future.
How does that infant-strange situation fit into all of this? What psychologists found when they were researching is that children with different attachments responded differently when their mothers returned to the room after a three-minute absence. Securely attached infants went straight to their mothers and were quickly soothed. They believed that their mothers could help them overcome discomfort and fear. Avoidant attached children were not distressed when their mothers left the room, nor were they happy when they returned. They seemed to be saying, “Our interactions in the past were not useful to me, so why should I care if you are here or not?” Ambivalently attached children were despondent when their mothers left, but did not calm down when they returned. Disorganized attachment children would often cry before the mother left and after she returned.
A lot of parents who read about attachment theories become very anxious: are researchers saying that how parents interact with their children in the first few years of life determines the way children will interact with other people for the rest of their lives? Yes, but Seigel and Hartzell write, “Research shows that our relationships with parents change and as they do, the child’s attachment changes. This means it is never too late to create positive change in a child’s life.” While our initial attachments are extremely important, and do set the foundations for the child’s future interactions, they can be changed through learning the ABCs of attachment. You can learn to be more in tune to your children’s needs, and they in turn can learn to balance their bodies, emotions and minds, and coherently create positive interpersonal relationships. All children deserve to feel safe, and have the opportunity to build beautiful and healthy friendships and connections.