The Strange Situation: Different Types of Attachment

Today, we'll look at, "The Strange Situation" experiment and talk about the different types of attachment that children develop. This is according to their relationship with their attachment figure.
The Strange Situation: Different Types of Attachment

Last update: 03 June, 2021

In 1970, American psychologist Mary Ainsworth conducted an experiment called, The Strange Situation. It involved studying children interacting with their mothers and with a strange adult in an unfamiliar context. This article explains what The Strange Situation experiment consisted of as well as the different types of attachment observed.

The Strange Situation and the different types of attachment

The Strange Situation was a study conducted by psychologist Mary Ainsworth in the 1970s. For her study, she selected several twelve-month-old children and studied the individual behavior of each one.

The experiment consisted of observing the child’s interaction with its mother and a stranger in an unfamiliar context and in the following situations:

  • Mother and child remain in the same room. The child plays freely and explores the environment while their mother observes them.
  • Shortly thereafter, a stranger enters and engages the mother in conversation.
  • The mother then leaves the room without the child noticing and the stranger remains, playing with the child.
  • The mother returns and tries to comfort them. The stranger leaves the room.
  • A few minutes later, the mother leaves the room again, leaving the child alone.
  • The stranger returns. They comfort the child, if necessary, and play with them.
  • Finally, the mother re-enters.
A mother holding her smiling little boy.

In each of the different situations, Ainsworth observed and studied the following:

  • The quality of the relationship between the child and the mother.
  • The child’s reactions to being separated from the mother and to being reunited with her.
  • The child’s reaction to the appearance of the stranger.

Another aspect that Ainsworth observed in The Strange Situation was that the children explored and played more in the presence of their mother. However, this behavior decreased when the stranger entered and, above all, when the mother left.

Types of Attachment

In this experiment, Ainsworth found clear individual differences in children’s behavior. These differences allowed him to describe the behavioral patterns of the different types of attachment:

Secure attachment

Secure attachment manifests itself in 65-70 percent of infants. Children with this type of attachment use their mother as a secure base for exploring the environment. When the mother moves away or disappears, they show anxiety and fear. In addition, the infant’s exploratory behavior decreases. When the mother returns, the child calms down easily and they seek physical contact and then continue their exploratory behavior.

The internal relationship model that the child builds when establishing a secure attachment is based on availability and affection. The characteristics of parents or caregivers that influence the development of secure attachment are:

  • They respond to and appropriately interpret the child’s demands and needs.
  • They express frequent affection and attention.

Insecure-ambivalent attachment

This type of attachment occurs with a frequency rate of 10-15 percent of children. When the attachment figure is present, children show no interest in exploration and remain close to the mother for fear that she’ll disappear. When the mother disappears, the child shows anxiety. However, when she returns, their reaction is ambivalent.

In this case, the child’s internal model of relationships will be based on the lack of security and protection. The behaviors that give rise to the development of an insecure-ambivalent attachment are:

  • Parents don’t adequately interpret or meet the child’s demands and needs.
  • They are inconsistent in their behaviors toward the child.

Insecure-avoidant attachment

The frequency of insecure-avoidant attachment occurs in 20 percent of children. In this type of attachment, children don’t usually show anxiety when separated from the attachment figure. The child is quite independent and ignores the mother while she’s present.

Most strikingly, when the mother appears again, they don’t seek physical contact with her. Even if their mother seeks contact, they reject the approach.

A crying toddler boy.

The internal relationship model that the child has with insecure-avoidant attachment is based on distance to avoid rejection. The behaviors of parents or caregivers that favor the formation of this type of attachment are the following:

  • These caregivers are irresponsible and unable to provide the care and support the child needs. Often, they reject their children.
  • They maintain little contact with their children and the relationships are authoritarian and hostile.
  • They don’t express affection or feelings.

Insecure-disorganized attachment

This type of attachment is manifested in 10-12 percent of children. It combines ambivalent and avoidant attachment patterns. Children are insecure and disoriented when the mother is present. They approach her but avoid eye contact.

When separated, their behaviors are confused and disorganized. When the mother returns, they don’t know how to react; they show confusion about whether to approach or avoid her.

It’s been observed that this type of attachment tends to occur in children who’ve suffered abuse and neglect and who’ve experienced cyclical protection, rejection, and aggression.

Children who develop insecure-disorganized attachment build an internal relationship model that’s based on insecurity and lack of control. Characteristics of parents or caregivers that influence the development of secure attachment are:

  • Neglectful behaviors
  • Personality disorders
  • Cyclical behaviors of protection, rejection, and aggression
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