Attachment patterns are ways of thinking and behavioural strategies that children develop in order to feel safe and to maximise their opportunities for receiving care and protection from close adults.

Different attachment patterns emerge in response to different types of caregiving. Mary Ainsworth (1971) used a combination of observations of caregiving in infancy and a laboratory situation called the Strange Situation to identify secure and two insecure (avoidant and ambivalent) attachment patterns. The Strange Situation involves the infant experiencing a series of brief separations and reunions while their reactions are observed. Later research by Mary Main and Judith Solomon (1986) identified a third insecure attachment pattern, disorganised.

Below, each of these four patterns is described in relation to the caregiving approach associated with it.

  • Secure: Secure attachment occurs when the infant or child is cared for by available, sensitive and responsive caregivers, who are accepting and co-operative, promoting trust and competence. Taking these strengths into childhood the child becomes able to think about and manage thoughts, feelings and behaviour in order to become competent and successful in activities and relationships outside the family. In later adolescence and adulthood, this pattern is referred to as autonomous, free to evaluate.

  • Avoidant: When the caregiver finds it difficult to accept or respond sensitively to the infant's needs, the infant may find that their demands are rejected, their feelings minimised and that the caregiver tries to take over in an intrusive, insensitive way. Although the rejecting caregiver's overall role in providing practical care and protection continues, the infant and child learns to shut down on her feelings in order to avoid upsetting the caregiver and provoking rejection or intrusion. It is safer and more comfortable to be self-reliant and this also makes it more likely that the caregiver will stay close. The child is not avoiding a relationship, but avoiding showing feelings in order to maintain some kind of relationship. In later adolescence and adulthood, this pattern of minimising and apparently devaluing feelings and relationships is referred to as dismissing.

  • Ambivalent: In contrast, where the caregiver responds to the infant's demands, but only in a sporadic, unpredictable and at times insensitive fashion, the infant finds it difficult to achieve proximity in a reliable way. Care and protection is sometimes available, but the caregiving is uncertain and ineffective. Initially the infant may simply make demands almost constantly to attract and keep the attention of the caregiver or may become rather helpless in the absence of a predictably successful strategy. Over time, the infant tends to become needy and angry, a ‘clingy', but distrustful and resistant child. In later adolescence and adulthood, this pattern is referred to as preoccupied and enmeshed.

  • Disorganised: Where the caregiver is rejecting, unpredictable and frightening or frightened, the infant is caught in a dilemma of ‘fear without solution' (Main and Hesse 1990). Caregivers abdicate the caregiving role, experiencing themselves as out of control and become hostile/helpless to protect the child. The infant's drive to approach the caregiver for care and protection results in fear and increased rather than decreased anxiety. The absence of a possible strategy to achieve comfortable proximity in infancy leads to confused and disorganised behaviours. But over time the pre-school child starts to develop controlling behaviours to enable them to feel some degree of predictability and safety. These controlling behaviours usually include role-reversal in which a child acts towards others like a parent might towards a child e.g. punitively aggressive, compulsively caregiving or compulsively self-reliant i.e. not accepting care. However, feelings of anxiety and fear remain unresolved and reappear in sometimes chaotic and destructive forms at times of stress. In later adolescence and adulthood, this pattern is referred to as unresolved.

N.B. Disorganisation and maltreatment.

Although many children who have been maltreated are likely to be disorganised, not all children who are disorganised will have been maltreated. A caregiver may have experienced unresolved loss and trauma in the past. This may make them a source of anxiety rather than comfort for the infant, but does not mean that they are necessarily neglectful or abusive.

Linked resources

Attachment Across the Lifecourse: a brief introduction