The perplexing relational behavior of alienated children was first demystified by the insightful research of Mary Ainsworth. Her brilliant Strange Situation study findings were published in 1978 and remain relevant today. She correctly identified the various responses of different toddlers upon seeing their parent walk out of a room and then return. Additionally a strange woman simply came in, sat, and went out — at two specific times.
Ainsworth identified three childhood attachment styles, eventually called Secure, Avoidant, and Ambivalent. Her explanations were later enhanced by Mary Main (1986), who, with her assistant Judith Solomon, recognized that a leftover, chaotic fourth group (10%) had developed no patterns to make sense of themselves or their world: “Disorganized” style.
Knowing the four attachment styles of children does not guarantee an emotional connection — a quick fix. But it does provide a useful explanation of what may be going on in the child’s head — their inner life of thoughts and feelings. This in turn lets us parents and helpers feel accurate empathy for the struggling child’s difficult inner life. (There is empathy, and there is accurate empathy.) It also allows us to set limits and name our expectations with some degree of confidence that we are doing no harm. We now know how to understand and repair the child’s shame when it becomes triggered. The combination of accurate empathy plus safe limit-setting gradually unlocks emotional doors to trusting. Still, the path to close, intersubjective connection with a child may be easier for some adults than for others.