What are the four attachment styles of children? 1978 and 1986

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.

Give an example of an Ambivalently attached child

Sometimes children have grown up experiencing not total chaos, but a confusing combination of closeness mixed regularly with rejection or neglect.  “What happened to our good little girl?  Why are you acting like this?  Maybe you’re telling me you don’t want to live with us, is that it?  Is that the message I’m getting?  What is it you want!!??”  (Child hearing this may feel more and more desperate, as children are generally not able to understand or explain their various needs.)

The discouragement may eventually lead children to take charge in a desperate and disruptive manner.  They act out to force the parent to respond, to get mad, to stay close, to get something, to leave them alone, to not set limits, to never say No (or the child will quickly try to reject the parent before the parent rejects them, “I hate you!”)

To all appearances the child and parent are organized together by conflict.

“Anxious/Resistantly [the original name for Ambivalently] attached children under-regulate [themselves], heightening their expression of distress possibly in an effort to elicit the expectable response of the caregiver. There is a low threshold for [feeling] threat, and the child becomes preoccupied with having contact with the caregiver, but frustrated even when it is available (Sroufe, 1996).”

            –PeterFonagy (U.K.)

Example of a 12 year-old child with ambivalent attachment:

A single-father was arrested for drugs and sent to prison for a year.  Unfortunately he was the more functional parent, and his bright 12 y.o. daughter was left with her mother who ignored her daily.  The daughter tried to cope alone with powerful feelings of abandonment from both parents.  At the time of referral to me she could not tolerate allowing adults to be in charge.  She was in the special behavioral day school, and acting very badly.  Father arrived in session with an attitude assigned to him by his daughter – “The teachers have it in for her.  I know my girl would not say the things they tell me she says.”

As I met mostly with father, we worked on saving his bright daughter from further nosediving into residential placement.  Already she had daily out-of-control rages against authority figures.  I gave father tons of empathy and support for himself, then suggested father imagine parenting his bright daughter in such a way that she could eventually go to college.  Father soon reported a shift at home.

“Last week she was barfing in the middle of the night.  She told me she was putting her finger down her throat so she could skip school.  I suddenly stood up and told her, ‘Don’t do that anymore!  That’s not a good thing to do!’  And she stopped.

“Then last night I took the Playstation out of her bedroom and said it wasn’t going back until the homework was finally done.  At first she said she’d stick a knife in my heart if I didn’t put it back.  Then she threatened suicide.  Then she tried beating me up and pulling my hair.  Finally she broke down and sobbed and asked me to get her up early to do the homework.  I left the Playstation out of her room and we both got up early to help her finish the homework.  It only took 20 minutes – she amazed me!”

Naturally the daughter resisted father’s stepping up to the plate and taking charge as the parent, but she also welcomed it.  Children deeply need a safe adult to be in charge.  As things gradually turned the corner, father reflected, “I’m not as bad a parent as I thought.  But I have to deal with more than ordinary parents do.  I don’t know why sometimes I have more authority than other times.”


Why does my child have a fit over little things?

Q.  My child tries to control everything and everybody.  Her demands and rages absorb every bit of patience and compassion in the house, and still she wants more.  She’ll act out to keep us paying attention to her.  Any ideas?

Robert signs the Bean Seed book at ATTACH conference

Book signing for The Bean Seed

A.  This is not easy.  These “ambivalent attachment style” children, who create drama and burn out the patience of everyone around them, are usually desperate to stay in your thoughts.  The quickest way to do that is to break things — rules, pets, objects, people.  Because if they are not in your thoughts, as Kevin Creedin points out, they are afraid they will disappear.  Each of us would do anything in the world to keep from disappearing.

With ambivalently attached children especially, you will end each day exhausted — your real choice is whether you want to be exhausted from trying to respond all day to your child’s lead, or be exhausted from planning and consulting in advance, staying four steps ahead of their desperation, and being proactive.  That is actually  the easier and more therapeutic way to end up exhausted.

Try delivering good times in combination with No.

“I’m so happy when we are snuggling like this.  And you know when you knocked your sister over yesterday?  That’s the last time.  I expect you to change, and I will help you change.  That’s what adults do for kids — did you know that?  Our job is to recognize when you are stuck feeling little, and then we help you with that stuckness.

“So you have work to do, and I’ll coach you and provide consequences later and also some help giving repairs to people.  I might yell at you if you break the rule again, and I still won’t swear or call you names.  I might yell because I pay attention now, and I care about how you’re doing.  I want to feel so close to you.”


“This attachment stuff is important for everybody, but it never gets examined until it breaks down.”

— single father, librarian

Eye contact to see motives.

One day an adolescent client with a very wounded history told me how annoying it was when I would express empathy for her rough life.

(“That sounds really hard.”  “I’m sorry it was a difficult time.”  etc.)

“I hate that!” she confessed.

I thanked her for being honest.  Then I shared with her the story of a career professional in her 50s who came in for a similarly troubled early history, and also was uncomfortable hearing empathy from a counselor (or from anyone, including her family.)

My younger client asked, “Didn’t she hate your saying ‘I’m sorry’ all the time?”

I replied, “Yes, but she started to look at my eyes and see that I was not being sarcastic or making fun of her, as people used to in her childhood.  Then it felt safer.”

That story seemed to help, and the young client went on to do very good work.

A dismissive attachment style in an adult

An adult client, a professional man who was several years into his new marriage, came into therapy struggling with “Who am I?”  After a short time I found he would change the subject each time I got close to focusing on his thoughts and feelings.  This is typical of an adult who avoids placing any attention or importance on their own inner life — an adult with “dismissive attachment style”.

In such cases I usually ask whether the client’s partner might join us.  It helps get to core issues when I have a second safe person on board.  He agreed to ask her.  She was a social worker.

Next session the spouse joined us, saying, “I’m not sure why I came today.”  My client started chattering about some other topic — his usual response to anything risky.

Suddenly it struck me that he was avoiding his thoughts and feelings because she was a social worker.  I shared my thinking:  “I wonder if you brought her along so she and I would talk shop and stay safely away from your emotional stuff.”

A home run with that — and it laid the groundwork for future sessions.  Before leaving he warned me, “I might go to my grave without dealing with my feelings.”  I replied, “Yes, but that could get old for her.  Spouses like their partners available to work on issues together.”

Good work followed.