The Strange Situation test: Is your child securely attached?

The Strange Situation procedure: The original test of the infant-parent bond

We hear a lot about “secure attachment relationships.” But what exactly do researchers mean by this term? Psychologist Mary Ainsworth first devised the Strange Situation procedure to assess the quality of an infant’s attachment to his or her mother. This article

  • explains the procedure,
  • discusses how babies respond,
  • reviews why some children are insecurely-attached, and
  • explores how early attachments might affect adult outcomes.
mother kissing happy toddler

It also considers an important question: To what extent has research over-emphasized the role of the mother? Shouldn’t we also be talking about the role of fathers, grandparents, and other caregivers?

What is a secure attachment?

According to the theories of John Bowlby (1988), children are securely-attached if they are confident of a caregiver’s support. They understand the caregiver to be accessible and responsive, and — as they develop independence during infancy — they come to think of the caregiver as a “secure base.” As long as the caregiver is nearby, securely-attached children feel free to explore, play, and socialize with others.

In addition, securely-attached babies tend to

  • keep track of the caregiver during exploration,
  • approach or touch the caregiver when anxious or distressed; and
  • find comfort in proximity and contact.

And, in the long-term, kids with secure attachments seem to have many advantages – emotional, social, medical, and cognitive.

But how can you know if researchers would classify your own baby as securely attached? How do they actually measure attachment security?  The original method, developed by the influential psychologist Mary Ainsworth, is the laboratory procedure called the “Strange Situation” (Ainsworth et al 1978). It tests how babies or young children respond to the temporary absence of their mothers. Here’s how it works.

The Strange Situation

It begins with mother and child being ushered into a room containing toys. Then the child experiences the following steps, with each step taking approximately 3 minutes.

  • The mother sits in a chair while the child is allowed to explore the room.
  • A friendly woman — previously unknown to the child — enters the room. She talks to the mother, and then gets on the floor and interacts with the child.
  • The mother says goodbye and leaves the room. The child is left behind with the friendly stranger.
  • The mother returns, and the stranger departs. The mother offers comfort to the child, and encourages the child to play with the toys.
  • The mother leaves for a second time. On this occasion, the child is left completely alone. Nobody else is in the room.
  • The friendly stranger returns and offers comfort to the child. The stranger tries to distract the child with toys.
  • The mother returns for a second reunion. Once again, the stranger leaves, and the mother tries to comfort her child.

How children respond to the Strange Situation

As suggested by its name, the Strange Situation was designed to present children with an unfamiliar, but not overwhelmingly frightening, experience (Ainsworth et al 1978). When a child undergoes the Strange Situation, researchers are interested in two things:

  • how much the child explores the room, and
  • how the child responds to the return of his or her mother.

Typically, a child’s response to the Strange Situation follows one of four patterns.

Securely-attached children: Free exploration, and happiness upon the mother’s return

Securely-attached children explore the room freely when their mothers are present, and they act friendly towards the stranger. After their mothers leave the room, they may become distressed and inhibited – exploring less, and avoiding the stranger. But when they are reunited with their mothers, they quickly recover. If they cry, they approach their mothers and hold them tightly. They are comforted by being held, and, once comforted, they are soon ready to resume their independent exploration of the world. Their mothers are responsive to their needs. As a result, securely-attached children know they can depend on their others when they are under stress (Ainsworth et al 1978).  

Avoidant-insecure children: Little exploration, and little emotional response to the mother

Children with an avoidant attachment style don’t explore much, and they don’t show much emotion when their mothers leave. They don’t seem upset about being left alone with the stranger, and, when the mother returns, these children tend to ignore her or avoid eye contact with her (Ainsworth et al 1978).

Resistant-insecure (also called “anxious” or “ambivalent”) children: Little exploration, great separation anxiety, and an ambivalent response to the mother upon her return

Like avoidant children, kids with a resistant or anxious attachment style don’t explore much on their own. But unlike avoidant children, they are wary of strangers, and they may become very distressed when the mother leaves.

When the mother returns, resistant children are ambivalent. Although they want to re-establish close proximity to the mother, they are also resentful—even angry—at the mother for leaving them in the first place. As a result, resistant kids may cling to the mother, but fail to find solace in her attempts to offer comfort. They aren’t easily soothed (Ainsworth et al 1978).

Disorganized-insecure children: Little exploration, and a confused response to the mother.

The disorganized child may exhibit a mix of avoidant and resistant behaviors, but the main theme is one of confusion and disruption – hence the label “disorganized” (Main and Solomon 1986). With kids who are avoidantly or resistantly attached, there is a consistent strategy being followed. The avoidant child is keeping up a strategy of disengagement from the caregiver. The resistant child is pretty consistent about signaling his or her negative emotions to the caregiver – expressing inconsolable distress in response to separation, displaying anxiety and anger.

By contrast, children with a disorganized attachment style don’t seem to have settled on a playbook. They want to approach their attachment figure for reassurance, but they feel fear as well, and this leads them to vacillate between approach and retreat, and to display odd behaviors during the Strange Situation – like freezing in place, or moving in repetitive, apparently purposeless ways (Granqvist et al 2017).

Are there other ways to measure attachment security?

Yes. The Strange Situation test was designed for the very young. As kids get older, researchers try other approaches, like the narrative story stem technique, where kids are presented with fictional scenarios (featuring a young protagonist who is experiencing trouble or distress) and asked to describe what happens next (Allen et al 2018).

If a child’s answer depicts secure attachment behavior (where the protagonist seeks out a primary caregiver and receives effective help), this is viewed as evidence that the child is securely-attached. Other responses may suggest an insecure attachment style, such as avoidant (the protagonist refuses to seek help) or resistant (the protagonist seeks help, but the caregiver’s intervention fails to remedy the situation).

There are also questionnaires and interviews for diagnosing attachment styles, such as the Attachment Interview for Childhood and Adolescence (AICA), and the Adult Attachment Interview (AAI).

What causes secure attachments? What causes insecure attachments?

Evidence that parenting influences infant attachment style

Numerous studies report the same link: When caregivers are sensitive and responsive, they are more likely to have kids with secure attachments. For instance, in one recent study, mothers who showed high sensitivity to their infants – and who experienced surges of oxytocin while interacting with their babies – were more likely to have children who were securely-attached (Kohlhoff et al 2022).

Does this prove causation? Not by itself. Maybe infants develop secure attachments because they’ve inherited certain genes from their parents — genes that give rise both to the tendency to develop secure attachments, and to the tendency to be sensitive and responsive toward infants.

But there are compelling arguments against the idea that genetic differences are driving individual differences in attachment security.

For instance, consider adopted children. They haven’t inherited any genes from their parents, yet studies show that adopted infants – like other babies – are more likely to develop secure attachments when their parents are sensitive, responsive, and emotionally available (Verissimo and Salvaterra 2006; Almeida et al 2022). 

Moreover, studies show that early intervention — teaching new parents how to increase their sensitivity — improves attachment security (Mountain et al 2017).

And when researchers have tracked genes that we’d expect to correlate with attachment – genes that affect the regulation of dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin, and influence the development of social relationships – the evidence hasn’t panned out. A few, small studies have reported links with attachment security (e.g., Lakatos et al 2000; Barry et al 2008). But larger studies have failed to replicate the results, and — overall — there is little or no evidence that these genes play a substantial role in determining a child’s attachment style (Leerkes et al 2017; Khan et al 2020).

So we’ve got a strong case for the impact of parenting. But this begs the question. What does it mean to be a sensitive, responsive parent, and what specific behaviors should caregivers be directing at their babies?

Is cuddling the key to infant attachment security?

Ainsworth and others have created coding guidelines for judging whether or not a parent is behaving in “sensitive” and “responsive” ways. Typically, researchers look for evidence that parents are

  • noticing a baby’s signals (e.g., fussing or crying),
  • accurately interpreting these signals (e.g., the baby is crying because he is hungry), and
  • responding promptly and appropriately.

Parents are given scores, and scores correlate with outcomes. For instance, parents who score high on Mary Ainsworth’s Maternal Sensitivity Scale are more likely to have infants who are securely-attached.

Yet the correlations are moderate at best. Not high. And correlations are actually pretty weak among some populations, including Americans of low socioeconomic status. This inspired Susan Woodhouse and her colleagues to question the importance of certain components of sensitivity and responsiveness — like being a good “mind-reader” and responding quickly to an infant’s distress.

Instead, Woodhouse’s team wondered about a very basic, very physical behavior: holding a crying baby, chest-to-chest, until that baby has fully calmed down. The researchers call this “secure base provision”, and they monitored its use in a study of more than 80 mother-offspring pairs – all of them from low-income families. What did Woodhouse’s team discover?

Traditional measures of maternal sensitivity were uncorrelated with attachment security. But “secure base provision” had a big impact, more than doubling a baby’s chances of developing a secure attachment (Woodhouse et al 2020).

What’s more, the mothers in this study didn’t have to engage in this form of soothing every single time their babies were distressed. Even when moms were observed to provide a secure base less frequently – as little as 50% of the time – babies had a higher probability of developing a secure attachment.

What about predictors of insecure attachment? Are there specific childhood experiences that put babies at higher risk?

Woodhouse’s team looked at these questions, too, and they found that infants were more likely to end up with insecure attachments if their mothers responded to crying in ways that interfered with soothing. This included behavior like speaking in a harsh tone of voice; telling the infant not to cry; and ending the chest-to-chest soothing session before the baby had stopped crying.

Woodhouse and her colleagues also found connections between insecure attachment and maternal behavior that is frightening – like yelling at a crying baby, or suddenly looming over a baby’s face. As Woodhouse explains in Lehigh University press release, such behavior was predictive of insecure attachment, “even if it happened only one time” during the observational period of the study.

“Similarly,” says Woodhouse, “if the mother did anything really frightening even when the baby wasn’t in distress, like saying ‘bye-bye’ and pretending to leave, throwing the baby in the air to the point they would cry, failure to protect the baby, like walking away from the changing table or not protecting them from an aggressive sibling, or even what we call ‘relentless play’ — insisting on play and getting the baby worked up when it is too much — that also leads to insecurity” (White 2019).

The findings are consistent with previous research, and some believe that frightening parental behavior may be especially linked with the development of disorganized attachment.

Children who are abused or neglected are more likely to suffer from disorganized attachment (Barnett et al 1999). But babies don’t have to be abused or neglected to develop disorganized attachment. In some cases, parents themselves may be anxious or frightened – or dealing with unresolved trauma – so that they inadvertently transmit these fearful emotions to their infants (Main and Hess 1990; Granqvist et al 2017). In other cases, parents might simply be insensitive to what babies find scary (David and Lyons-Ruth 2007; Gedaly and Leerkes 2016).

If this sounds like you, is there anything you can do about it? Research suggests you can. In studies where parents from at-risk families were coached on how to better read their children’s cues, kids were less likely to develop disorganized attachments (Wright et al 2017).

How does infant temperament affect attachment security?

Some babies are more easily distressed than others, and these individual differences reflect a combination of genetic and environmental factors. Is it possible that temperamentally “difficult” infants might require higher levels of parental responsiveness to develop secure attachments (Seifer at al 1992; van den Boom 1994 Fuertes et al 2006)?

If so, we might expect that some kids with difficult temperaments won’t get the support they need, and this could lead to higher rates of insecure attachment. But what does the evidence tell us? When researchers analyzed the results of more than 100 study samples, they found only a modest correlation between temperament and resistant attachment, and little or no link between temperament and other attachment styles (Groh et al 2017).

Does stress influence the development of a child’s attachment style?

In theory, stress could cause insecure attachment by interfering with a child’s ability to perceive and interpret parental behavior. Stress could also make it difficult for a child to select the most appropriate, healthy response to being separated from, and reunited with, his or her mother (Waters and Valenzuela 1999). This may help explain why children from families of low socioeconomic status are less likely to develop secure attachments.

But there’s good news, too: Secure attachments have a protective effect – buffering children from the damage caused by toxic stress. Read more about it in my article, “Secure attachment relationships protect kids from toxic stress”.

Do early life attachment relationships have an impact on adult outcomes?

As noted, secure attachments help children cope with toxic stress, so it isn’t surprising that kids with insecure attachments are at higher risk for adult health problems.

For example, in a study tracking more than 160 individuals from infancy, researchers found that people were more likely to report health complaints at the age of 32 years if they had been identified as insecurely attached as babies and toddlers (Puig et al 2013).

There are also links between attachment security and a child’s developing emotional and cognitive skills. For instance, children with secure attachments tend to show a more advanced understanding of emotions (Cooke et al 2016) and they score higher on tests of effortful control (Pallini et al 2018). In studies around the world, kids with insecure attachments are at a moderately increased risk for becoming depressed (Spruit et al 2020).

So it’s easy to imagine that this would lay the groundwork for better social functioning, and research supports the idea that early attachment security foreshadows how adults handle conflict. In another long-term study, researchers found children with insecure attachments at 12 and 18 months were more likely – as young adults –to respond to difficulties with romantic partners by becoming disengaged and suppressing their emotions (Girme et al 2021).

Yet it’s important to understand that early caregiving experiences don’t irrevocably define us. Attachment relationships can change over time (Opie et al 2021), and while infant attachments can pave the way for adult attachments, they don’t determine adult outcomes (Fraley end Roisman 2019).

What about cultural differences?

International studies of the Strange Situation

In studies recognizing three attachment classifications (secure, avoidant-insecure, and resistant-insecure), about 21% of American infants have been classified as avoidant-insecure, 65% as secure, and 14% as resistant-insecure. The same distribution is found when researchers pool the results of studies conducted worldwide (van Ijzendoorn and Kroonenberg 1988).

However, there are local variations. For instance, a study conducted in Bielfeld, Germany has reported relatively high rates of avoidantly-attached infants (52%–Grossman et al 1981). And research conducted elsewhere–in Indonesia, Japan, and the kibbutzim of Israel—has reported relatively high rates of resistantly-attached infants (Zevalkink et al 1999; van IJzendoorn and Kroonenberg 1988).

Studies recognizing the fourth classification — disorganized attachment — also indicate the existence of population differences.

The prevalence of disorganized attachment among middle class, white American children is about 12% (Main and Solomon 1990), but it’s much higher among children of low socioeconomic status. Disorganized attachment has also been reported to be relatively common among the Dogon of Mali (~25%, True et al 2001), infants living on the outskirts of Cape Town, South Africa (~26%, Tomlinson et al 2005), children from low income families in Zambia (~29%, Mooya et al 2016), and undernourished children in Chile (Waters and Valenzuela 1999).

Why local populations differ

In some cases, these outcomes may reflect differences in the way infants perceive the Strange Situation, rather than real differences in attachment.

For instance, Israeli children raised in kibbutzim rarely meet strangers. As a result, their high rates of resistant behavior during the Strange Situation test may have had more to do with heightened fear than with the nature of their maternal bonds (Sagi et al 1991).

Similarly, the Japanese results were probably skewed by the facts that Japanese infants are virtually never separated from their mothers (Miyake et al 1995). Nor do Japanese people value independence and independent exploration to the same degree that Westerners do, with the result that otherwise securely-attached babies may explore less (Rothbaum et al 2000).

But in other cases, results of the Strange Situation may reveal genuine cultural differences in the way that children have attached to their mothers. For example, researchers analyzing a variety of attachment studies concluded that German and American infants perceived the Strange Situation in similar ways (Sagi et al 1991). So the relatively high incidence of avoidant-insecure attachments in Germany may reflect real differences in the way that some Germans approach parenting.

Has attachment research placed too much emphasis on mothers?

Some evolutionary considerations.

One criticism of the Strange Situation procedure is that it has focused almost exclusively on the mother-infant bond. In part, this may reflect a cultural bias. Many people who study attachment come from industrialized societies where mothers usually bear most of the responsibility for childcare.

But in some families, fathers spend a great deal of time with their children. And in many parts of the world, grandmothers, aunts, uncles, and siblings make substantial — even crucial –contributions to childcare. In fact, among some modern-day foragers, like the Aka and Efe of central Africa, infants spend the much of the day being held by someone other than their mothers (Hewlett 1991; Konner 2005). You can read more about the cooperative nature of hunter-gatherer childcare in my article, “Hunter-gatherers subsidize families…for the benefit of everyone”.

Such evidence has inspired evolutionary anthropologists to “rethink…assumptions about the exclusivity of the mother-infant relationship” (Hrdy 2005). For instance, anthropologist Sarah Blaffer Hrdy has argued that non-maternal caregivers may have played an important role in human evolution (Hrdy 2005). When infants have multiple caregivers, their mothers bear less of the cost of child-rearing. Mothers can afford to have more children, and their children can afford to grow up more slowly.

Interestingly, these life-history traits—higher fertility and an extended childhood—distinguish humans from our closest living relatives, the great apes (Smuts et al 1989). And ape mothers—unlike many human mothers—must raise their kids without helpers.

So perhaps “allocare” (non-maternal childcare) gave our ancestors the edge—allowing us to reproduce at faster rates than our nonhuman cousins. If so, it’s foolish to assume that human babies are designed for exclusive attachments to a single, maternal caregiver. 

While this point doesn’t detract from the importance of Strange Situation studies, it reminds us that infants can bond with more than one person. 

Research confirms that infants form secure attachment relationships with both their mothers and their fathers (Boldt et al 2017). Studies show that toddlers can form secure attachments to their daycare providers (Colonnesi et al 2017). School children can form secure attachments with their teachers (Verschueren 2015). And when they do — when children expand their network of secure relationships — they are more likely to thrive.

More reading

For more readings about the importance of secure, personal relationships, see these articles 

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Content last modified 8/2022. Portions of the text are derived from an earlier version of this article, written by the same author.

Image credits for “The Strange Situation”:

Title image by digitalskillet / istock

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