Focus On EmotionsHealth & Wellness

Attachment and All That Monkey Business

Welcome to Focus On Emotions, an article series that will delve into our emotional depths, getting at one inalienable truth: emotions matter. Our culture generally teaches us that feelings are to be avoided, suppressed, and controlled; that feelings lead to irrationality. But I have learned, and affective neuroscience would suggest, that feelings are central to self-knowledge, self-management, and good decision-making. This series is designed to help us better understand our emotions, how to work with them, and, when needed, how to heal them.


Attachment is a huge topic. Volumes have been written about it for decades. Although as psychological theories go, it’s still considered very new. Here we will briefly cover the historical roots and central tenets of attachment theory, with a focus on applications to postsecondary student development.

A History of Attachment

Here’s a whirlwind overview (somewhat tongue-in-cheek and definitely non-comprehensive) of the who’s who of attachment and its precursors:

1930s | Konrad Lorenz

Ethologist Konrad Lorenz coins the term imprinting to describe the process whereby goslings “imprint upon” the first large moving object they see, following it everywhere like a cute, feathery parade. This leads to findings that there are critical developmental periods for certain behavioural capacities to unfold (for example, imprinting tends to occur in geese between 13–16 hours after hatching).

1940/1950s | Behaviourists and Psychoanalysts

Dominant North American and European models of human development are those of behaviourists and psychoanalysts. The former have been cited as arguing that children’s behavior must be molded by strict routine with frequent and consistent reward and punishment. Examples of popular parenting advice in the 1950s include: “Keep your baby on an exact time schedule as far as possible” and “Though he cries, don’t pick your baby up if he is well. A good lusty cry is excellent exercise.”

Psychoanalysts were divided into several camps by this time. Those in alignment with Melanie Klein (a famous child analyst in her time and an early mentor to John Bowlby) promoted the idea that children’s internal lives and developmental course were governed primarily by the child’s inner fantasy life, with less to do with real life circumstances and experiences. Thus, actual parenting had little influence, and when a child’s behaviour was considered problematic, it was a function of challenges internal to the child. While these philosophies may appear outdated today, remember that your grandparents—and possibly your parents—would have been raised during the time when these theories dominated parenting practices.

Late 1940s | Dr. Spock

Dr. Spock (no, not from Star Trek) explodes on the scene, advising parents to trust their instincts, ditch the schedules, and give their children lots of love. Strangely, parents seem to like this and his book, The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care, sells 500,000 copies in its first six months in 1946.

1950–1980s | John Bowlby

Psychologist, psychiatrist, & psychoanalyst, John Bowlby, publishes his report for the World Health Organization on the effects of maternal deprivation in 1951. Over the next three decades he writes his first three volumes on attachment theory, sharing his theoretical formulations based on observations that children’s actual interactions with caregivers are critically important to child development. This radical departure from Klein’s predominant psychoanalytic views of the time left him heavily criticized by his former mentors and teachers (which could have elicited some pretty strong attachment fears had he been anxiously attached, as we’ll discuss below). It was an equally radical departure from behaviourist views at the time.

Late 1950–1970s | Harry Harlow

Psychologist Harry Harlow is exposed to writings by John Bowlby on the negative impact of maternal deprivation; to René Spitz’s observations of infant mortality and developmental delay in institutional care (orphanages), where basic needs such as food and shelter are met in the absence of nurturing human contact; and to observations of children’s distress in an era where parents were not permitted to stay with their hospitalized children.

Harlow begins a series of (seriously) controversial experimental studies on maternal deprivation in monkeys. Some say his studies inadvertently launched the animal rights movement and the development of guidelines for the ethical treatment of animals in research. What Harlow’s research also illuminated was the extreme importance of comfort and soothing, demonstrating that baby monkeys grew more “attached” to terry cloth inanimate “mothers” that provided some degree of physical comfort, rather than to wire cage “mothers” that provided access to food. A series of somewhat heart-wrenching videos show the nature of his research.

1950–1980s | Mary Ainsworth

Psychologist Mary Ainsworth (a UofT grad) pioneered studies of children’s social and emotional development (areas previously overlooked in favour of research into children’s cognitive development), becoming the first to develop a measure for assessing and studying “relatedness.” Intrigued upon encountering Bowlby’s work, her assessment and research methods provided empirical evidence for, and later uniquely contributed to, Bowlby’s evolving attachment theory. She is most well known for her development of the Strange Situation experiment, an assessment technique used to study and classify attachment (more on that in a bit).


How are attachment and emotion related? There are varying opinions on this, with many viewing attachment as an innate and hard-wired independent system that causes infants and toddlers to seek and remain close to caretakers. Others contend that attachment styles develop as a way to regulate innate emotion systems. Whichever the case, it is clear that attachment style and emotion regulation tendencies are powerfully intertwined. Let’s begin with an overview of what attachment is and the four primary attachment styles noted in children.

What is Attachment?

Attachment typically refers to an enduring and significant emotional bond between two or more individuals, such as between a parent and child, or between adults in a long-standing romantic partnership. Bowlby believed that, much like the geese observed by Lorenz, human infants are innately predisposed to find and remain close to an attachment figure who, in turn, is predisposed to care for the infant. While geese imprint within 13–16 hours of hatching, attachment theory postulates that humans must be exposed to meaningful and attuned human interaction in the first few years of life to develop healthy human social interaction patterns. What attachment theory also postulates is that we are predisposed (hardwired) to attach to other humans and to seek comfort in another’s presence because this type of predisposition aids our survival as a species.

Attachment style stems from our early learning experiences with caretakers. In essence, our attachment style is the sum total of our learning about how others are likely to treat us, based on how our primary caregivers responded to us in childhood. Think about it for a moment. Babies under one year of age will sleep 14–17 hours/day, leaving just over 500 minutes a day for human interaction. Over this first year then, babies are having hundreds of human interactions every day, over 180,000 in their first year of life alone! With each action a baby takes, and each interaction a baby experiences, their brains are developing connections. They are learning to expect that certain responses will follow specific actions: when I move my right arm this way, I reach my nose! After these muscles clench, my body rolls over! When I giggle, daddy’s face lights up and I feel good. When I cry, mommy puts me down. When I show fright, papa speaks sharply and sternly to me. When I am hurt, my bubbie scoops me up in her arms and snuggles me. In a child’s earliest years, caregivers, not the infant, regulate the child’s emotions.

Of course, these learning experiences are not encoded in language in an infant’s brain, but they are encoded in neural networks as response-contingencies, or “when A, then B” relationships. This learning early on is entirely nonverbal. If you have ever wondered how important nonverbal communication is, watch this example of Tronick’s Still Face experiment. (Warning, it’s a bit of a tough watch.)

In this experimental paradigm, a mom is attuned to her baby—smiling, looking where the baby points, and clearly enjoying her child’s communication with her. Then, mom looks away. When mom looks back at her baby, mom holds her face in a neutral, unchanging expression. Her baby has a strong and immediate negative reaction. As a mom myself, just a short clip activates some degree of anxiety and sadness while watching. What Tronick’s Still Face experiment demonstrates so clearly is how sensitive we, as a species, are to interpersonal communication and attunement, and the importance of a parent’s actions and reactions in providing soothing, comfort, and connection to a child.

Attachment style is an aspect of our lives that we seldom think explicitly about, but which has a profound impact upon how we view ourselves and others in the world, how we manage intimacy, how we regulate our emotions, and how we manage stress. Four categories of attachment patterns or styles have been identified through extensive research conducted by Mary Ainsworth’s use of the Strange Situation experiment. These include secure attachment, two types of insecure attachment (anxious and avoidant), and disorganized attachment.

The Strange Situation

To understand attachment, it is helpful to understand a bit about the Strange Situation. It is an experimental paradigm in which a parent and a young child (babies and toddlers primarily) enter a room filled with interesting objects and toys. (Initially only mothers were involved, with researchers later realizing that any primary caretaker is instrumental in creating attachment patterns; it has nothing to do with the sex or gender expression of the parent.) The mother allows the child to freely explore the room. An adult research assistant (a “stranger” to the child) enters the room, speaks to the parent and then approaches the child while the parent leaves the room in a way that the child notices. Often, although not always, the child is distressed. The stranger then tries to interact with the child in age-appropriate ways (playing, speaking). The parent then returns to the room and offers comfort to the child as needed. The stranger leaves the room. Mom then leaves the room, leaving the child alone briefly—again, most children are distressed. The stranger re-enters and tries to soothe or engage the child. The parent then returns, comforts their child and the stranger leaves.

While this is happening, researchers are observing how much exploration the child engages in, the child’s reactions when their parent leaves, the child’s reactions to the stranger, and the child’s responses when the parent returns. In general, Ainsworth noticed four broad patterns of responses and parent-child interactions that she came to describe as the four attachment styles.

Secure Attachment

Research has demonstrated that approximately 60–70% of the population develops patterns of secure attachment in the first year of life, although recent research has suggested that rates of secure attachment may be dropping in the US. In the Strange Situation, infants described as securely attached freely explore the room when their parent is present and cry when their parent leaves the room, showing clear distress. Securely attached children are not readily soothed by a stranger (who is after all, not their “person”), but calm quickly when their parent returns to the room and provides comforting.

What Bowlby noted based on observations and what Ainsworth demonstrated in practice was that when a child could trust and depend upon a significant other, then they would be more independent and explore freely—at least when their safe person was present. This is known as the dependency paradox—individuals who have someone to depend on can be more effectively independent. Think about that for a moment as a Student Affairs professional; we’ll return to it later in this article.

Insecure Attachment

Approximately 30–40% of individuals develop an insecure attachment style, developing either an anxious or an avoidant style. In the Strange Situation, anxiously attached children are those who tend to stay close to their parent rather than exploring their new environment. They tend to become quite distressed when a parent departs, and are not easily calmed by the stranger or by the return of their parent.

Avoidantly attached children, like their secure counterparts, do tend to explore the room freely, however, avoidantly attached children don’t tend to use their parent as a reference point (they don’t check in to see where their parent is or engage with their parent as they explore the room). While avoidantly attached children appear (outwardly) unaffected by the parent’s departures and returns to the lab, Ainsworth was aware that these same infants tended to be particularly distressed when their moms left the room when at home.

Prior to using the Strange Situation to study child behaviour in a controlled setting, Ainsworth had spent a lot of time with moms and babies in their homes observing their behaviour together. In the home environment, Ainsworth had noted that some infants appeared particularly distressed when their mother left the room, and that moms of these children tended to react to their infants in ways Ainsworth had described with labels such as “rejecting”, “interfering”, or “neglectful”. (We now know that how parents react to their children is impacted by the parent’s own attachment style and early learning experiences; including a parent’s own learned patterns of comfort or discomfort with certain kinds of emotional expression, and with varying degrees of closeness).

Later research demonstrated that avoidantly attached children experience elevated cortisol levels and increased heart rate when their parent leaves the room, suggesting that these children are experiencing, but not expressing, their distress. Researchers hypothesized that these children have learned that expressing their distress is neither well received by their caregiver, nor effective in getting their needs met. Again, the implications for how we understand our postsecondary students are interesting.

Disorganized Attachment

The last category, disorganized attachment, is more concerning. While both securely and insecurely attached children appear to have a consistent strategy for managing their stress and relationship to their parent in the Strange Situation, children demonstrating attachment styles that came to be known as “disorganized” appear to lack a consistent strategy for connection. While they demonstrate behaviours associated with a secure or insecure attachment style, they also periodically display disorganized behaviour—they might periodically freeze, approach their caregivers while walking backwards, or stare off into space.

What Causes Different Attachment Styles to Develop?

Secure attachment is believed to result from “good enough” attunement between child and parent, although there are almost certainly genetic and epigenetic influences involved as well. More often than not, primary caregivers perceive their child’s reactions and needs accurately, and respond in a soothing and comforting manner. Tronick’s Still Face experiment is an excellent example of a shift between a display of attuned parental responding and misattuned responding. Sometimes parents aren’t attuned and get it wrong, but when they get it wrong, most can re-attune, apologize, normalize, and keep on going—as also occurs in the Still Face experiment. In such cases, secure attachment is still likely to develop. In the language of emotion theory, parents perceive and label their child’s feelings, understand the underlying need demonstrated by the child’s behaviour (or action tendency), and meet the need—allowing the child to feel good. For example, a parent provides safety when a child is scared, comfort when a child is hurt or sad, food when a child is hungry, or space when a child is angry.

When a parent, typically due to their own emotional pain or attachment style, is chronically misattuned to their child, insecure attachment is the likely result. Imagine a parent who was raised in a home where displays of emotions were ignored or worse, punished. Such individuals would likely grow up with anxious or avoidant styles themselves and may not have developed comfort with, and a working knowledge of, emotion needed to demonstrate attunement to their own children. Through misattunement to their own children, the cycle of insecure attachment is, understandably, continued.

Over time, researchers have viewed the category of disorganized attachment as a broad category that may require further refinement. It appears to be a style that typically develops in families under serious and enduring stress. Stressors of this type include growing up with one or more attachment figures who are frightening in and of themselves (as in cases of domestic violence, child abuse, parental anger management difficulties, and/or serious addictions), or circumstances where there has been significant loss or separation, or impact of pervasive and enduring social oppression.

What Changes Can Improve Security in Children?

The good news for parents anxious to help their children be securely attached is that even small changes in parenting and attunement can make big differences for children! Ryerson’s own Department of Psychology has created a great 5-minute video providing an overview of our evolving view of children, parenting, and the importance of attachment in building resiliency for emotional health and well-being. Plus, it showcases super-cute babies!

Featured in the video are Dr. Leslie Atkinson’s recommendations for how to optimize parenting to foster healthy attachment. These include:

  • Enjoy your child, and express this to your child through your words and actions.
  • Be sensitive. Respond in a timely, warm, and consistent manner to your child when your child is seeking affection.
  • Scaffold. Protect your child from stressors they are too young to handle.
  • Balance your own needs with those of your child. Recharge, and attend to your individual and couple needs—you’ll be a better parent for it!
For years mothers had been warned against picking up their babies when they cried. It seemed contrary to nature and intuition, but behavioral theory asserted that picking up the child reinforced the crying, and if you did it enough you’d have a monstrous crybaby on your hands. Attachment research seems to have disproved this, at least as a general principle.
Robert Karen, 1990

Some of these tips may seem small, but in a world where so many families are under stress, where there is such perceived pressure to highly program children’s lives to give them every advantage to succeed, it is important to remember that some of the most powerful experiences a child can have include seeing their parent’s face light up in delight when the child walks in the room, sharing moments of genuine mutual enjoyment, and receiving soothing snuggles when distressed, hurt, or scared.

Programs of research have demonstrated that, by learning about their own attachment styles and the impact upon parenting, adults can become more attuned parents. Emotion coaching has also proven to be effective in helping parents help their children (at any age from preschool through to adult children) heal from emotional difficulties—but more about that next month. For adults in long-standing intimate relationships, psychologists and psychotherapy researchers Dr. Les Greenberg and former student Dr. Sue Johnson focus specifically on helping partners attend to their own and each others needs in relationships. Strategies include using clear communication and the expression of vulnerability to help adults meet their own and their partner’s needs; both in the here and now and to heal old childhood hurts, many of which underlie the development of patterns that are encoded in the language of attachment.

C: You were excited to write this article in particular, but you can’t find your voice. It’s taking forever and it’s not shaping up the way you wanted it to. You’re never going to get it right and everyone is going see that! You’re just not smart enough for this!

E: Critic, I feel anxious and scared when you say these things to me. I can’t think straight when you’re so mean. I need you to stop it. Be nice, or be quiet.

C: Are you kidding me? Without me, you’re doomed to expose yourself as a fraud. I’m the only thing that keeps you from public ridicule!

E: This isn’t working critic. I need and deserve your support! Why do you keep working so hard to frighten me and put me down?

C: I remember seeing you hurt in the past, and I made a vow to never let you be hurt like that again. This is the only way I know how to protect you. I’d rather criticize you myself, before anyone else can. At least then it might not sting so much from others.

E: I understand now. You get scared. I need you to know that I’m stronger now than I was then. Thank you for raising your voice—when I hear it, I’ll look around to see what may need my attention. I am confident that I have the skills and the supports to manage challenges in my life, and to ask for help as needed. I need you to get my attention in a gentler way—no more unfair criticisms, please.

How Do You Determine an Adult’s Attachment Style?

By this point, you may be wondering what’s your attachment style. If so, there is, of course, an online quiz for that. Mary Main, one of Ainsworth’s early doctoral students, is best known for having developed a system for classifying attachment styles in adults. She systematically observed patterns in how adults recall their childhood experiences. Research evidence suggests that Main’s classifications of adult attachment categories show predictable relationships with child attachment styles in parent-child dyads (a parent’s adult attachment style is related to the attachment style that will emerge in their child), and are consistent with the belief that children tend to maintain their own attachment style into adulthood—unless their attachment figures change their behaviour, new attachment figures are found who provide different attachment opportunities, or they earn a secure attachment style by exploring and making sense of their early lived experience, developing a coherent narrative of challenges and joys, and healing from past hurts.

I find it relatively easy to get close to others and am comfortable depending on them and having them depend on me. I don’t often worry about being abandoned or about someone getting too close to me. [Measurement of secure attachment style.]

I am somewhat uncomfortable being close to others: I find it difficult to trust them completely and difficult to allow myself to depend on them. I am nervous when anyone gets too close, and often romantic partners want me to be more intimate than I feel comfortable being. [Measurement of the avoidant style.]

I find that others are reluctant to get as close as I would like. I often worry that my partner doesnt really love me or wont want to stay with me. I want to merge completely with another person, and this desire sometimes scares people away. [Measurement of the anxious style.]

—Hazan and Shaver, 1987; Reprinted in Levine and Heller, 2011.

If you want to learn more about adult attachment, check out some of these resources:

  • Attached, a book by neuroscientist Dr. Amir Levine and Rachel Heller. Several shorter video and written summaries of this book also exist.
  • Taking a more holistic and diverse sociocultural view of relationships, the Stone Centre Theory Group focus on relationship in their discussion of human development.

Implications for Our Work with Post-Secondary Students

Now that we have a base understanding of attachment, how does it inform how we can support the needs of our students (and ourselves)? In this section, I will intentionally pose more questions than I will answer, giving space for you, my SA professional colleagues, to identify the answers that fit for you in your work with students.

A Secure Base from Which to Explore

Given the dependency paradox, how do we give our students a secure base from which to explore—especially those who may not have had a secure base earlier in their lives? In addition, how do we identify those students most in need of a secure base? Research would suggest that our students who may be described as anxiously and avoidantly attached may be most in need, and may need to connect in different ways.

Managing Feelings Well Through Connection and Relationships

Thinking about our students, it is clear that the majority of postsecondary students are in attachment-related transitions—as are their parents! Some of our students are leaving home for the first time. Others live at home but are working on finding their own identity within their family and as maturing adults; are working on connecting to friends and partners as new potential attachment influences; and are consolidating their sense of self, often within the context of developing and refining bicultural identities. How do we help students understand how to effectively meet their needs in relationships? How might your work help students form lasting connections through their post-secondary years?

To assist our students in this area, we need to foster the development of specific skill sets:

  • Help students name their feelings and primary needs.
  • Teach and model strategies for taking time out to self-reflect and track changes in feelings, needs, and relationship behaviours over time.
  • Provide a framework for making friends in adulthood! (Seriously, we talk about dating all the time and how to find a perfect partner, but what about how to make that great and lasting bff!?) At the CSDC, colleagues Laura Girz and Maura O’Keefe have started a group for that: Take Care of Your Connections.
  • Create spaces where students can practice effectively communicating their vulnerability and authenticity and then experience the deep moments of connection that can follow (rather than being paralyzed by shame and fear, or needing to hide behind the veneers of perfection and happiness). (Yep, we also have a group for that: Tame Your Critic. We also need non-counselling spaces where this kind of sharing is the norm.)

If you’re looking for a jumping off point, some basic pragmatic tips to start deepening your own connections and finding those whose needs may be compatible, Levine and Heller (along with myriad psychotherapists and psychotherapy researchers) argue that clear communication is key. Implicit in that focus is an ability to identify one’s feelings and needs for the purpose of communicating them. I’ll leave the last word to Levine and Heller’s five principles of effective communication:

  1. Wear your heart on your sleeve. (Lots of concordance with Brené Brown here, which I love!) The focus: be genuine, honest, and brave.
  2. Focus on your needs, while also taking into account others’ well-being. Know that each of your needs are valid and deserve to be taken into account.
  3. Be specific. Focus on examples of a specific behaviour and how you felt; not on global generalizations or past patterns.
  4. Avoid blame. Own your feelings and express your needs, rather than blaming another for how their actions “made” you feel. Using I statements can go a long way on this front. (“I need…”, ”I feel…” rather than you statements “You made me…”, “You’re so…”)
  5. Be assertive and unapologetic. Your needs are valid. Full stop. Others may have needs different from your own, but that does not make your experience less valid. Asking for your needs clearly and early in a relationship will let you know if you have compatible or incompatible needs with that prospective partner or bff. The goal is not to immediately change yourself or others to meet your needs, but to find friends and partners whose current needs are compatible with your own.

Next month, we’ll continue putting together many of the concepts we’ve been building upon to tackle lessons learned from the field of emotion coaching. Our focus: how to help others manage their big feelings when they come to the fore in personal relationships.


Focus On Emotions is a year long series, published monthly, written and researched by Sarah Thompson.