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Strange Situation – How to Identify A Child’s Attachment Style

What is Strange Situation

The Strange Situation is a laboratory-based procedure devised by psychologist Mary Ainsworth in the 1960s to observe an infant’s response to two brief separations from, and reunions with, the parent. The pattern of behaviors can identify the child’s early attachment styles depicted in the Attachment Theory, a developmental psychology theory developed by John Bowlby.

In the procedure, the experimental room is furnished. At one end of the room is a child’s chair heaped with and surrounded by toys. Near the other end of the room on one side is a chair for the parent, and on the opposite side, hear the door, a chair for the stranger​1​.

baby girl plays with toys in a room in a strange situation experiment

The strange situation procedure is comprised of eight episodes in the following order (mothers are used in the following example).

  • Episode 1: Mother and baby are introduced to the room.
  • Episode 2: Mother and baby are alone. The child explores the room freely.
  • Episode 3: Stranger enters the room, talks with the mother, approaches the child and tries to interact with the child. Mother exits the room after 3 minutes.
  • Episode 4 (First separation): Stranger remains in the room and interacts with the child when needed.
  • Episode 5 (First reunion): Mother re-enters and greets the child in the doorway. Stranger exits.
  • Episode 6 (Second separation): Mother leaves again. Baby is alone for 3 minutes.
  • Episode 7: Stranger re-enters and remains in the room and interacts with the child when needed.
  • Episode 8 (Second reunion): Mother returns and stranger leaves.

The procedure is observed in an adjoining room through a one-way mirror. The following four classes of behavior are observed and calibrated.

  1. Exploratory – how much the child explores with or without mother’s presence.
  2. Search – the child’s reaction when the mother leaves.
  3. Proximity and contact – does the child seek/avoid or maintain contact with the mother in episodes 2, 3, 5 and 8
  4. Stranger anxiety – does the child seek/avoid or maintain contact with the stranger in episodes 3, 4, and 7.

Four Attachment Styles in Infants

The observed response in the Strange Situation has proven to correlate closely with maternal and infant behavior in the home throughout a child’s first year of life​2​. Based on the observed responses, the infants’ attachments can be classified into one of the three patterns​3​.

Category B: Secure

Securely attached infants use the parents as a secure base for exploration as long as the they are present. When the mothers leave, the children become visibly distressed, and cry or search for them. The babies are happy when the parents return. They actively seek contact and are able to re-establish emotional stability. They then resume exploring the environment.

The caregiver of an infant with secure attachment is sensitive to the child’s signals during feeding, face-to-face play, physical contact, and distress episodes especially in the first 3 months . The parent responds promptly and appropriately to the crying early on, resulting in less crying by the time the child reaches one year old.

Category A: Insecure-avoidant, Anxious-avoidant

Insecurely-avoidant infants show no obvious signs of distress during separation and show little interest upon the parent’s reunion. They don’t seek contact, ignore the parent or avoid bodily contact.

The caregiver of an avoidantly attached infant dislikes physical contact with the infant. The caregiver is generally low in emotional expressiveness, even in response to the sometimes highly aggressive interaction of their infant. They likely experienced rejection by their parents in childhood.

Category C: Insecure-ambivalent, Anxious-ambivalent or Anxious-resistant

Insecurely-ambivalent infants are very wary of the stranger and highly distressed on separation. When the parents return, the babies show ambivalent behavior by seeking close contact and at the same time showing angry resistance. They cannot settle and re-establish emotional stability for a long period. They cannot use the parents for emotional regulation.

The caregiver of an ambivalently attached infant show inconsistency in responding to the child’s needs.

Category D: Disorganized / Disoriented

An infant’s responses to the parent in the Strange Situation test reflect the history of interaction the child has experienced with that parent at home. The pattern of these “organized” responses can predict later functioning of the child.

Studies have also found that a large number of children do not fall into any of the above three organized categories. These kids’ behaviors do not resemble one another in an coherent, organized ways. The only commonalities in their actions are sequences of incoherent reaction that lack a readily observable goal, intention or explanation. The diverse, unclassified patterns were disorganized or disoriented.

Psychologists later on defined this category of attachment as disorganized attachment (or disoriented attachment).

The caretaker of a disorganized infant is both the source of fright and the only haven of safety known to the child. They are the child’s attachment figure and display frightening behavior. They may be abusive, threatening, frightened, or dissociated due to unresolved loss in their own childhood​4​.


References

  1. 1.
    Ainsworth MDS, Bell SM. Attachment, Exploration, and Separation: Illustrated by the Behavior of One-Year-Olds in a Strange Situation. Child Development. Published online March 1970:49. doi:10.2307/1127388
  2. 2.
    Bretherton I. Attachment Theory: Retrospect and Prospect. Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development. Published online 1985:3. doi:10.2307/3333824
  3. 3.
    Spangler G, Schieche M. Emotional and Adrenocortical Responses of Infants to the Strange Situation:                The Differential Function of Emotional Expression. International Journal of Behavioral Development. Published online December 1998:681-706. doi:10.1080/016502598384126
  4. 4.
    Schuengel C, Bakermans-Kranenburg MJ, Van IJzendoorn MH. Frightening maternal behavior linking unresolved loss and disorganized infant attachment. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology. Published online 1999:54-63. doi:10.1037/0022-006x.67.1.54
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