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Attachment to parents

Updated Wednesday, 13th June 2007
The study of the relationships that infants (usually between 12 months and 24 months) have with parents has been much influenced by a standardised procedure known as the strange situation.

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The strange situation

This procedure was designed by Mary Ainsworth and her colleagues. The strange situation allows investigators to see how infants react to potentially stressful events; when a stranger enters a room and when the infant’s caregiver leaves the room. There also is interest in the way an infant reacts at reunion with the caregiver.

The strange situation usually involves the sequence detailed below.

This assessment of a child’s attachment security is carried out in an observation laboratory, with video cameras strategically placed so as to record the behaviour of mothers and their children. The laboratory contains two easy chairs, a low table, a play area, perhaps defined by a rug, and a set of toys.

Stranger sits quietly

After the mother and her child have settled, the mother sits reading a magazine and after a few minutes, a stranger enters and sits quietly on the free chair.


Stranger plays with child

After an interval, the stranger starts talking in a friendly way with the mother, and after a while, moves to the floor and starts to play with the child.


Mother leaves the room

Then, a little later, the mother gets up and leaves the room.


Stranger tries to play with the child

The stranger stays and tries to play with the child.


Mother returns

After a period, the mother then re-enters the room and returns to her chair. The stranger leaves the room.


Child plays alone

Then, after a further interval, the mother gets up and leaves the room again, leaving the child alone.


Stranger plays with child again

After a period, the stranger enters, offers comfort to the child if necessary, and tries to play with the child again.


Mother and child play again

Finally, the mother returns, the stranger leaves the room, and mother and child remain in the room for a few more minutes.

The video recording of the whole session is then coded by trained observers following a detailed coding scheme. In particular they will look for instances of the infant seeking proximity to the mother, maintaining contact and showing signs of avoidance or resistant behaviour.

After careful consideration of the coding, a security classification is arrived at, defining the quality of the attachment.

There is a very detailed coding scheme that is used to observe and analyse infants’ behaviour in these sessions. In broad terms, an infant is described as having a ‘secure’ relationship with their caregiver if they are not too upset when this person leaves the room and are pleased when the caregiver returns. Infants who are very upset, angry or indifferent to the caregiver’s departure and return are described as having an ‘insecure’ relationship with their caregiver. Find out more about attachment theory in our course extract.

Methods of studying children

The collection of articles, videos, photos and audio exploring child development has been made possible by a partnership between the British Psychological Society and The Open University Child and Youth Studies Group.


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