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The strange situation: a technique for assessing childhood attachment

The strange situation: a technique for assessing childhood attachment

June 20, 2024

The first years of the child's life are characterized by a set of significant changes, in which the emotional development and the establishment of social bonds take on special relevance. This has led psychology professionals to deepen the safety and protection relationships that are established between babies and their primary caregivers. The most outstanding contribution is the Theory of Attachment , developed by John Bowlby between 1969 and 1980.

Attachment refers to the emotional, affective and intense bond that is established between a baby and its primary caregiver , usually the mother or father. This style of bonding begins in childhood, around 3 months of age, and continues throughout life, in relationships with friends, couples and children. In this way, the attitude of the parents towards their children and the type of attachment that is established between both, will determine the quality of the emotional bonds that the baby will establish throughout his life.


While Bowlby laid the foundations of this theory, it was the psychologist Mary Ainsworth, who in 1960 elaborated the first attachment assessment technique, known as "Strange situation" . Let's see what it consists of.

  • Related article: "The Theory of Attachment and the bond between parents and children"

The Strange Situation technique

This is a technique designed by the psychologist Mary Ainsworth and used in the Psychology of Development in order to determine the nature of attachment style in children from 12 months of age. This technique involves studying the child in laboratory conditions, interacting with his primary caregiver and a strange adult, simulating three types of situations:


  • Natural interactions between the caregiver and the boy or girl in the presence of toys .
  • Short separations of the caregiver and brief encounters with a strange individual .
  • Episodes of meeting with the caregiver.

The experiment was conducted in a small room with univision glass, in order to observe the behavior of the baby in a covert manner. The sample consisted of 100 middle-class American families, with babies between 12 and 18 months.

The procedure to follow

The procedure consisted of observing the behavior of the baby in a series of 8 episodes that lasted approximately 3 minutes each, being able to shorten if the baby was excessively distressed. Next, the different stages of the experiment are presented :

1. Mother, baby and experimenter

In that phase, the observer introduces the mother and baby in an experimental room with toys . It lasts approximately 30 seconds.


2. Mother and baby

In this episode, the baby is dedicated to exploring the room and the toys , while the mother does not participate in the activity.

3. The stranger joins the mother and son

It is the moment when a stranger enters the room. During the first minute he remains silent, to converse with the mother in the second minute. During the third minute, the stranger begins to approach the baby .

4. The mother leaves the baby and the stranger alone

It's the first episode of separation in which the mother leaves the room . The behavior of the stranger is coordinated with that of the baby.

5. The mother returns and the stranger leaves

It is the first episode of reunion. The mother enters, greets and comforts the baby , trying to get it back to its game activity.

6. The mother leaves, leaving the baby

It is the second phase of separation.

7. The stranger returns

The separation of the mother continues, but now the stranger enters to try to interact with the baby

8. The mother returns and a stranger leaves

It is the second episode of reunion in which the mother enters , takes the baby in his arms and the stranger leaves the room.

Classification of attachment styles

The classifications of attachment are based mainly on the observation of 4 interaction behaviors directed towards the mother in the two episodes of reunion (Episodes 5 and 8). These behaviors are:

  • Proximity and contact search .
  • Contact maintaining.
  • Avoidance of proximity and the contact.
  • Resistance to contact and comfort.

The observer notes the behavior that is shown during 15-second intervals and rates the intensity of the behavior on a scale of 1 to 7. At the end of the observation, three attachment styles are established to describe the bond that babies show with their mothers. .

1. Secure attachment

Babies feel safe to explore freely during episodes of separation . They show anguish when the mother leaves and react with enthusiasm when she returns.This pattern was found in 65% of babies.

2. Evolutionary attachment

Babies included in this guideline are described as insecure-avoidant. They show little anguish in the face of separation and when the mother comes back they tend to avoid it . This case occurred in 25% of babies.

3. Ambivalent Attachment

The baby shows distress throughout the procedure, especially during separation. Meetings with caregivers produce an angry release mix directed to it. This pattern was only given in 10% of babies.

To learn more about attachment and its different types, you can consult this article: "Child attachment: definition, functions and types"

Bibliographic references:

  • Bowlbz, J. (1993). Attachment: attachment and loss. Paidos Ibérica.
  • Wallin, D. (2012). The addiction in psychotherapy. Desclée De Brouwer.

The Strange Situation - Mary Ainsworth (June 2024).


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