Secure Attachment – From Childhood To Adult Relationships

By Misha Jan, published July 22, 2022 | Fact Checked by Saul Mcleod, PhD


An attachment style describes the way in which people relate to others, based on how secure they feel. Secure attachment is characterised by feelings of trust and safety in relationships.

The attachment style you develop in early childhood is thought to have a lifelong influence on your ability to communicate your emotions and needs, how you respond to conflict, and how you form expectations about your relationships.

Secure attachment is essential for fostering healthy childhood development and adult relationships. An individual with a secure attachment style exhibits a consistent, interdependent, and confident style of relating in a relationship.

Securely attached individuals maintain a healthy balance of relying on their partner and meeting their own needs. Due to this balance, they are able to create deeper intimacy through vulnerability while maintaining their individuality.

Secure attachments with caregivers are believed to be essential for healthy development. It is considered that about 50% of the population has a secure attachment style while the rest fall into one of the insecure categories (anxious, avoidant, and disorganised). 

Attachment theory as secure, preoccupied, dismissive, fearful behavior models outline diagram. Labeled educational psychological types with influence from childhood parenting vector

What's your attachment style?

Attachment theory was proposed by psychologist John Bowlby in the 1950s. He proposed that children develop an attachment style in early life depending on the parenting of the primary caregiver. 

The concept involves one’s confidence in the availability of the attachment figure for use as a secure base from which one can freely explore the world when not in distress as well as a safe haven from which one can seek support, protection, and comfort in times of distress.

Bowlby argued that one’s sense of security as a child is critical to their attachment style as an adult. 

It is generally accepted that there are four attachment styles (Ainsworth, Blehar, Waters, & Wall, 1978):

  • Anxious– those with an anxious attachment style have problems trusting others. They often worry that people will abandon them, so they often seem clingy or needy. 

  • Avoidant – this attachment style is characterised by problems with intimacy and low emotional investment in relationships.

  • Secure – this is characterised by feelings of trust and safety in relationships. Children who are securely attached feel safe and supported by their caregivers. Securely attached adults are capable of forming lasting relationships.

  • Fearful-avoidant – this usually stems from either the avoidant or disorganized attachment style in children. These individuals usually crave an intimate relationship but are uncomfortable with closeness and find it hard to trust others. They are often fearful of getting hurt if they get close to others so they may choose to avoid relationships instead.

The attachment style you develop in early childhood is thought to have a lifelong influence on your ability to communicate your emotions and needs, how you respond to conflict, and how you form expectations about your relationships.

Although the attachment style you were raised with does not explain everything about your relationships and who you become as an adult, understanding your style may help explain patterns you notice in relationships.

What are the signs of secure attachment in children?

Infants with a secure attachment hold an internal model of the world as a safe place and a model of others as being kind and reliable.

Children with a secure attachment, having been regulated by their caregiver in times of stress, develop skills to self-regulate their social, emotional and cognitive behaviours.

In addition, securely attached children show balanced behavioural strategies, expressing their need for both intimacy and autonomy. Autonomy is particularly significant as it facilitates interaction with environment.

Early signs can depict if a child is developing into a securely attached adult. These signs include:

  1. Positive response to the return of parents
  2. Comfortably interacts with others
  3. Comfortably explores and plays in new areas
  4. Prefers parents over strangers
  5. Seeks comfort from parents

Securely attached children use the caregiver as a secure base with which to explore their social world and a safe haven to turn to during times of distress.

In order for a child to develop a secure attachment, they need to be raised in an environment where they feel protected and seen by their caregivers.

If a caregiver is not responsive to a child’s needs, the child may not be able to form a secure and stable bond.

How to raise a securely attached child?

If a child is brought up in a nurturing and supportive environment where caregivers are responsive to the child’s needs, a secure bond is formed. However, if a child perceives that their needs are not met, the child is not able to build a secure and stable bond with their caregivers. 

Be a secure base physically and emotionally

Attachment figures can be seen as a ‘secure base’ which infants use to explore their social world. The more assured the infant in the availability of their attachment figure in times of stress, the more likely they will interact with others and their environment.

Caregivers who provide a secure base allow infants to become autonomous, inquisitive and experimental. When around their caregiver, the child should feel assured that no harm will come to them. They should know that they will be fed, kept warm, and protected. 

The caregiver is the child’s barrier against harm, so letting them know that they are protected and loved is important in making them feel safe. 

The child should be allowed the chance to develop freedom while still getting reassurance from their caregiver that they are nearby if the child needs to check in with them. 

Ensure they feel seen and understood

A child’s signal for attention, such as crying, is their way of letting the caregiver know that they require a need to be met. It is important that the caregiver reads these signals accurately and responds consistently. 

If a caregiver is consistently responsive to the child’s needs in an appropriate way, this lets the child know that when they need something, they can signal for it. 

If the caregiver responds correctly, most of the time, the child should understand that their world is reliable, and they can have some control over it. 

Be comforting

The child should know that if they seek comfort, that they will receive it from their caregivers. 

If the caregivers are there to help soothe the child’s distress, they learn to see this as normal. When they grow up, they can use their caregiver’s actions as the template for managing their own distress. 

Ensure they feel valued

Caregivers can value their children by expressing happiness and pride over who they are. Healthy self-esteem can develop as a baby which translates into later life.

Displaying pride in a child early in life can make them realize that they are unconditionally valued from what they achieve.

Support the child to explore their world

A child should be supported to explore their world in a way which makes them feel secure. Caregivers should aim to reassure the child that they believe in their abilities but stay close by in case something goes wrong.

Try not to be overbearing or constantly tell them what they should be doing. Instead, give gentle guidance if they get stuck and allow them to grow while watching from a safe distance. 

In this way, the child should develop a sense of freedom to explore their world and increase their confidence in their own skills. 

Limiting a child from exploration, being overprotective, or keeping them boxed in may lead to the development of an anxious attachment pattern. Children need to learn to explore independently and feel safe doing so.

The independence and individuality that comes from childhood exploration are what contribute to a secure attachment style into adulthood.

What are the signs of secure attachment in adults?

John Bowlby argued that one’s sense of security as a child is critical to their attachment style as an adult.

Adult relationships are likely to reflect early attachment style because the experience a person has with their caregiver in childhood would lead to the expectation of the same experiences in later relationships.

Securely attached adults hold both a positive working model of self and of others, and therefore are comfortable with both intimacy and autonomy.

Such individuals typically display openness regarding expressing emotions and thoughts with others and are comfortable with depending on others for help, while also being comfortable with others depending on them (Cassidy, 1994).

Notably, many secure adults may in fact experience negative attachment-related events, yet they are able to objectively assess people and events and assign positive value to relationships in general.

Below are some of the traits that are characteristic of adults with a secure attachment style:

  • Selfless and generous

  • Can ask for help when needed

  • Confident and decisive

  • Assume others have positive intentions

  • Enjoy connection with others and also time alone

  • Have a strong sense of personal values

  • Ability to set boundaries

  • Can trust others

Is it too late to form a secure attachment?

There appears to be continuity between early attachment styles and the quality of later adult romantic relationships. This idea is based upon the internal working model where an infant’s primary attachment forms a model (template) for future relationships.

During adulthood new attachment bonds are formed which may become a significant source of support during periods of distress, or during periods of goal achievement and exploration.

Romantic partners function as attachment figures and can become a source of comfort and felt security for the other member of the relationship.

Romantic relationships are likely to reflect early attachment style because the experience a person has with their caregiver in childhood would lead to the expectation of the same experiences in later relationships, such as parents, friends, and romantic partners.

However, other researchers have proposed that rather than a single internal working model which is generalised across relationships, each type of relationship comprises a different working model.

This means that a person could be securely attached with their parents, but insecurely attached with romantic relationships.

What is it like to be in a relationship with someone who is securely attachment?

A secure partner has complete confidence that their partner is there for them. They are able to balance the act of giving and receiving in a relationship.

Because they are securely attached, they do not experience anxiety, fear, or doubt and can therefore focus on being present for their partner.

They are interdependent and maintain a positive view of their partner. There are many other factors that depict how a secure person acts in a relationship such as:

  1. Maintaining a direct line of communication
  2. Comfortable with being vulnerable by sharing their emotions, experiences, fears, etc.
  3. Warm and empathetic
  4. Confident expressing their affection
  5. Can easily feel emotionally close to their partners
  6. Trust their partner
  7. Want their partner to have their own interests outside of the relationship
  8. Respect partner's needs and boundaries

Can a secure person become anxious?

Yes, a secure person can become anxious as a result of traumatic experiences. For example, a secure person may encounter a relationship with a partner who gets very close and then withdraws or stonewalls their partner inconsistently. This type of unpredictability can be painful and lead to the secure person becoming anxious.

What are the main contributors to developing a secure attachment?

The major factors which lead to a secure attachment style are being raised by a caregiver who offers a safe base, room for exploration, and consistency. Secure attachment is maintained by fully healing and processing relationships before moving on to another person. In conclusion, a secure attachment style is a healthy and balanced way of relating with oneself and others. They come naturally as a result of childhood conditioning or can be learned with psychological healing.

What is the influence of secure attacment on childhood friendships?

According to attachment theory, the child who has a secure attachment style should be more confident in interactions with friends.

Considerable evidence has supported this view. For example, the Minnesota study (2005) followed participants from infancy to late adolescence and found continuity between early attachment and later emotional/social behavior.

Securely attached children were rated most highly for social competence later in childhood, were less isolated and more popular than insecurely attached children.

Hartup et.al (1993) argues that children with a secure attachment type are more popular at nursery and engage more in social interactions with other children. In contrast, insecurely attached children tend to be more reliant on teachers for interaction and emotional support.

Fact Checking

Content is rigorously reviewed by a team of qualified and experienced fact checkers. Fact checkers review articles for factual accuracy, relevance, and timeliness. We rely on the most current and reputable sources, which are cited in the text and listed at the bottom of each article. Content is fact checked after it has been edited and before publication.

About the Author

Misha Jan is a member of the 2024 class at Carleton University majoring in Psychology with a minor in Neuroscience and Mental Health. On campus, she contributes science articles to the university’s blog and newspaper, The Charlatan. She is a also research assistant at the Royal Ottawa Mental Health Centre and a certified Crisis Responder working with KidsHelpPhone. Upon graduation, she plans to pursue a PhD in Clinical Psychology.

Cite this Article (APA Style)

Misha, J. (2022, July 22). Secure Attachment – from Childhood to Adult Relationships. Simply Psychology. www.simplypsychology.org/secure-attachment.html

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