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Attachment Styles in Children Can Finally Be Measured

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Key Takeaways

  • A new tool makes it easy and quick to assess a child’s attachment style
  • Understanding a child’s attachment style may help address mental health issues
  • There are ways parents can foster secure attachment styles with their children

According to new research, your child’s attachment style can now be determined using a computer game, opening the door to information that could help inform their mental health treatment.

Researchers at the University of Glasgow in the U.K. found that the School Attachment Monitor (SAM) can accurately measure a child's attachment style using a machine, based on the Manchester Child Attachment Story Task (MCAST), a method used by trained administrators to elicit attachment styles in children between 5 and 7 years old. 

However, unlike MCAST, SAM doesn’t need administrators to determine its findings; just a laptop, webcam, and a felt mat with dolls that have smart sensors installed into them. 

“Attachment assessment is very labor-intensive and not easily available to researchers or clinicians because of the requirement for training and assessments set by the founders of assessment methods,” says Maki Rooksby, PhD, author of the study and research associate at the University of Glasgow.

“MCAST is an example of this, but now we have shown that with modern sensors, machine learning technique, and insights from human-computer interaction research, some of the main objectives of MCAST assessment can be achieved without trained assessors.” 

Understanding the Research

SAM is delivered by novel software which interacts with the child, starting with warm-up activities to familiarize children with the task. The kids then play with “smart dolls” while they interact with a story on the computer. As they do so, data related to their attachment patterns are documented via video recording and movement sensors in the smart dolls. 

To determine the effectiveness of SAM, researchers recruited 130 children 5 to 9 years old from primary schools.

Maki Rooksby, PhD

Our findings demonstrate that our tool, School Attachment Monitor (SAM), is able to categorize the major attachment styles long known in attachment research, namely, secure, and insecure, and further classifications within insecure attachment, i.e., avoidant and ambivalent attachment

— Maki Rooksby, PhD

Comparison of human ratings of SAM versus the machine-learning algorithm showed over 80% concordance. 

“Our findings demonstrate that our tool, School Attachment Monitor (SAM), is able to categorize the major attachment styles long known in attachment research, namely, secure, and insecure, and further classifications within insecure attachment, i.e., avoidant and ambivalent attachment,” says Rooksby. 

The most important finding, she adds, is that SAM could distinguish organized versus disorganized attachment styles. 

Organized Versus Disorganized Attachment Styles

Helen Egger, MD, child psychiatrist, and cofounder and chief medical and scientific officer of Little Otter, says children form attachment styles during the earliest years of life through their relationship with primary caregivers. 

“The quality of the infant-caregiver relationship—sensitivity, responsiveness—establishes the foundation of future relationships and connection with others. However, attachment is not fixed. In fact, while attachment style in infancy predicts attachment style in later childhood fairly well, it does not predict adult attachment style,” Egger says. 

Helen Egger, MD

The quality of the infant-caregiver relationship—sensitivity, responsiveness—establishes the foundation of future relationships and connection with others. However, attachment is not fixed. In fact, while attachment style in infancy predicts attachment style in later childhood fairly well, it does not predict adult attachment style.

— Helen Egger, MD

The following are major types of attachment styles: 

  • Secure: the ability to form secure, loving relationships with others.
  • Insecure attachment styles is an umbrella term for the following two styles:
  • Avoidant: insecure attachment based on fear of abandonment and intimacy.
  • Fearful-avoidant: a combination of both anxious and avoidant styles. 

Rooksby explains that organized attachment representations include both secure and insecure attachment styles. In contrast, she says disorganized attachment is one where the child’s attachment behavior is so disturbed that it shows no identifiable dominance of any assuagement strategy. 

“Disorganised attachment is important for attachment research and for research on health and wellbeing of children and families, because we know about important links between attachment disorganization and psychopathology both during childhood and later on in life,” says Rooksby. 

Egger agrees that disorganized attachment is associated with an increased risk for impairing mental health disorders. “[Being] able to screen at the population level, particularly with a validated and scalable tool like the School Attachment Monitor described in this paper, could be a feasible way to screen young children for mental health challenges at school,” she says. 

Why It’s Helpful to Know Your Child’s Attachment Style

Without any other factors which may raise concern, a child’s attachment style might simply make a child the unique person they are, similar to personality or temperament, says Rooksby. However, if there is any known concern for a child’s well-being, their attachment style could be an important indicator as to whether the child is thriving and coping in their life, she adds. 

“For example, a little bit insecure child who is easily frightened, should be fine in a happy, loving family, but if this child had been known to have recently experienced something traumatizing (such as Adverse Childhood Experiences, ACEs), then, that child’s attachment could serve as an extra information or even rationale for monitoring to see if the child or their family may benefit from some clinical help or intervention,” Rooksby explained. 

However, she adds that the tool should only be used when needed and along with help from a professional. 

Helen Egger, MD

What [you] are noticing about [your] child’s attachment style might be an indication of treatable mental health challenges. So much of mental health care focuses on supporting children and their families to develop healthy, nurturing, and positive relationships with each other and teaching emotion regulation skills.

— Helen Egger, MD

“[It] should never be used on its own or without guidance by expert researchers or clinicians. It is because a child’s attachment information, just like any other measures for children’s health and wellbeing, should not be used on its own or out of context, which may cause undue concerns or confusions,” says Rooksby. 

If you’re concerned about your child’s attachment behaviors, Egger suggests reaching out to your child’s doctor. 

“What [you] are noticing about [your] child’s attachment style might be an indication of treatable mental health challenges. So much of mental health care focuses on supporting children and their families to develop healthy, nurturing, and positive relationships with each other and teaching emotion regulation skills,” she says.

Fostering a Secure Attachment With Your Child

Rather than knowing your child’s attachment style, Egger says it’s more beneficial for parents to understand that they can foster a secure attachment with their child. 

“Responsive care is the most important way that parents can support their child’s secure and organized attachment style: this is the process of paying attention and connecting with your child’s cues and responding in sensitive and compassionate ways,” she says. 

Being able to attach by developing strong, emotional connections with their parents and others teaches children to trust, feel confident that they are loved and cared for.

“There are many factors that impact a child’s capacity to develop healthy relationships and healthy emotion regulation. While caregiver sensitivity has an impact, development is deeply influenced by social, economic, and cultural factors. We need to be careful not to ‘blame mothers (or fathers)’ for their child’s challenges,” she says. 

Additionally, she points out that it might be more valuable for a parent to know their attachment style since it may impact the way they interact with their children or may be a reflection of adverse experiences in their own childhood. 

“Adult attachment insecurity can be associated with mental health challenges, so knowing one’s attachment style could be a pathway to seek mental health care and healing,” Egger says.

What This Means For You

A new tool may make it easier to assess children’s attachment styles and is almost as accurate as older methods. If your child needs mental health care, understanding their attachment style may help you find the right treatment.

 

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  1. Rooksby M, Di Folco S, Tayarani M, et al. The School Attachment Monitor—a novel computational tool for assessment of attachment in middle childhoodPLoS One. 2021;16(7):e0240277. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0240277