Attachment relationships are what psychologists call the foundational relationships all human beings develop with their primary caregivers in the first years of life.

The theory’s pioneers – Bowlby, Ainsworth and Main – observed three distinct patterns in the behaviors 12-month old babies had with their mothers during experiments called the Strange Situation.

They went on to observe the parents’ relationship with their children at home, and scored a dozen or so parental behaviors, of which four proved to be the most important. They demonstrated that the children’s attitudes were not innate but were the result of the kinds of relationships the parents were developing:

They were as different as the three little pigs’ homes.

  • In the “Straw Home”, the parent has difficulty feeling positively about the child’s needs and prioritizing them. As a result, they consistently ignore those needs or interfere with them (ridiculing, rejecting, or responding with annoyance), leading the child to avoid making bids for connection.
  • In the “Stick Home,” the parent feels less negatively about their role as caregiver. As a result, they cooperate more frequently with the child’s activity. They are unpredictable, however, and not any better than the “Straw” parent in perceiving and responding to the child’s needs. They occasionally amplify the child’s distress. The child ends up displaying exaggerated negative emotion in its bids for connection.
  • In the “Brick Home,” the most visible difference is that the parent is significantly more perceptive and responsive to the child’s needs. This stems from feeling far more positively about prioritizing the child’s needs. That mindset translates into a more cooperative (versus interfering) behavior, encouraging the child’s nascent autonomy, and a visibly higher sensitivity to the child’s cues. The child makes occasional bids for connection but is not preoccupied by the relationship, and ends up using the parent as a secure base from which to explore their environment.

The researcher Mary Main zoomed into what could explain these differences in behavior among the parents. She found that they differed in two major ways: how expressive they were about their feelings (any feelings, both negative and positive), and how compulsive or rigid they were in their actions.

These can be visualized like the foundations of the relationship.