The four S’s of a secure attachment style refer to feeling safe, seen, soothed, and secure. Making children feel these ways may help them establish healthy bonds in their adulthood.
Attachment style theory is a psychological framework originally developed by John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth. It examines how the bonds you develop with your primary caregivers may influence the way you form relationships as an adult.
Children who have their emotional and physical needs met, acknowledged, and responded to tend to form secure attachments. Otherwise, they may experience the challenges of insecure attachments.
When physical or emotional neglect in childhood may lead someone to develop an insecure attachment style, such as:
Insecure attachment styles may be associated with persistent self-esteem and relationship challenges. They may account for experiencing a lack of trust, reluctance to commit, or fear of abandonment.
The “4 S’s” is a concept developed by Dr. Dan Siegel, a clinical professor of psychiatry at UCLA and founding co-director of the Mindful Awareness Research Center.
According to Siegel, parenting may not be a walk in the park, but you can still show up for your children.
Showing up or providing consistent support may help children form secure attachment styles to their peers and loved ones. For that to happen, Siegel outlines four core support concepts known as “the 4 S’s.”
These are the 4 S’s of secure attachments:
“Safe” refers to helping children be and feel safe.
The first S involves making the commitment that you won’t be a source of fear for your child. It also stresses the importance of reconnecting after a disagreement and apologizing if you’re the one in the wrong.
“Safe” also means working on providing your child with a sense that home is a haven.
As adults, “safe” children may be more likely to openly express their emotions and needs and develop a sense of trust in interpersonal relationships.
Children who feel “seen” have a sense they are acknowledged.
As a caregiver, you can help a child feel seen by taking the time to understand what they may be going through and to learn who they are.
Children who feel seen may form emotionally secure relationships in adulthood. They feel comfortable being vulnerable and acting genuinely. They’re also less likely to develop codependent traits and an anxious attachment style.
“Soothed” children are comforted at all times and not only during emotional moments.
The third S implies that caregivers focus on helping the child develop healthy coping strategies for challenging times in their lives.
Siegel’s framework suggests encouraging children through the acronym PEACE:
“Soothed” children may become emotionally intelligent adults who are better prepared to navigate stressful situations. They may also adapt to change, stay grounded, and offer support to others.
The last of the 4 S’s refers to cultivating a sense of security and trust between caregivers and children. This is often the case when caregivers consistently show up for the little ones in the other three S’s.
The “secure” component of the 4 S’s involves encouraging children to understand and be unafraid of their emotions and recognize those in others.
Feeling secure means they can be vulnerable, make mistakes, and voice their opinions without fear of punishment or rejection.
“Secure” children may find it easy to establish trust with others while maintaining a sense of openness, empathy, and trustworthiness.
What happens if one of the 4 S’s is missing?
While the 4 S’s form a model to encourage secure attachments, Siegel believes the fourth S —secure — is the result of showing consistency in the other three S’s.
Security may not be possible to accomplish if one or more S’s are missing, increasing the chance of developing an insecure attachment style.
Dr. Zishan Khan, a board certified psychiatrist from Frisco, Texas, explains that insecure attachment may manifest in children in different ways.
There are three primary types of insecure attachment:
According to Khan, children with a disorganized attachment may present with emotional flatness or overwhelming anxiety. He adds that this type of attachment may be more common in abusive environments.
“The mother, who is supposed to be a source of support for the child, is also the one the child fears,” says Khan.
Khan indicates children with an anxious attachment style feel upset when a caregiver leaves. This is similar for children with secure attachments.
Anxious children, however, may act overly clingy or hostile when the caregiver returns.
“These children are not easily comforted, and they appear to want a close relationship, but have little confidence in their mother’s responses since they find her inconsistent and insensitive overall,” he notes.
According to Khan, avoidant children may treat primary caregivers as they would any stranger.
“When the mother returns after a brief moment of separation, the child may appear indifferent, not want to be picked up, and possibly avoid their mother altogether.”
Dr. Julie Landry, a clinical psychologist from Malvern, Pennsylvania, indicates a wide range of behaviors can point to an insecure attachment style in adulthood, including:
- fear of abandonment
- feeling unworthy of love
- need for frequent validation
- hypersensitivity to otherwise appropriate words, thoughts, or behaviors of others
- tolerance of abusive relationships
- difficulty trusting others
- inability to set personal boundaries
- commitment avoidance
- lack of emotional availability
David Khalili, a licensed marriage and family therapist and board certified sexologist in San Francisco, explains that adults with insecure attachment often become distrustful.
“They don’t trust that a person close to them, whether partner, family member, friend or colleague, will be there for them,” he says.
Khalili notes insecure attachment in adults can present as behaviors like:
- using electronics to cling to or track a partner
- using social media, email, or text to solicit reassurance about a relationship
- avoiding situations that may require relationship building
- demanding a partner enjoy the same activities or share all the same interests
If you didn’t experience the 4 S’s in childhood, you could still develop a secure attachment style as an adult.
Dr. Tina B. Tessina, a psychotherapist, and author from Long Beach, California, says developing secure attachment as an adult starts with building attachment within yourself.
To switch from an insecure to a secure attachment, Tessina recommends:
Secure attachment can be about getting to know yourself and others on a deeper level.
“Take some time off from being constantly wired for sound: take off the earbuds, turn off the TV or radio; just be with you and with other people without all those distractions,” she suggests.
Asking for your own opinion
Tessina says to practice asking for your inner opinion.
Asking yourself, “Is anything coming up today that could be a problem? How do I want to approach it?” can open your eyes to attachment-related responses and how you can change them next time.
Paying attention to other people
Active listening to those around you may improve your relationships drastically, Tessina indicates.
Investigating the traits in people you find trustworthy and reliable can help you cultivate them in yourself.
Working with a therapist
If you experience challenges in relationships and want to explore the causes and how to heal, a mental health professional may help.
The 4 S’s refer to four key concepts for children to develop secure attachments.
Within this framework, helping children feel “seen,” “safe,” “soothed,” and “secure” may help them become trusting and confident adults.