Understanding Attachment Theory

Authors: Brigid Daniel & Sally Wassell


Attachment: an affectionate bond between two individuals that endures through space and time and serves to join them emotionally. (Fahlberg, 1994)

Attachment behaviours: behaviours such as smiling, crying, following, approaching, clinging etc. that serve to maintain contact with an attachment figure.

Insecure attachment: four patterns of insecure attachment have been identified by research: avoidant; ambivalent; disorganised; or anxious preoccupation.

  • Avoidant – children are said to display an avoidant pattern of attachment if they show little distress at separation; tend to avoid contact with the care–giver on return; and appear not to discriminate markedly in their behaviour between a stranger and the care–giver.
  • Ambivalent – children are said to display an ambivalent pattern of attachment if they are anxious before separation, upset during it, and ambivalent afterwards: appearing to want comfort from the care–giver, but at the same time showing resistance to comfort, for example by squirming out of a hug.
  • Disorganised – a pattern of insecure attachment, known as disorganised, is demonstrated in a mixture of reactions where the child may show contradictory behaviour patterns: for example, gazing away whilst being held. The child may appear confused and unable to feel comforted by the care–giver.
  • Anxious preoccupation – characterised by an anxious preoccupation with the availability of the carer. It is thought to be a pattern that can often be encountered in practice with abused and neglected children.

Internal working model: the early pattern of attachment is thought to act as a kind of template or internal working model for later relationships. The internal working model is, therefore, based upon the child’s sense of self and his or her experience of others.

Primary attachment relationship: the main attachment relationship, developing around the seventh month. Although this attachment is often to the mother – or other primary caregiver – it is not dependent on feeding the infant.

Proximity seeking: attempts on the part of an infant to stay safe by staying in close proximity to the attachment figure.

Secure attachment: children who are classified as showing secure attachment play happily when their care–giver is present, protest when they leave and go to them for comfort on their return.

Separation protest: the expression of distress exhibited by infants and young children when separated from an attachment figure.


Ainsworth, M., Blehar, M., Waters, E and Wall, S. (1978) Patterns of Attachment: a Psychological Study of the Strange Situation. London: John WIley and Sons.

Bowlby, J. (1969) Attachment and Loss, Vols 1 & 2. New York: Basic Books.

Daniel, B., Wassell, S. and Gilligan, R. (1999) Child Development for Child Care and Protection Workers. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

Downes, C. (1992) Separation Revisited: Adolescents in Foster Family Care. Aldershot, Hampshire: Ashgate.

Fahlberg, V. (1994) A Child's Journey Through Placement. London: BAAF.

Holmes, J. (1993) ‘Attachment theory: a biological basis for psychotherapy.’ British Journal of Psychiatry 163, 430–438.

Howe, D. (1995) Attachment Theory for Social Work Practice. Houndsmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire and London: MacMillan Press.

Author information

Brigid Daniel is Professor of Child Care and Protection in the Department of Social Work at the University of Dundee. She has a particular interest in factors that help children to cope with adversity.

Sally Wassell is an independent consultant and trainer in childcare and an associate lecturer at Dundee University. Together with Robbie Gilligan, the two wrote Child Development for Child Care and Protection Workers, also published by Jessica Kingsley Publishers.


Ivanna Fernandez, Learning Technologist, Scottish Institute for Excellence in Social Work Education.

Paul Hart, Multimedia Developer
Scottish Institute for Excellence in Social Work Education
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Billy Devine, Senior Designer, Learning Services, University of Strathclyde.


Copyright & Acknowledgments

Copyright © Scottish Institute for Excellence in Social Work Education 2005. All rights reserved.


This learning object is based substantially on material from Daniel & Wassell (2002a, 2002b, and 2002c) which is reproduced and adapted here with permission from Jessica Kingsley (Publishers) Ltd. Copyright © 2002 Brigid Daniel and Sally Wassell. All rights reserved.

Daniel, B. & Wassell, S. (2002a) The Early Years: Assessing and Promoting Resilience in Vulnerable Children 1. London : Jessica Kingsley (Publishers) Ltd.

Daniel, B. & Wassell, S. (2002b) The School Years: Assessing and Promoting Resilience in Vulnerable Children 2. London : Jessica Kingsley (Publishers) Ltd.

Daniel, B. & Wassell, S. (2002c) Adolescence: Assessing and Promoting Resilience in Vulnerable Children 3. London: Jessica Kingsley (Publishers) Ltd.


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Some images used with kind permission of Jyn Meyer and Martin Wells

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