Understanding Attachment Theory

Authors: Brigid Daniel & Sally Wassell

Text-based version

1. Defining attachment

Attachment theory involves the study of human relationships, especially early, formative relationships. The work of attachment theorists such as John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth has thrown light on key aspects of the social development of children.  However, like many words that derive from everyday language people sometimes use the term attachment to mean different things.

Now compare your definition with the definition offered by Fahlberg:

 “…an affectionate bond between two individuals that endures through space and time and serves to join them emotionally ”  Fahlberg (1994)

2. The biological imperative

Attachment theory asserts that there is a biological imperative for infants to form attachments and that they exhibit attachment behaviours to promote attachment. These attachment behaviours - such as smiling, crying, following, approaching, clinging etc. - all serve to keep the child close to the carer. In this sense attachment behaviour can be viewed as survival behaviour, and similar behaviours can be observed in the young of other species.

Attachment theory relates the quality of early attachment relationships to emotional functioning throughout life.  It also relates language, cognitive, and moral development to the quality of early attachment relationships.  Humans do appear to have a basic propensity to form intimate emotional bonds. Bowlby (1969) argued that we have a biological need to seek and maintain contact with others. That we have an impulse to maintain closeness, to restore it if impaired, and to seek out a particular person if we are distressed.  This process begins in infancy, but continues throughout life.

3. Main components of attachment theory

Holmes (1993) has summarised the main components of attachment theory in the following six points:

  1. The infant develops a primary attachment relationship around the seventh month. Although this attachment is often to the mother - or other primary caregiver - it is not dependent on feeding the infant.

  2. The attachment relationship is demonstrated by the manifestation of proximity seeking, or behaviours that seeks to restore closeness, when the infant is separated from the attachment figure. Proximity seeking can also be seen in older children and adults at times of stress and threat.

  3. A secure attachment relationship creates a secure base from which a child can feel safe to explore the world.

  4. If separated from an attachment figure, infants and young children exhibit separation protest which involves the expression of distress and urgent efforts to be reunited with the attachment figure. Permanent separation from the primary attachment figure can impair a child's security and the associated exploratory behaviour.

  5. On the basis of early attachment experiences an internal working model develops which acts as a template for other relationships.

  6. Attachment behaviour continues throughout life, and develops from immature dependence on caregivers to mature dependence on friends and partners.

4. Patterns of attachment behaviour

Mary Ainsworth’s (Ainsworth et all, 1978) studies conducted with mothers and their toddlers have shown that attachment behaviours can be described as falling into one of several distinctive patterns.

The most important distinction is between secure and insecure attachment. Young 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.

They will show some wariness of strangers and choose their care-giver for comfort when upset or fearful.  What they have is a base that not only is stable, but also acts as a springboard to the wider social world. Long-term resilience is associated with the opportunity to develop a secure attachment to at least one person.

5.  Insecure attachment

Children who are classified as insecure may show one of four patterns: avoidant, ambivalent, disorganised or anxious preoccupation. Children who have been abused or neglected are more likely to show insecure patterns of attachment.

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: A pattern of insecure attachment identified by Downes (1992) is characterised by an anxious preoccupation with the availability of the carer. It is a pattern that can often be encountered in practice with abused and neglected children.

6. Attachment is the product of a relationship

Secure attachment is associated with a parenting style that is warm and sensitive. The parent has to be able to take account of the child’s needs and temperament and respond appropriately. Patterns of attachment are, therefore, the products of a relationship between the child and the adult, and are influenced by the interaction between the child (with his or her temperament) and the adult.

The early pattern of attachment acts 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.

An appreciation of the complexity and depth of children's ties to their care-givers is the main message that can be drawn from attachment theory for child care practice.This does not mean that children should never be separated from adults they are attached to, clearly there are situations where this is necessary. It does, however mean that attachments, even apparently damaging ones, must be treated with respect because of their importance to the child.

7. Attachment, abuse and neglect

Child care workers often encounter children who, despite abuse or neglect by their parent or main carer, nevertheless demonstrate strong attachments to them. It is often difficult to fully accept the extent of such loyalty and attachment, especially in cases where the impulse is to 'rescue' them. However, an appreciation of the instinctual and biological basis for making attachments can help with understanding how deep the ties go. The need for an emotional base is a primary emotional requirement and even the shakiest of bases will be clung to in the face of the unknown. If faced with the prospect of separation from parents with little understanding of what may be the alternative, even very ill-treated children can show separation protest and anxiety.