In developmental psychology ‘attachment theory’ explores the emotional bond between one human and another (mostly between caregiver and infant).
During the first six months’ of a baby’s life, the caregiver must exhibit adequate nurturing to their newborn to establish a close bond. If a healthy bond cannot be established during the baby’s early developmental phase – it can lead to several emotional problems for them later on.
What is Attachment Theory?
John Bowlby, psychologist and psychoanalyst, proposed the attachment theory throughout the 1950s and 1960s and made notable contributions to the field of psychotherapy for his work on attachment.
Although Bowlby did not dispute the possibility of children forming multiple bonds with different people, he still upholds the view that since it is the first connection established, the bond between mother and baby is the strongest of all.
Attachment theory examines how the caregiver-child bond develops and its impact on consequential development. Throughout his work in the 1930s, Bowlby worked as a psychiatrist at a London clinic where he treated mentally ill children.
During this time, Bowlby recognised the important dynamic between parent and child and how deeply this dynamic can impact social, emotional and cognitive development. He soon discovered that early infant separation could lead to later maladjustment, and thus attachment theory was developed.
Bowlby describes attachment as:
Exploring the parent-child relationship further, Bowlby and his colleague James Robertson researched a group of small infants. They found that when separated from a parent, the children consistently displayed signs of distress.
This research conflicts with ‘behavioural theorists’ who suggest that when a child is fed – separation anxiety dissipates.
Bowlby and Robertson observed that children were unable to be comforted when a parent was absent regardless of whether they were fed or not.
Bowlby and Robertson’s research goes against behavioural theory which states that children attach to the mother through feeding.
Interestingly, attachment doesn’t have to be reciprocal and is it possible for one person to be attached to another without it being reciprocated. According to Bowlby, attachment is distinguished by specific behaviours from children, such as seeking closeness to an attachment figure when feeling upset or threatened (Bowlby, 1969).
Attachment and Evolution
Bowlby argued that attachment is a biological process and went on to say that all infants are born with an ‘attachment gene’ which allows them to discharge what is called ‘social releasers’ ensuring that when the child cries, clings to an attachment figure, or even smiles that they receive the attention and care they crave.
Interestingly, the same ‘attachment gene’ that children are born with is also present within the parent, and it is this that propels a caregiver to protect and look after a child.
‘Monotropy’ is a term signifying one main attachment figure, a concept developed by Bowlby alongside his attachment theory. He concluded that if a successful ‘monotropic’ bond isn’t formed for whatever reason, then negative consequences could occur.
Bowlby identified four types of attachment styles: secure, anxious-ambivalent, disorganised and avoidant.
The secure attachment style signifies a warm and loving bond between parent and child. The child feels loved and cared for and develops the ability to form healthy relationships with those around them.
Children with secure attachment styles are active and demonstrate confidence in their interactions with others.
Those who develop secure attachment styles in childhood are likely to carry this healthy way of bonding into adulthood and have no problem building long-term relationships without fear of abandonment.
Anxious-ambivalent children tend to distrust caregivers, and this insecurity often means that their environment is explored with trepidation rather than excitement.
They constantly seek approval from their caregivers and continuously observe their surroundings for fear of being abandoned.
Those who developed under the ‘anxious-ambivalent’ attachment style, tend to carry what they have learned into adulthood, and very often feel unloved by their partners whilst finding it difficult to express love and connection themselves.
People who developed attachments under this style are usually emotionally dependent in adulthood.
Children who have developed under the ‘avoidant’ style have learned to accept that their emotional needs are likely to remain unmet and continue to grow up feeling unloved and insignificant.
They often struggle with expressing their feelings and find it hard understanding emotions – in adulthood; they tend to avoid intimate relationships.
Disorganised attachment is a combination of avoidant and anxious attachment, and children that fit into this group often display intense anger and rage. They may break toys and behave in other volatile ways – they also have difficult relationships with caregivers.
Children developed under the ‘disorganised’ attachment style, tend to avoid intimate relationships as adults and can very easily explode and have a difficult time controlling their emotions.
In the 1970s, developmental psychologist Mary Ainsworth did a study on infants between the ages of 9-18 months old; the study observed attachment security in children within the paradigm of caregiver relationships.
This involved eight short episodes (lasting around 3 minutes) where a mother, child, and stranger are introduced, separated and then reunited.
This observational study was titled ‘strange situation’ and was developed by Ainsworth and Wittiq in 1969.
Using the strange situation model, Ainsworth studied one to two-year-olds to determine the styles of attachment and the nature of attachments displayed between mother and child.
The set up was conducted in a small room with one way glass so that the children could be easily observed. Ainsworth’s sample of children represented 100 middle-class American families.
In short episodes, the children, mothers and experimenters were observed in the following eight scenarios:
- Experimenter, mother and baby
- Mother and baby alone
- A stranger joins the mother and infant
- The mother leaves stranger and baby alone
- Mother comes back, and the stranger departs
- Mother also departs, leaving the baby completely alone
- Stranger comes back
- Stranger leaves and mother returns
After the study, Ainsworth scored each of the responses and grouped them into four interaction behaviours: closeness and contact seeking, maintaining contact, avoidance of closeness and contact, resistance to contact and proximity. These interactions were based on two reunion episodes during the observation.
Attachment Style Results
From the observational study, Ainsworth (1970) identified three attachment styles; secure (type B), insecure-avoidant (type A) and insecure-ambivalent/resistant (type C).
Secure Attachment: Type B
Fortunately, the majority of children in Ainsworth’s 1970’s representative sample, belonged to the ‘secure attachment’ style. Children belonging to this style found it easy to demonstrate confidence towards caregivers and tended to use these ‘monotropic’ attachment figures as a base to explore their surroundings.
These infants are easily reassured by primary caregivers and children who develop under this style are nurtured and are given encouragement from caregivers, allowing them a safe platform to develop securely.
Insecure Avoidant: Type A
Children who fall under the avoidant style tend not to look to their caregiver when exploring their environment. They also don’t reach out to the attachment figure in times of distress.
Such children are likely to have a caregiver who is insensitive and rejecting of their needs ( Ainsworth, 1979).
Insecure Ambivalent/Resistant: Type C
The final attachment style (insecure ambivalent) is when a child exhibits ambivalent behaviour towards his/her caregiver. The child is not easily comforted by the caregiver and often demonstrates clingy and dependent behaviour towards an attachment figure yet still rejects them in times of interaction.
When exploring their environment, the child displays difficulty in separating from the attachment figure. Ainsworth concluded that this behaviour is due to a lack of consistency delivered from caregiver to child.
Ainsworth’s ‘maternal sensitivity’ hypothesis suggests that the ‘sensitivity’ the caregiver demonstrates towards a child determines the style of attachment that is developed. In short, sensitive mothers are more likely to be gentle and compassionate to a child’s needs, and this sensitivity can lead the infant to develop more secure attachments.
Mothers who lack sensitivity (such as those who demonstrate impatience) can result in children developing insecure attachments.
Children with sensitive caregivers are associated with being securely attached, and those with inconsistent caregivers are often associated as having insecure ambivalent attachments. Inconsistency is when two parents often ignore or even reject a child’s needs while at other times – the child’s needs are met.
In situations where parents demonstrate apathy or are in any way unresponsive towards a child, this often results in the child becoming independent from the caregiver; they also tend not to seek help from attachment figures in times of distress. The attachment figure may also withdraw from helping during difficult tasks (Stevenson-Hinde & Verschueren, 2002) and is often unavailable during times of emotional distress.
According to Ainsworth, this type of parenting can often lead to children becoming insecurely avoidant.
Fiona Yassin is the International Clinical Director at The Wave Clinic. Fiona is a Fellow of A.P.C.C.H., a member of F.D.A.P. and I.A.E.D.P. Currently studying C.E.D.S., Fiona is an Accredited Clinical Supervisor (U.N.C.G.) and Accredited Child and Family Trauma Professional.
With a specialist interest in Eating Disorders and Borderline Personality Disorders, currently enjoying advanced training in the Psychiatry for Women throughout the Lifespan, Massachusetts Psychiatry Department. The Wave Clinic provides residential and outpatient consultations for Children, Teenagers, Young Adults and Families.