Attachment theory is a groundbreaking observation that explains the functions and importance of the child-parent bond. In this article, we’ll look at the origins of this theory, the four attachment patterns and the four phases a child goes through to establish an attachment.
Table of Contents
What is Attachment
Attachment is the emotional bond developed between an infant and the attachment figure during the first year of life. This attachment figure is usually the mother but can also be the father or other primary caregivers. Attachment behavior is an infant’s tendency to seek proximity to the attachment figure.
The five attachment behaviors – sucking, cling, following, crying and smiling – constitutes an early attachment system to protect an immature offspring and increase its chance of survival1. When an infant is in distress, they signal to get the attention of the caregiver who can then provide comfort and protection.
John Bowlby, a British psychiatrist, proposed the Attachment Theory after he studied the impact of maternal deprivation on young children. He found that early family relationships could significantly affect a child’s personality development in the long term and the relationships they formed when they grew up2.
Bowlby was the first attachment theorist. He laid the foundation of the famous theory, which was later refined by Ainsworth, Sroufe, and a host of other scholars3.
Bowlby’s Attachment Theory
Attachment theory is a sophisticated and complex theory of the development of personality and capacity for close, romantic relationships, stress coping, and many other things later in a child’s life.
Early-life experiences are critical in creating different types of attachment between a child and the caregiver. The resulting attachment becomes internal working model of the child and act as an internal guidance system influencing feelings and behavior, especially when it comes to relationships3.
These internal models are based on the expectations for the caregiver’s responsiveness. Their expectations develop into broader representations of themselves, their attachment figures, relationship experiences and decision rules about how to interact with others.
To grow up mentally and relationally healthy, a young child needs to experience a responsive, warm, intimate, and continuous relationship with an adult during the early years. This adult then becomes a secure base from which the child can explore the environment. The responsiveness of this attachment figure creates internal models as generally accessible and responsive. As a result, this child will handle distress, such as separation, hostility, and avoidance, with less fear later in life.
Although the type of attachment is fluid and can change over time, its impact can continue to adulthood, influencing the development and outcomes of adults.
Ainsworth Attachment Theory
Mary Ainsworth, who had worked under Bowlby in the early days of her career, started her own attachment research in Uganda in 1953. In her study, she noticed distinct differences in the quality of mother-infant interactions. Ainsworth categorized these different attachment patterns into three infant attachment types: secure attachment, insecure attachment, and not-yet attached4.
Ainsworth found a high correlation between secure attachment and maternal sensitivity. Sensitive mother were familiar with their babies. They could provide spontaneous detail about their kids. On the other hand, insensitive mothers were imperceptive of the nuances of their babies behavior.
Babies of sensitive mothers tended to be securely attached. They cried less and were free to explore in the presence of mother. Babies of insensitive mothers were more likely to be classified as insecurely attached. Insecure babies cried frequently even when held by their mothers, and they tended to explore little. Not-yet attached babies showed no differential behavior to their mothers.
Why is Attachment Theory Important?
Attachment theory plays a very important role in explaining how parenting affects a child’s personality development, which in turn impacts their outcomes in life4.
Before the Theory of Attachment emerged, the prevailing psychoanalytic theory declared that internal conflict, rather than the environment, was the main factor shaping a child’s personality development, a belief based on philosophical meaning and imagination rather than on scientific evidence5.
Bowlby’s research provided hard evidence that early emotional bonding was vital in forming a secure attachment. Attachment styles in children are based on relationships, not on feeding alone, as suggested by behaviorists. He was able to show findings demonstrating pervasive ill effects of institutional and hospital care on infants and children at the time, findings that could not be explained by behaviorism theories.
Ainsworth’s Strange Situation
In 1963, Ainsworth embarked on a second observational project in Baltimore. In this research, Ainsworth recorded thorough observations of the interaction between mothers and infants over time. She also designed a groundbreaking procedure, called the Strange Situation, that ended up being the most prevalent experiment that could identify a young child’s attachment style.
The Strange Situation is a series of eight 20-minute miniature dramas used to demonstrate the differences in mother-infant interactions and their relationships to an infant’s attachment.
In the procedure, the mother and infant between the age of 12 and 18 months are introduced to a laboratory playroom. Later, an unfamiliar woman, the stranger, joins them. While the stranger plays with the baby, the mother leaves briefly and then returns. A second separation follows during which the baby is completely alone. Finally, the stranger and then the mother return.
Most infants explored the playroom and toys more vigorously in the presence of their mothers than after a stranger entered or while the mother was absent, as expected. But what’s surprising was that they exhibited different patterns when reuniting with their mothers, and those patterns correlated highly with these kids’ attachment.
Patterns of Attachment in Early Childhood
From the Strange procedure, Ainswoth was able to identify the following three types of attachment – secure, avoidant, and ambivalent6. Later, a fourth category, disorganized, was added by researchers Main, Hesse, and Solomon7 as a way to describe infants who had trouble dealing with stressful situations.
Each attachment type represents the infant’s adaptation to specific caregiver styles. They are associated with the quality of maternal caregiving earlier in the first year of life8.
In the Strange Situation, when the mother is present, a securely attached infant is more confident6. They use the mother as a secure base from which to explore more in the playroom. They are distressed when the mother leaves. Upon the mother leaving and returning, a securely attached child seeks proximity, interaction, and contact with their mother.
Mothers of securely attached babies are more available, responsive, and sensitive to their children’s feelings during the first three months8. They responded quickly and reliably to the infants’ cues during feeding, face-to-face play, physical contact, and distress episodes. These mothers also meshed playful behavior with that of their babies, creating mutually satisfying interactions.
Securely attached infants are more cooperative when being fed. The interactions are usually smooth and joyful. At 12 months, these children cry less. They rely on facial expressions, gestures, and vocalizations to communicate their needs9. They are happier and less aggressive. They also sought contact and holding less often4.
At age 2, securely attached children are more resilient, and socially competent in preschool. They also have higher self-esteem8.
Avoidant Attachment (Anxious Avoidant)
When united with the mother during the two reunion episodes, an avoidantly attached baby avoids or ignores the mother. They react with detachment6.
Ainsworth found that the avoidance behavior in this procedure correlated highly with the infant’s behavior in the home throughout the first 12 months8. Mothers of avoidant babies are often insensitive to infant signals during the first 3 months of life. They generally dislike physical contact with the infant.
Avoidant children show unpredictable episodes of aggression toward their mothers at home. The mothers are usually low in emotional expressiveness, even in response to the aggressive behavior.
Parents of avoidant kids generally have a history of being rejected in their childhood. They are psychologically unavailable. Avoid children are hostile or distant. When engaging in difficult tasks, these babies did not seek help even when unable to complete, and the parents offer minimal support.
In preschools, avoidant kids are more likely to have behavioral problems.
According to Bowlby, an avoidant child has an internal model of a self which is not worthy of care5. They have reason to expect rejection from their caregivers and therefore modify their behavior by avoiding them, effectively reducing anticipated rejection following the separation9.
Ambivalent Attachment (Resistant)
An ambivalently attached baby showed angry, resistant behavior interspersed with attachment behavior in the Strange experiment4.
When the mothers reentered, ambivalent babies cried and wanted contact but would not simply cuddle or “sink in” when picked up by the returning mother. They showed a combination of contact-seeking and tantrumy behavior such as kicking and swiping at their mothers.
At home, resistant babies were more irritable. Children with ambivalent attachment are usually less cooperative and more easily angered in interactions. They also had more fussing and crying8.
Security, avoidance and ambivalence are considered organized attachment. Infants who are in organized attachment relationships act to elicit protective parental responses when confronted with fear. These babies presume the source of alarm is in the external environment. They maintain organization in terms of behavior and attention as they resolve their distress7.
However, when kids find themselves emotionally and physically dependent on someone who is also a source of fear, they become disorganizedly attached. It’s disorganized attachment because there’s a breakdown of behavioral and attentional coping strategies.
During the Strange Situation, a disorganizedly attached child displays a variety of odd, unusual, contradictory, or conflicted behavior when the parent is there. They may show contradicting behavior patterns, such as intense attachment behavior followed by suddenly freezing or dazed action. They may avoid the caretaker but become distressed or angry when the caretaker leaves. They can suddenly stop motion or appear fearful of the parent.
Having a disorganized type is a strong predictor of emotional dysregulation and related mental health problems, such as anxiety, later in life. These children usually grow up with poor regulation and control of negative emotions. They are more likely to show oppositional, hostile, and aggressive behavior.
Parents of disorganized babies are often more troubled, unpredictable and abusive perhaps because they are still troubled by their own unresolved attachment-related traumas and losses. They often suffer from depression and marital discord10.
Bowlby’s Four Phases of Attachment Developmental Stages
Bowlby has distinguished four phases of the development of child-mother attachment5.
Pre-attachment Phase: 0-2 months
During the first few months, infants are inherently interested in and responsive to social interaction with virtually anyone. A baby shows a general rather than an individual attachment. Although they may recognize their mother or the primary caregiver, they are not distressed if another responsive, loving caretaker takes over. While the comforting actions of a caring adult are the baby’s base, the baby does not insist on a particular person.
Attachment-in-the-making Phase: 2-6 months
The baby begins to show preferences by, for example, smiling and vocalizing to and settling more quickly with some caregivers than others. They start to develop “stranger anxiety.” An unknown face is neither pleasurable nor exciting to the baby. Instead, it signals danger.
But attachment to the primary caretaker is not the only attachment the baby can form. Babies can also develop secondary attachments to other adults.
This period also matches the stage at which the baby becomes mobile and less dependent. When the baby crawls off from the mother, they keep the mother in view. The mother has become an inner secure base from which the child can venture out.
Clear-cut Attachment Phase: 6 months-2 years
The child has a strong need to remain physically close to their primary caretaker. They can tolerate separation for only a limited period, preferably with another familiar person around.
Prolonged separation during these years is a major trauma which can be exacerbated if the child cannot build a new attachment. The pattern and security of the child’s relationships so far have become almost ingrained in the child’s internal representation of the relationship world. This internal working model becomes significantly harder to change as the child grows.
Goal-corrected Partnership Phase: 3 year old-adolescence
At three years of age, the child becomes able to tolerate not seeing the mother, provided they know where she is or when she will return. They can now comprehend that other people are separate from themselves and have their own thoughts, perceptions, desires, and existence. The attachment relationship has transformed into a more complex relationship, called a partnership. The term “goal-corrected” underlines the flexible and planning-like nature of the relationship.
This period is also the time when a child begins to engage in reciprocal relationships. They can start using language to express needs and appreciate space and time. This is the time when a child can begin to benefit from being a part of a group regularly, i.e., attending preschool.
By adolescence, the child’s peer group becomes more important and influential than parents. The child may form dependencies with their peers, although home and family remain fundamentally important.
Factors That Determine a Child’s Attachment
Children tend to develop attachments of varying intensities to different people, called subsidiary attachment figures, but have one principal figure they are most strongly attached to.
The quality of the relationship rather than the quantity of time spent together determines who becomes the child’s primary attachment figure. Therefore, babies can become attached to fathers or other relatives who they do not have prolonged daily contact with if these people are more responsive to them and create stronger attachments.
Critical Period / Sensitive Period
Attachment is formed in the early years in a child’s life during the critical period or sensitive period – a phase in which the brain is more plastic and receptive to the influence of attachment experiences. After this critical period has passed, the attachment pattern has essentially “burnt in”, making it very hard, although not impossible, to change9,11.
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