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Bowlby & Ainsworth Attachment Theory – How Does It Work

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 types, the four phases a child goes through to establish an attachment, and how childhood relationships affect adult romantic relationships.

What is Attachment – Brief Overview

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 strategy to seek proximity to the attachment figure.

Bowlby believed that the five attachment behaviors – sucking, cling, following, crying and smiling – were developed in human beings through natural selection. These behaviors constitutes an attachment behavioral system to protect an immature offspring and increase the child’s chances of survival​1​. 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 psychoanalyst and psychiatrist, proposed the Attachment Theory after he studied the negative impact of maternal deprivation on young children. Bowlby observed that early attachments could significantly affect a child’s emotional development and adult relationships in later life​2​.

Bowlby was the first attachment theorist who laid the foundation of the famous theory of attachment. Bowlby’s theory was later refined by Ainsworth, Sroufe, and a host of other attachment theorists​3​.

Mother kisses a baby to illustrate the benefits of attachment theory

Bowlby’s Attachment Theory

Attachment theory is a sophisticated and complex theory of the development of personality and capacity for close, romantic relationship, emotional stress coping, and many other things later in a child’s life.

According to Attachment Theory, early emotional bonds are critical in creating different kinds of attachment between a child and the primary caregiver. The resulting emotional attachment becomes the internal working model of the child influencing their own emotions and intimate relationships​3​ throughout the life course.

These internal models are based on the expectations for the caregiver’s responsiveness. Their expectations develop into broader representations of themselves, their attachment caregiver, intimate 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 in early life. 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 emotional stress, such as separation anxiety, hostility, and avoidance, with less fear in later relationships.

Although a person’s attachment style is fluid and can change over time, the lasting psychological connectedness can continue to adulthood, influencing the adult attachment style and long term relationships.

Father hugs sleeping infant, fitting the bowlby attachment theory

Ainsworth Attachment Theory

Mary Ainsworth, an American psychologist, who had worked under Bowlby in the early days of her career, started her own empirical research in Uganda in 1953. In her famous “Baltimore Study”, she noticed distinct individual differences in the quality of mother-infant interactions. Ainsworth categorized these different attachment styles into three attachment types: secure attachment styles, insecure attachment styles, and not-yet attached​4​.

Ainsworth found a high correlation between secure attachments and maternal sensitivity. Sensitive mother were familiar with their babies. They could provide spontaneous detail about their kids. Babies of sensitive mothers have secure attachments. They cried less and were free to explore in the presence of mother.

On the other hand, insensitive mothers were imperceptive of the nuances of their babies behavior. Babies of insensitive mothers were more likely to have insecure attachment style. Insecurely attached 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 and research play a very important role in explaining how parenting style affects a child’s personality development, which in turn impacts their future relationships and outcomes in life​4​.

Before the emergence of this theory, 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 a scientific approach​5​.

Bowlby’s attachment research provided hard evidence that such bonds were vital in forming secure attachments. 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 attachment in infancy.

In the procedure, the mother and infant between the young 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 parent 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 children 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 infant attachment patterns when reuniting with their mothers, and those patterns correlated highly with these kids’ attachment.

couple holds baby and smiled in ainsworth attachment theory

Patterns of Attachment in Early Childhood

From the Strange procedure, Ainswoth was able to identify the following three types of attachment – secure, avoidant, and ambivalent​6​. Later, a fourth attachment style, disorganized / disoriented, was added by researchers Main, Hesse, and Solomon​7​ 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 life​8​.

Secure Attachment Style

In the Strange Situation, when the mother is present, an infant who is feeling secure has more self-confidence​6​. They use the mother as a secure base from which to explore more in the playroom. They are distressed when the mother leaves. Upon reunion, a securely attached child would seek comfort, 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 months​8​. 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.

Infants with attachment security are more cooperative when being fed and easily comforted. 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 needs​9​. They are happier and less aggressive. They also sought contact and holding less often​4​.

At age 2, securely attached children are more resilient, and socially competent in preschool. They also have higher self-esteem​8​.

Avoidant Attachment Style (Anxious Avoidant Attachment Style)

When united with the mother during the two reunion episodes, an avoidantly attached baby avoids or ignores the mother. They react with detachment​6​.

Ainsworth found that the avoidant behavior in this procedure correlated highly with the infant’s behavior in the home throughout the first 12 months​8​. 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 working model of a self which is not worthy of care​5​. They have reason to expect rejection from their caregivers and therefore modify their behavior by avoiding them, effectively reducing anticipated rejection following the separation​9​.

Ambivalent Attachment Style (Anxious Resistant or Anxious Attachment)

An ambivalently attached baby showed angry, resistant behavior interspersed with attachment-seeking behavior in the Strange experiment​4​.

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 crying​8​.

Disorganized Attachment Style

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 distress​7​.

However, when kids find themselves emotionally and physically dependent on someone who is also a source of fear, they become disorganizedly attached. It’s a disorganized / disoriented 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, conflicted or disorganized behavior when the parent is there. They may show contradicting behavior, such as intense comfort-seeking behavior followed by suddenly freezing or dazed action. They may avoid the caretaker but at the same time 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 attachment related anxiety, later in life. These children usually grow up with poor emotion 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 discord​10​.

attachment theory relate how attachment system develops when mother and baby bond

Bowlby’s Four Phases of Attachment Developmental Stages

Bowlby has distinguished four phases in the development of attachment​5​.

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 safe haven 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 distress 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 of attachment and security of the child’s relationships so far have become almost ingrained in the child’s internal representation of the relationship world. This 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 children begin forming 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. 

social psychologists mother pushes boy on bicycle

Factors That Determine a Child’s Attachment

Quality

Children tend to form 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

A child’s early attachment is formed 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 change​9,11​.

child parent domain can affect multiple attachments in couples

Development Of Adult Attachment Theory

Early relationships play a crucial role in social functioning long after childhood.

Researchers started applying children attachment theory to the study of attachments in adults in the 1980s.

Adult Attachment Interview

An Adult Attachment Interview (AAI) is a one-hour interview about attachment history. Main et al found that the reports of interactions between current parents and their own parents years earlier could predict their children’s attachment with 80% accuracy​12​.

As parents’ state of mind influences how they treat their infants. This ultimately determines their child’s attachment orientation. 

Adult Romantic Attachment Self-Report

A second group of researchers, Hazan and Shaver, developed an adult romantic attachment measure that is based on Ainsworth’s model of attachment. Based on self-reporting, researchers identified three types of attachment styles – secure, avoidant, and anxious-ambivalent – to predict human relationships​13​.

A Two-Dimensional Model

Bartholomew used a mix of history interviews and self-reports in his research to identify four attachment styles.  based on two dimensions: the model of self and the model of others​14​.

Essentially, this four-category model is built on two dimensions, a model of the self and a model of others, as the internal models​15​.

The model of self refers to the degree to which an individual has internalized  the concept of self-worth and the likelihood of feeling anxious in the romantic relationship domain.

The model of other measures how often people expect others to be available and supportive, and whether they favor or avoid close relationships.

Thus, these dimensions correspond to levels of anxiety and avoidance.

attachment theory chart for mental health professional

The Four Adult Attachment Styles

Secure Attachment

Secure adults have a positive view of themselves and of others. They are low in anxiety and avoidance. Generally, they feel well liked and assume others have good intentions.

Happy, trusting, and friendly relationships are the hallmarks of secure relationships.

Anxious Preoccupied

Preoccupied adults have a negative view of themselves, but a positive view of others. Their anxiety levels are high, but their avoidance levels are low. Feelings of self-doubt and misunderstanding by others are common among them.

Those who are anxious do not feel comfortable with closeness, relatively confident in availability of romantic partner, but concerned about being abandoned and unloved. Their insecure relationships are marked by highs and lows, emotional turmoil, jealousy, and obsession with their love partners.

Dismissive Avoidant Attachment

Dismissive adults others have a positive model of themselves, but a negative model of others. Despite their low anxiety, their avoidance levels are high.

Those who are dismissive-avoidant are uncomfortable being close to others and do not trust their availability. But they do not worry about being  abandoned.

A larger proportion of older adults describe themselves having dismissive relationship problems. In other words, people who are older in the life cycle tend to downplay the importance of relationships in favor of independence and self-reliance. In comparison with younger individuals, they are more prone to resist strong affect and use defense strategies involving a positive  interpretation of conflict situations.

Fearful Avoidant Attachment

Fearful-avoidant adults have a negative view of themselves and of others. They are anxious and avoidant.

Fearful lovers are highly dependent on their romantic partners’ approval and affirmation. Their negative attachment problems, however, create attachment related avoidance to prevent rejection and loss.

couples have backs facing each other for appropriate boundaries

References

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    Belsky J. Developmental origins of attachment styles. Attachment & Human Development. Published online September 2002:166-170. doi:10.1080/14616730210157510
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    Madigan S, Moran G, Pederson DR. Unresolved states of mind, disorganized attachment relationships, and disrupted interactions of adolescent mothers and their infants. Developmental Psychology. Published online March 2006:293-304. doi:10.1037/0012-1649.42.2.293
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    Bretherton I. Attachment Theory: Retrospect and Prospect. Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development. Published online 1985:3. doi:10.2307/3333824
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    VAN IJZENDOORN MH, SCHUENGEL C, BAKERMANS–KRANENBURG MJ. Disorganized attachment in early childhood: Meta-analysis of precursors, concomitants, and sequelae. Develop Psychopathol. Published online June 1999:225-250. doi:10.1017/s0954579499002035
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    Schore JR, Schore AN. Modern Attachment Theory: The Central Role of Affect Regulation in Development and Treatment. Clin Soc Work J. Published online September 8, 2007:9-20. doi:10.1007/s10615-007-0111-7
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    van IJzendoorn MH. Adult attachment representations, parental responsiveness, and infant attachment: A meta-analysis on the predictive validity of the Adult Attachment Interview. Psychological Bulletin. Published online May 1995:387-403. doi:10.1037/0033-2909.117.3.387
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    Shaver P, Hazan C. Being lonely, falling in love: Perspectives from attachment theory. Journal of Social Behavior & Personality. 1987;2(2):105–124. https://psycnet.apa.org/record/1988-26476-001
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    Levy KN, Blatt SJ, Shaver PR. Attachment styles and parental representations. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Published online 1998:407-419. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.74.2.407
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