What is Attachment Theory?

Attachment theory is focused on the relationships and bonds between people, particularly long-term relationships, including those between a parent and child and between romantic partners.

Understanding Attachment

The central theme of attachment theory is that primary caregivers who are available and responsive to an infant’s needs allow the child to develop a sense of security. The infant knows that the caregiver is dependable, which creates a secure base for the child to then explore the world. Attachment is an emotional bond with another person. Bowlby, who formed the basis of what we now know as attachment theory, believed that the earliest bonds formed by children with their caregivers have a tremendous impact that continues throughout life. He suggested that attachment also serves to keep the infant close to the mother, thus improving the child’s chances of survival.

Throughout history, children who maintained proximity to an attachment figure were more likely to receive comfort and protection, and therefore more likely to survive to adulthood. Through the process of natural selection, a motivational system designed to regulate attachment emerged.

The Stages of Attachment

Pre-Attachment Stage

From birth to 3 months, infants do not show any particular attachment to a specific caregiver. The infant’s signals, such as crying and fussing, naturally attract the attention of the caregiver and the baby’s positive responses encourage the caregiver to remain close.

Indiscriminate Attachment

Between 6 weeks of age to 7 months, infants begin to show preferences for primary and secondary caregivers. Infants develop trust that the caregiver will respond to their needs. While they still accept care from others, infants start distinguishing between familiar and unfamiliar people, responding more positively to the primary caregiver.

Discriminate Attachment

At this point, from about 7 to 11 months of age, infants show a strong attachment and preference for one specific individual. They will protest when separated from the primary attachment figure (separation anxiety), and begin to display anxiety around strangers (stranger anxiety).

Multiple Attachments

After approximately 9 months of age, children begin to form strong emotional bonds with other caregivers beyond the primary attachment figure. This often includes the father, older siblings, and grandparents.

Factors That Influence Attachment

While this process may seem straightforward, there are some factors that can influence how and when attachments develop, including:

Opportunity for Attachment

Children who do not have a primary care figure, such as those raised in orphanages, may fail to develop the sense of trust needed to form an attachment.

Quality Caregiving

When caregivers respond quickly and consistently, children learn that they can depend on the people who are responsible for their care, which is the essential foundation for attachment. This is a vital factor.

Patterns of Attachment

There are four patterns of attachment, including:

Ambivalent Attachment

These children become very distressed when a parent leaves. Ambivalent attachment style is considered uncommon, affecting an estimated 7–15% of U.S. children. As a result of poor parental availability, these children cannot depend on their primary caregiver to be there when they need them.

Avoidant Attachment

Children with an avoidant attachment tend to avoid parents or caregivers, showing no preference between a caregiver and a complete stranger. This attachment style might be a result of abusive or neglectful caregivers. Children who are punished for relying on a caregiver will learn to avoid seeking help in the future.

Disorganized Attachment

These children display a confusing mix of behavior, seeming disoriented, dazed, or confused. They may avoid or resist the parent. Lack of a clear attachment pattern is likely linked to inconsistent caregiver behavior. In such cases, parents may serve as both a source of comfort and fear, leading to disorganized behavior.

Secure Attachment

Children who can depend on their caregivers show distress when separated and joy when reunited. Although the child may be upset, they feel assured that the caregiver will return. When frightened, securely attached children are comfortable seeking reassurance from caregivers.

The Lasting Impact of Early Attachment

Research suggests that failure to form secure attachments early in life can have a negative impact on behavior in later childhood and throughout life.

Children diagnosed with oppositional defiant disorder (ODD), conduct disorder (CD), or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) frequently display attachment problems, possibly due to early abuse, neglect, or trauma. Clinicians suggest that children adopted after the age of 6 months have a higher risk of attachment problems.

While attachment styles displayed in adulthood are not necessarily the same as those seen in infancy, early attachments can have a serious impact on later relationships. Those who are securely attached in childhood tend to have good self-esteem, strong romantic relationships, and the ability to self-disclose to others.

Children who are securely attached as infants tend to develop stronger self-esteem and better self-reliance as they grow older. These children also tend to be more independent, perform better in school, have successful social relationships, and experience less depression and anxiety.

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