British psychoanalyst John Bowlby formulated the basic tenets of ‘attachment theory’ during his early studies of the interaction between parenting behaviours and child development in the 1940s and 1950s.  Bowlby’s work was further developed during the 1960s and 1970s by Canadian psychologist, Mary Ainsworth, when she developed a methodology to categorise different types of attachment between child and carer.

The work of these two theorists has been instrumental in guiding research into child development and also subsequent studies of the impact that different types of attachment can have throughout the lifespan.

The first year of a baby’s life is the most important time for the development of the aspect of their brain that is responsible for attachment and empathy.  The neural pathways and connections created enable the child to feel the pleasure of being involved in close, secure, nurturing relationships. This capacity is crucial for the child to develop their own feelings of empathy and understand of others and enables them to enjoy intimate relationships in the future.

Unfortunately, many children are unable to form secure, loving attachments with their primary caregiver which if left unaddressed, can lead to various types of attachment disorders, creating issues in their emotional and social wellbeing later in life.


Attachment Styles

There are two broad categories of attachment style; secure and insecure which were established through the work of Mary Ainsworth in her famous experiment known as The Strange Situation.

These two categories provide four types of attachment styles that impact behaviours later in life.

Secure Attachment

Secure attachment is displayed when an infant or child uses the parent as a source of security when playing and exploring and then seeks contact with them after separation.  The child may be upset when the parent leaves the room but the distress is not excessive.  The pair tends to greet one another actively and warmly upon reunion and the child is able to emotionally regulate and soon return to play.

Avoidant Attachment

This style may be illustrated where the child avoids the parent upon reunion or approaches her only indirectly.  The infant or child tends to show little or no distress when the parent leaves and actively avoids and ignores the parent upon reunion, often looking down or away, even when in the parent’s arms.  Historically, this parent may have also avoided the child or, at least, emotional engagement with the child.  They may have been unresponsive to their child’s needs and tended to avoid the child’s attempts to get close.

Ambivalent Attachment

This is also referred to as resistant attachment.  It may be displayed where the child becomes extremely distressed by the separation, clinging to their parent and often moving to or staying near the door showing visible signs of distress.  They may seek contact upon the reunion but tend not to settle emotionally and may even seem to become angry with the parent.  They seem to both desire and repel parental contact and support.  Within this category, parents may not have been consistently or adequately responsive to their child’s needs.  They may have exhibited poor timing in response to their child’s distress and may exhibit a pattern of obtrusively interrupting their child’s play.

Disorganised Attachment

This style is evident where there is no predictable or effective pattern of behaviours exhibited by the stressed infant or child to elicit caregiving from their parent.  Young children may exhibit a mixture of strong attachment, then anger, followed by avoidance and looking quite dazed.  The child may seek closeness and yet avoid it at the same time, through behaviours such as approaching the parent with their head averted or by walking or crawling backwards or sideways.  The child may look away from their carer, rather than toward them, when distressed or frightened.  Some children exhibit asymmetrical creeping (moving only one side of their body), mistimed or sudden movements, strange postures or repeated movements such as rocking, hair twisting or ear pulling.  Some have even held frozen postures, such as holding their arms raised and immobile for long periods, while others have displayed evidence of extreme fear, flinging their hands over their faces, running away or hiding or crawling into a foetal position.

Important Functions of Attachment

Bowlby suggested that attachment had a number of important functions during the childhood years and that these also had a significant impact on later life.

1. Meeting Basic Needs

Of course, the core function of a healthy attachment between caregiver and infant is to meet the safety and protection needs for a vulnerable infant or young child.  An attuned, loving and protective carer would provide the necessary shelter and sustenance for the young child to survive and thrive and would also do all that they could to protect him from harm.  Children with a healthy attachment experience tend to feel confident and secure in relatively safe contexts (such as home and school).  However, children with poor attachment can feel anxious and fearful even in non-threatening environments.

2. Exploration Needs

Healthy attachment allows the young child to explore their environment with feelings of safety and security and this can lead to healthy cognitive and social development as they mature.  However, the child with poor attachment can often feel unsafe, unprotected, unsupported and alone and, as a result, their cognitive and social development can be negatively affected.

3. Development of Trust

Healthy attachment helps a child learn basic trust and this can serve as a basis for all future emotional relationships.  Infants learn to expect that their carer will respond to their needs when they cry.  Children learn to trust that adults will reassure and calm them when the feel frightened.  Unfortunately, children with poor attachment can have significant trouble trusting others and this can impact on relationships throughout their childhood, schooling years and adulthood.

4. Development of Resilience

Healthy attachment allows the child to initially co-regulate their emotions with the help of their carer and then to eventually build the capability to self-regulate.  This leads to more effective management of impulses and emotions as they grow.  It can help them to develop emotional resilience and a defence against stress and trauma.  However, those with poor attachment can have difficulty with emotional self regulation and can very quickly become easily stressed and become impulsive and/or aggressive when emotionally aroused.  It can inhibit the development of resilience and resourcefulness when under duress.

5. Development of Identity

Healthy attachment creates the foundation for the formation of identity and sense of self.  This can include attributes such as self competence and self worth and can also lead to a healthy balance between dependence and autonomy.  However, poor attachment can result in children having poor self worth and a belief that others do not value them.  They can become clingy or over dependant or alternatively, become distant and relationally cold.

6. Development of Social Skills

Healthy attachment can help to establish a pro-social, moral outlook in a young person that involves empathy and compassion.  However, these attributes are not easily evident in those with poor attachment and they can struggle with understanding the needs, thoughts or actions of others.

7. Development of Mindset

Healthy attachment helps to generate a world view that people and life are basically good, with reasonable exceptions.  However, those with poor attachment can believe the worst of most people and of life and it is not unusual for them to exhibit signs of depression, anxiety and/or some form of self harming behaviours.

Adapted from: Distressed or Deliberately Defiant? By Judith Howard

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.

– John Bowlby, Attachment Psychologist

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