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Attachment Theory

PS2007's picture

One of the most important factors that affect child development is the relationship of the child with their primary caregiver.  This common sense statement is a tenet of developmental psychology known as attachment theory.  John Bowlby, the creator of this theory, wanted to examine how early childhood experiences influence personality development.  Attachment theory specifically examines infant’s reactions to being separated from their primary caregiver.  Bowlby hypothesized that the differences in how children react to these situations demonstrates basic behavioral differences in infancy that will have consequences for later social and emotional development.

To study attachment theory, Mary Ainsworth developed the Strange Situation Paradigm.  This procedure examines the reaction of the infant when their primary caregiver leaves them for up to three minutes.  The emotional response of the child to being left alone and the behavior of the child when the caregiver reappears are coded on a seven point rating scale.  Based on these scores children are divided into three categories which illustrate the quality of the attachment.  Securely attached children are confident in their relationship with their primary caregiver, and are not afraid to explore new things.  In the Strange Situation, these infants are less distressed during separation and happy to see their caregiver during the reunion and will often make contact with them.  Infants with an insecure-avoidant attachment are characterized by a lack of positive affect toward their primary caregiver.  They are less distressed during the separation than most infants, and reserve their emotional response not for their caregiver but for toys or the experimenter.  Infants with insecure-ambivalent or resistant attachment patterns spend a longer amount of time in contact with their caregiver, even during times of low stress.  They also show high levels of stress during separation and remain distressed even after the reunion.  Although these are the two main insecure attachment categories, current research suggests that there are countless forms of insecure attachment patterns besides the ones Ainsworth highlighted in her research (Barnett & Vondra, 1999).  

The Strange Situation is meant to be a snapshot of the relationship between infant and caregiver, and provide insight into the dyadic patterns that define this bond.  Securely attached children are thought to have a primary caregiver who is sensitive, available and receptive to their infants needs.  Insecure-avoidant children have primary caregivers who are intrusive, controlling and hurtful.  These caregivers may be present in the infant’s life but unable to understand their infants needs, and provide the correct response.  Caregivers of insecure-ambivalent infants have been found to be unresponsive to the needs of the infant, and very often unavailable.  The effect of this treatment is that the infant is starved for affection and attention.  The infant also feels the need to amplify their needs in an effort to reach their caregiver (Barnett & Vondra, 1999).

There is not only psychological evidence of the importance of the attachment relationship, but also neurobiological evidence.  Many important brain structures, including the amygdala, septal nuclei and hippocampus “require considerable social, emotional, perceptual, and cognitive stimulation during the first several months and years of life in order to develop normally. If sufficient stimulation is not provided, or if exposed to an abnormal or neglectful environment, developing neurons and dendrites will establish or maintain aberrant, abnormal interconnections, or whither, die, and drop out at an accelerated rate”. If infants are neglected or treated badly, this can result in social withdrawal, pathological shyness, explosive and inappropriate emotionality, and an inability to form normal emotional relationships. (Joseph, 1999).

A key determiner of the quality of the attachment relationship is the primary caregiver’s own cognitive representations of relationships, which may have a lot to do with the caregiver’s own attachment representations.  This has been shown in many studies that have compared the parent’s attachment profile using the Adult Attachment Interview, a semi-structured one-hour interview, with the child’s results from the strange situation.  It is in this way that attachment is cyclical, and one reason why creating a secure bond with your infant is so important.

It may seem obvious that the primary caregiver’s relational skills are a fundamental component of attachment, but pinpointing the specific maternal behaviors that create a secure attachment has been the subject of many psychological studies.  One of the main characteristics of a caregiver that contributes to the creation of a secure attachment with their infant is the ability to correctly assess their child’s needs.  In psychological terms, this ability is referred to as “maternal mind-mindedness”.  These mothers treat their infants as individuals with their own minds (Meins et al., 2002).  In other words, securely attached infants have parents who are able to “consider the motives underlying their children’s behaviors and emotional experiences in a complete, positive, and child-focused manner while taking into consideration their children’s perspectives” (Koran-Karie et al., 2002).

It is generally accepted within the field of developmental psychology that, “attachment (as a social bond) is an important aspect of human development” (Izard, Haynes, Chisholm & Baak, 1991) and that infant attachment patterns provide internal working models for later relationships.  This means that the way we relate to our primary caregiver has a profound influence on our social development, and the way we understand and experience the world around us.  Our relationship with our primary caregiver also affects how we view ourselves.  Securely attached children will develop an internal working model in which other people are seen as responsive and trustworthy, and they view themselves as loveable and worthy of that treatment.  Children who are not securely attached will develop internal working models of others characterized as unresponsive, and the self is seen as unworthy of love or extremely self-sufficient so that they do not need anyone to care for them  (Collins & Allard, 2001).  The security of our attachment contributes a great deal to the formation of our inner narrative, or self-consciousness.  Although these internal working models are unconscious, the behavioral consequences are not.  We may not be aware of how our personality is shaped, or why we repeat similar patterns in relationships but we are conscious of the narrative we tell ourselves to explain and understand our own behavior.

Psychologists do not believe that the effects of attachment end in childhood.  Many studies have further explored how attachment category affects adolescent behavior, and later how attachment category plays a role in the quality of romantic relationships in which one will engage. During adolescence the peer group is increasingly important, while parental approval becomes less of a priority.  Adolescents want to distance themselves from their parents and assert their independence.  It is interesting to note, then, that infant attachment classification is a significant predictor of adolescent attachment classification.  It would seem that the effects of the attachment bond between caregiver and child stays the same even if the relationship between parent and child changes.  

Securely attached adolescents report “fewer mental health problems, lower levels of depression, anxiety and feelings of personal inadequacy.  They are less likely to engage in substance abuse, antisocial and aggressive behavior, and risky sexual activity.  Securely attached adolescents also manage to transition to high school more successfully, and enjoy more positive relationships with family and peers.  They demonstrate less concern about loneliness and social rejection than do insecurely attached adolescents and they display more adaptive coping strategies”. The parents of securely attached adolescents recognize their need to be more independent, but realize that these children still need available and supportive parents (Doyle & Moretti, 2000).

In romantic relationships, your attachment profile as an infant is a predictor of the quality of the relationship you will form with your partner.  This is because our general ideas about how to act and react within a relationship come from our first relationships – the relationship with our parents.  What we expect from a relationship and what we expect to give in a relationship is mapped out in our brains in the form of internal working models.  One study found that the three attachment profiles report their experiences with love very differently.  Securely attached individuals characterize their love relationships as friendly, happy and trusting while insecure-avoidant individuals seemed to fear intimacy.  Insecure-ambivalent individuals found there love relationships filled with jealousy, emotional highs and lows, and desire for reciprocation (Hazan and Shaver, 1987). This is another example of how cyclical the attachment process can be.  The infant feels unloved by the mother, and therefore views the self as unworthy of love.  Later in life, they form relationships that validate this feeling of unworthiness and perpetuate this unstable attachment in their own children.  

Although attachment is cyclical, and the attachment profile seems to stay constant throughout ones life I do not believe that the attachment profile is inflexible.  Psychotherapy can help make us conscious of our unconscious internal working models. “Arietta Slade, of the Department of Psychology at the City University of New York, sums up…whether or not attachment theory is relevant to clinical practice by stating, ‘In essence, attachment categories do tell a story.  They tell a story about how emotion has been regulated, what experiences have been allowed into consciousness, and to what degree an individual has been able to make meaning of his or her primary relationships’” (Sonkin, 2005).  Through examining past relationships, and becoming conscious of the role one played in their quality and outcome, future behavior can change.

Works Cited

Barnett, D., & Vondra, J. I. (1999). Atypical patterns of early attachment: theory, research, and current directions. Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development, 64, 1-24.

Collins, N. L., & Allard, L. M. (2003). Cognitive representations of attachment: The content and function of working models. Interpersonal Processes, 60-85.

Doyle, A. B., & Moretti, M. M. (2000, March). Attachment to parents and adjustment in adolescence.  Child Development.

Hazan, C., & Shaver, P. (1987). Romantic Love Conceptualized as an Attachment Process. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 52, 511-524.

Izard, C. E., Haynes, O. M., & Baak, K. (1991, October). Emotional determinants of infant-mother attachment. Child Development, 62, 906-917.

Joseph, R. (1999). Environmental Influences on Neural Plasticity, the Limbic System, Emotional Development and Attachment: A Review. Child Psychiatry and Human Development, 29.

Koran-Karie, N., Oppenheim, D., Dolev, S., Sher, E., & Etzion-Carasso, A. (2002). Mothers’ Insightfulness Regarding Their Infants’ Internal Experience: Relations With Maternal Sensitivity and Infant Attachment. Developmental Psychology, 38, 534-542.

Meins, E., Fernyhough, C., Wainwright, R., Gupta, M. D., Fradley, E., & Tuckey, M. (2002, November/December). Maternal mind-mindedness and attachment security as predictors of theory of mind understanding. Child Development, 73, 1715-1726.

Sonkin, D. J. (2005, January/February). Attachment Theory and Psychotherapy. The Therapist. Retrieved from


Paul Grobstein's picture

how fluid/loopy is attachment?

I had an interesting response to this. My presumption at the outset that "attachment" as measured in the Strange Situation paradigm was largely a function of genetic influences rather than of parent/child interactions. How strong is the evidence for the latter? Or, putting it slightly differently, is it possible that "attachment" is indeed "cyclical" (loopy?), a product of outputs in relation to expectations in both child and caregiver? And how does "story" play into this, in caregiver, in child, at various times of life?