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What is Attachment Theory?

schedule 5th December 2018 by Virtual College in Safeguarding

Attachment theory

What is Attachment Theory?

Attachment theory explains the importance of social interactions and relationships for human beings. It helps us understand not only the connection between children and parents, but emotional connections throughout our lives with friends, partners, our own children and other acquaintances. It’s something that’s used extensively when studying people, and also forms the basis for many laws and initiatives that pertain to child care, clinical practice and welfare in general. In this article, we’re going to take a look in more detail at what the theory says, and why some elements of it are so important, particularly when it comes to children.

What is attachment?

The simplest definition of attachment is a person’s emotional bond to another person. The founder of attachment theory, psychologist John Bowlby, described attachment as a lasting psychological connectedness between human beings. Bowlby argued that the bonds formed by children with their earliest caregivers have a profound impact throughout that person’s life. He believed more specifically, that attachment may have evolved to keep children safe and to improve their chance of surviving infanthood.

New discoveries from neuroscience have helped us to understand how early relationships shape brain development, as well as an individual’s physiological ability to experience and manage emotions. Attachment theory helps us to understand how children develop a sense of emotional security, and how this enables them to explore the world. Since Bowlby introduced his ideas in the 1950s, great strides have been made in understanding that the attachment process operates throughout life, from birth until death. Scientists have now given us new ways of understanding and talking about attachment.

It’s important to be aware that attachment theory was initially used to describe children almost exclusively, but by the 1980s, psychologists such as Cindy Hazan and Phillip Shaver had extended it to cover romantic relationships between adults. Many of the principles did however remain the same.

What are the types of attachment?

Broadly, there are four classifications of attachment given to children, which are secure, anxious-ambivalent, anxious-avoidant, and disorganised. Secure is seen as the best form of attachment, wherein a child feels that their emotional, protective and proximal needs are met. Anxious-ambivalent means that a child experiences anxiety when separated from the person with which they have attachment. Anxious-avoidant behaviour will mean that a child avoids its parents, and disorganised is where there appears to be no attachment behaviour.

Why is attachment important?

Patterns of attachment formed in our early years have a profound effect on the way we live the rest of our lives. This is because it is the attachment process that shapes the way we manage emotions. Coping with feelings is a physiological process, which we draw on daily, throughout our lives.

This means that the emotional patterns we develop in our early years affect the way we will later conduct romantic relationships, friendships, dealing with authority figures, and may even shape symptoms of illnesses like dementia. Attachment has a much more dramatic impact on our lives than most people realise.

Secure attachment is seen as the best type of attachment, and is the one that describes the most beneficial relationship between child and caregiver. Where a child feels secure, they are happier as a rule, and crucially, they are free to explore the world around them, which has all manner of benefits, from developing more complex emotions, to general knowledge and intelligence. It’s for this reason that attachment theory is important. Children feel attached when they are safe, secure, and close to their caregiver.

A lack of attachment, or indeed, the wrong type of attachment, can result in all manner of difficulties. If a child has anxiety about its attachment with a caregiver, it can struggle to concentrate on other tasks, which can slow down development. In worst case scenarios, it can result in a full breakdown of the relationship, which will likely have lasting effects throughout life.

How is attachment theory used in practice?

The principles of attachment keep us continually aware of children's need for a sense of safety, and how the fear of separation drives numerous behaviours. Understanding the physiological basis of that fear helps us to see children in a new light, bringing compassion and curiosity to our interactions.

Here in the UK, many of our laws have elements that are drawn from many of the principles of attachment, even if they are not specifically referenced. The Children and Families Act 2014 for example is one of the largest and most wide-reaching laws that deals with children and their relationships with parents and caregivers. Its primary purpose is the welfare of children, and there are many elements that will be recognised from attachment theory. Adoption processes were made easier to encourage early development of secure attachment, parental leave from work rights were increased to reduce separation, and courts were given more guidance to ensure that both parents play a role.

Ultimately, attachment theory is a broad and useful idea that helps to explain why children place such a focus on developing a close relationship with caregivers, and their primary caregiver in particular. Once understood, it can be used to both ensure that children feel their needs are met, but also that they’re developing as best they can, which has strong positive outcomes later in life.

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