Last updated: 05.12.18

What is 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 four types or styles of attachment?

It is generally accepted that there are four styles of attachment, these styles help to determine future behavioural issues or traits which may affect a child.

The four categories / styles are:

Secure – This style comprised the majority of those involved in attachment theory studies. These children are confident that their attachment figure will be available to meet their needs, and they also use the attachment figure as a ‘Safe base’ to explore the surrounding environment. Secure children will also seek out the attachment figure in times of distress or in stressful environments.

Insecure Avoidant – Children who developed this style of attachment are much more independent both mentally and physically and don’t orientate themselves to their attachment figure when exploring an environment. Children with this attachment style are more likely to have had an insensitive, rejecting or unavailable caregiver during times of crisis.

Insecure Ambivalent / Resistant – Those children who develop this kind of attachment style demonstrate ambivalent (mixed feelings) behaviour towards their attachment figure. This means they demonstrate clingy and dependant behaviour towards their care giver however, the child will then be rejecting of the them if they engage in interaction. This in turn means that the child doesn’t develop any feeling of security from their care giver. This inconsistent level of response from the care giver means they are difficult to sooth when distressed and have difficulty moving away from their caregiver to explore their surroundings.

Disorganised - The final attachment style is one which is caused by the attachment figures behaviours and reactions. For example, if a child is faced with a threat and turns to their caregiver expecting protection and reassurance, and the caregiver’s reaction is to be frightened themselves, this compounds the child’s fear and doesn’t give them a solution to sooth them. This makes the child apprehensive when interacting with their caregiver and this can damage the child’s emotional stability. This attachment style often seen with middle income mothers who perceive the child as unmanageable and uncontrollable and are overwhelmed by the child’s needs.

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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