What is the Theory of Attachment?

What is the Theory of Attachment?

The Attachment theory focuses on relationships and ties between people, particularly long-term relationships, including those between parents and children and between romantic partners.


  • 1 Personal bond and separation anxiety
  • 2 What is attachment?
  • 3 Studies on maternal deprivation
  • 4 Phases of attachment
  • 5 Types of attachment
  • 6 Why attachment is so important

Personal bond and separation anxiety

British psychologist John Bowlby was the first to describe attachment as a "lasting psychological connection between human beings." He defines attachment as a deep and enduring emotional bond that connects one person to another Through time and space.

Bowlby was interested in understanding the separation anxiety and sadness children experience when they are separated from their primary caregivers, usually their parents.

Some of the first behavioral theories suggested that union between people was simply due to learned behavior. These theories proposed that the union was only the result of the need to cover the basic needs of the child and the caregiver. In other words, because the caregiver feeds the child and provides care, the child becomes attached to the caregiver.

But what Bowlby observed was that even if they were still fed and taken care of, the anxiety experienced by children when they are separated from their primary caregivers does not diminish. Instead, he found that attachment is characterized by very specific patterns of behavior and motivation. When children are afraid, they will seek the proximity of their primary caregiver in order to receive both comfort and attention.

What is attachment?

As we have already seen, attachment is an emotional bond with another person. Bowlby said that the bonds formed by children with their caregivers in their earliest stages, have a tremendous impact that does not disappear and continues throughout life.

He suggested that this attachment also serves to keep the baby close to the mother, which improves the child's chances of survival.

He saw the attachment as a product of evolutionary processes. While early attachment behavior theories suggested that marriage was a learned process, Bowlby and others proposed that children are born with an innate tendency to establish bonds with caregivers.

Throughout history, children who maintain proximity to an attachment figure were more likely to receive comfort and protection, and therefore more likely to survive to adulthood. It is a motivational system designed through the process of natural selection, to regulate attachment between parents and children.

The central idea of ‚Äč‚ÄčAttachment Theory is that the primary caregivers who are available and who respond to the needs of a baby, allow the child to develop a sense of security. The child knows that the caregiver is reliable, which creates a safe base for the child to then explore the world.

Studies on maternal deprivation

Studies conducted between 1950 and 1960 by Harry Harlow on maternal deprivation and social isolation also explored these early links.

In a series of experiments, Harlow demonstrated how such links arise and the strong impact they have on future behavior and functioning. In a version of their experiment, newborn monkeys were separated from their biological mothers and raised by "surrogate mothers." The monkeys were placed in cages together with two artificial mothers. One of the cute mothers was made of wire and had a bottle from which the little one could drink and get the food, while the other was covered with a soft cloth.

Harlow could see that while the little monkeys went to the wire mother to get food, they spent most of their time with the mother of the soft cloth. Also when they got scared, baby monkeys went to their cloth-covered mother to find comfort and safety.

Harlow's work also showed that the first emotional ties were the result of comfort and receiving care from a caregiver, rather than simply food.

Phases of attachment

According to Bowlby, the establishment of the affective bond consists of four phases of evolution.

1. Pre-attachment phase

From birth until 3 months, children do not show any particular attachment to a specific caregiver. Baby signals such as crying and natural discomfort attract the caregiver's attention, and the baby's positive responses stimulate the caregiver to stay close so they can attend to it.

2. Attachment formation phase

From around the 6 weeks and up to 7 months, babies begin to show preferences for primary and secondary caregivers. During this phase, babies develop a strong feeling of trust. While they still accept the care of other people, they distinguish much better between those who are known and unknown. They also respond more positively to the primary caregiver.

3. Attachment phase

At this point, among the 7 to 11 months of age, babies show strong attachment and preference for a specific individual. They protest when they are separated from the figure of primary attachment (separation anxiety), and begin to show anxiety with strangers (anxiety before strangers).

4. Formation of reciprocal relations

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

Although this process may seem simple, there are a number of factors that can influence how and when links develop. First, if children who do not have a primary care figure, as in orphanages, may not develop the sense of confidence necessary to form a secure attachment. Second, the provision of quality care is a vital factor. When caregivers respond quickly and consistently, children learn that they can depend on the people who are responsible for their care, which is the fundamental basis for union.

The types of attachment

Secure attachment

Secure attachment happens when the child is distressed when separating from his main caregivers and calms down when they return. These children feel safe and able to depend on their adult caregivers. When the adult is absent, the child may feel upset, but he or she feels confident that the mother or caregiver will return. When they get scared, they will seek the comfort of their caregivers. These children know that their parent or caregiver will provide comfort and safety, so they feel comfortable looking for them in times of need.

Ambivalent attachment

Children with an ambivalent attachment they respond to separation with intense anguish and mix attachment behaviors with expressions of protest, anger and resistance. Research suggests that ambivalent attachment is the result of poor maternal availability. These children know that they cannot depend on their mother (or caregiver) being there when the child needs it.

Avoidance Attachment

Children with an elusive attachment tend to avoid parents or caregivers. This type of attachment occurs when the caregiver constantly stops attending to the child's need for protection signals, which does not allow him to develop the feeling of trust he needs. They feel insecure towards others and expect to be ignored due to past experiences of abandonment. When several options are offered, these children show no preference between a caregiver and a complete stranger. Research has suggested that this style of attachment could be the result of abusive or negligent caregivers. Children who are punished for relying on a caregiver will learn to avoid seeking help in the future.

Disorganized attachment

Children with a disorganized attachment often show a confusing mix of behaviors and may seem disoriented, stunned or confused. These patterns are due to the caregiver facing the demands of the child, presenting disproportionate and / or inadequate responses. Some researchers believe that the lack of a clear attachment pattern is related to incoherent behavior of their caregivers. This adult behavior disorients the child, does not give him security and generates additional anxiety. In such cases, parents can serve as a source of comfort and a source of fear, which leads the child towards a disorganized type of behavior.

Why attachment is so important

What happens to children who do not form secure bonds? Apparently the fact of not forming early safe relationships can have a negative impact on behavior in late childhood and throughout life. Children diagnosed with challenging negativist disorder, behavioral disorders or posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) often show attachment problems, possibly due to abuse, neglect or trauma. Doctors suggest that children adopted after the age of six months have an increased risk of attachment problems.

While the attachment styles shown in adulthood are not necessarily the same as those observed in childhood, they can have a serious impact on later relationships. For example, those who are safely united in childhood tend to have good self-esteem, better self-reliance as they get older, strong romantic relationships and the ability to self-reveal to others. These children also tend to be more independent, perform better in school, have more successful social relationships, and experience less depression and anxiety. As adults, they tend to have healthy, happy and lasting relationships.