What Is Attachment Theory

What Is Attachment Theory

Authored by Pin Ng PhD

Edited by Hugh Soames

Reviewed by Michael Por, MD

What is Attachment Theory?

Attachment theory was developed by psychologist and psychoanalyst John Bowlby. He created the theory during the 1950s and 1960s and contributed greatly to the work on relationships between children and parents.1https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3051370/

Bowlby viewed the first connection established by a child and mother to the strongest of all relationships. He believed that the behaviors infants exhibit to prevent separation from a parent were mechanisms created by evolution.2https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4085672/ Behaviors such as crying, grabbing and holding, and screaming were extreme ways that had evolved in humans. Bowlby hypothesized that these extreme behaviors were reinforced and made stronger through natural selection.

The theory investigates the bond between a caregiver and child. It examines how the bond is created and developed. Working with mentally handicapped children in London in the 1930s, Bowlby realized the impact that the relationship between parent and child has on development.3https://www.pnas.org/content/115/45/11414 Bowlby discovered infants separated from a parent may lead to maladjustment later in life. Through this discovery, he developed attachment theory.

Bowlby’s research found that a child separated from a parent routinely shows signs of distress. Along with colleague James Robertson, Bowlby discovered that when a parent was absent, the child remained in discomfort. This went against behavioral theory, which claimed that children would adapt to a parent being absent if they were fed. Bowlby and Robertson found that being fed or not had no impact on their attachment. Children remained distressed regardless if their parent was absent.

Attachment theory claims that the attachment doesn’t have to be reciprocated by both parties. One individual can be attached to another while the other isn’t attached emotionally or physically.4http://labs.psychology.illinois.edu/~rcfraley/attachment.htm

The evolution of attachment theory

Attachment theory states that children and parents have an “attachment gene”. This gene is what influences individuals to protect and take care of their children. Bowlby believed attachment was a biological agent and all children are born with the “attachment gene”.

He created the term ‘monotropy’ meaning that there is one central attachment figure for the child to focus on. Bowlby believed that an unsuccessful bond between a child and monotropy meant that negative consequences may occur later in life.

Four types of attachments were identified by Bowlby.

  • Secure attachment – Secure attachment signifies a loving and caring bond has been created between the parent and child. Children feel cared for and loved by their parent. They develop the ability to have strong, healthy relationships.
  • Anxious-Ambivalent attachment – These children feel unloved in childhood and become emotionally dependent once in adulthood.
  • Avoidant attachment – As children, individuals understand their needs for love and attention will not be met. Once these individuals become adults, they avoid relationships and have difficulty expressing their feelings for others. Individuals also struggle to understand others and their own emotions.
  • Disorganized attachment – Children in this attachment group exhibit strong rage and anger. They may act in volatile ways thus making it difficult to create bonds with others. As adults, these individuals may shy away from intimate relationships. They may also lack the ability to control emotions.

Attachment theory offers an interesting look at the way children develop. By learning more about attachment theory and children, mental health specialists can understand individuals more thoroughly as adults.


References: What is attachment theory

  1. Aber JL, Belsky J, Slade A, Crnic K. Stability and change in mothers’ representations of their relationship with their toddlers. Developmental Psychology. 1999;35(4):1038–1047. [PubMed] []
  2. Belsky J, Fearon RMP. Infant-mother attachment security, contextual risk, and early development: A moderational analysis. Development & Psychopathology. 2002;14(2):293–310. [PubMed] []
  3. Berlin LJ, Cassidy J. Relations among relationships: Contributions from attachment theory and research. In: Cassidy J, Shaver PR, editors. Handbook of attachment: Theory, research, and clinical applications. New York: Guilford Press; 1999. pp. 688–712. []
  4. Bornstein MH, Tamis LeMonda CS. Maternal responsiveness and cognitive development in children. New Directions for Child Development. 1989;(43):49–61. [PubMed] []
  5. Bowlby J. Attachment and loss: Vol. 3. Sadness and depression. 2. New York: Basic Books; 1980. []
  6. Cassidy J. Emotion regulation: Influences of attachment relationships. Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development. 1994;59:228–283. [PubMed] []
  7. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC; 2012) Youth risk behavior surveillance—United States. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. 2011;61(SS-4):1–162. [PubMed] []
  8. Coan JA. Adult attachment and the brain. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships. 2010;27:210–217. []
  9. Diamond GS, Wintersteen MB, Brown GK, Diamond GM, Gallop R, Shelef K, Levy S. Attachment-based family therapy for adolescents with suicidal ideation: A randomized controlled trial. Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. 2010;49:122–131. [PubMed] []
  10. Fearon P, van IJzendoorn MH, Fonagy P, Bakermans-Kranenburg MJ, Schengel C, Bokhorst CL. In search of shared and nonshared environmental factors in security of attachment: A behavior-genetic study of the association between sensitivity and attachment security. Developmental Psychology. 2006;42:1026–1040. [PubMed] []
  11. Grossmann K, Grossmann KE, Kindler H, Zimmermann P. A wider view of attachment and exploration: The influence of mothers and fathers on the development of psychological security from infancy to young adulthood. In: Cassidy J, Shaver PR, editors. Handbook of attachment: Theory, research, and clinical applications. 2nd. New York, NY: Guilford Press; 2008. pp. 857–879. []
  12. Hibel LC, Granger DA, Blair C, Cox MJ, the FLP Investigators Maternal sensitivity buffers the adrenocortical implications of intimate partner violence exposure during early childhood. Development and Psychopathology. 2011;23:689–701. [PubMed] []
  13. Leerkes EM. Maternal sensitivity during distressing tasks: A unique predictor of attachment security. Infant Behavior and Development. 2011;34:443–446. [PMC free article] [PubMed] []
  14. Leerkes EM, Crockenberg SC, Burrous CE. Identifying components of maternal sensitivity to infant distress: The role of maternal emotional competencies. Parenting: Science & Practice. 2004;4:1–23. []
  15. Leerkes EM, Parade SH, Gudmundson JA. Mothers’ emotional reactions to crying pose risk for subsequent attachment insecurity. Journal of Family Psychology. 2011;25:635–643. [PMC free article] [PubMed] []
  16. Leerkes EM, Siepak KJ. Attachment linked predictors of women’s emotional and cognitive responses to infant distress. Attachment and Human Development. 2006;8:11–32. [PubMed] []
  17. Roisman GI, Fraley RC. A behavior-genetic study of parenting quality, infant attachment security, and their covariation in a nationally representative sample. Developmental Psychology. 2008;44:831–839. [PubMed] []
  18. Turner RJ, Grindstaff CF, Phillips N. Social support and outcome in teenage pregnancy [Electronic Version] Journal of Health & Social Behavior. 1990;31(1):43–57. [PubMed] []
  19. Wille DE. Relation of preterm birth with quality of infant-mother attachment at one year [Electronic Version] Infant Behavior & Development. 1991;14(2):227–240. []
What is Attachment Theory
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What is Attachment Theory
Attachment theory states that children and parents have an “attachment gene”. This gene is what influences individuals to protect and take care of their children. Bowlby believed attachment was a biological agent and all children are born with the “attachment gene”.
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