Attachment Theory

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Attachment theory is a psychological model attempting to describe the dynamics of long-term and short-term interpersonal relationships between humans. “Attachment theory is not formulated as a general theory of relationships; it addresses only a specific facet”: how human beings respond in relationships when hurt, separated from loved ones, or perceiving a threat.

Provided any caregiver, all infants become attached—however, individual differences in the quality of the relationships remain significant.

In infants, attachment as a motivational and behavioral system directs the child to seek proximity with the parent when they are alarmed, with expectation they will receive protection and emotional support.

John Bowlby believed that the tendency for primate infants to develop attachments to their progenitors was the result of evolutionary pressures, since attachment behavior would facilitate the infant’s survival in the face of dangers such as predation or exposure to the elements.

The most important tenet of attachment theory is an infant needs to develop a relationship with at least one parent for the child’s successful social and emotional development, and in particular for learning how to regulate their feelings. Any parent is likely to become the principal attachment figure if they provide most of the child care and related social interaction. In the presence of a sensitive and responsive parent, the infant will use the latter as a “safe base” from which to explore.

This relationship can be dyadic, as in the mother-child dyad often studied in Western culture, or it can involve a community of caregivers (siblings/extended family/teachers) as can be seen in areas of Africa and South America.

It should be recognized “even sensitive caregivers get it right only about fifty per cent of the time. Their communications are either out of sync, or mismatched. There are times when parents feel tired or distracted. The telephone rings or there is breakfast to prepare. In other words, attuned interactions rupture quite frequently. But the hallmark of a sensitive caregiver is that the ruptures are managed and repaired.

Attachments between infants and caregivers form even if this caregiver is not sensitive and responsive in social interactions with them. This has important implications. Infants cannot exit unpredictable or insensitive caregiving relationships. Instead they must manage themselves as best they can in such relationships.

Based on her established Strange Situation Protocol, research by developmental psychologist Mary Ainsworth in the 1960s and 1970s found children will have different patterns of attachment depending on how they experienced their early caregiving environment. Early patterns of attachment, in turn, shape—but do not determine—the individual’s expectations in later relationships.

Four different attachment classifications have been identified in children:

  • Secure attachment occurs when children feel they can rely on their caregivers to attend to their needs of proximity, emotional support and protection. It is considered to be the most advantageous attachment style.
  • Anxious-ambivalent attachment occurs when the infant feels separation anxiety when separated from the caregiver and does not feel reassured when the caregiver returns to the infant.
  • Anxious-avoidant attachment occurs when the infant avoids their parents.
  • Disorganized attachment occurs when there is a lack of attachment behavior.

In the 1980s, the theory was extended to attachment in adults. Attachment applies to adults when adults feel close attachment to their parents, their romantic and platonic partners and their friends.

Attachment theory has become the dominant theory used today in the study of infant and toddler behavior and in the fields of infant mental health, treatment of children, and related fields.

In short it is based on the premise that there is a lasting psychological connectedness between human beings, psychiatrist John Bowlby devised attachment theory to explain his belief that a child has a need to develop a strong bond with at least one primary caregiver during their infancy and early childhood. Deprivation of care during this period can result in adverse psychological consequences in the child’s social and emotional development which can then affect their future adult life.

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