Attachment theory: an overview

Understanding Attachment


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Attachment theory is about human relationships. The bond between a child and their carer is at the heart of healthy child development and lays the foundation for how we relate to others throughout our lives.

What is attachment?

  • Attachment is a deep, strong and enduring emotional bond which develops between an infant or young child and their primary caregiver.
  • Attachment theory, as pioneered by John Bowlby, is about how infants instinctively seek proximity to and comfort from a preferred or primary caregiver in response to stress.
  • Infants are born with behaviours designed to promote attachment, such as crying, gazing, smiling and calling out.
  • These behaviours attract a response from the caregiver which forms the basis of the reciprocal relationship or attachment between the infant and caregiver.
  • The response from a caregiver protects the child from the effects of a stressful situation and enables the child to develop the biological framework for dealing with future stress.
  • Attachment theory emphasises that early caregiving experiences become internalised and influence how we see ourselves, others and the world we live in.

Core characteristics of attachment

  • The attachment figure acts as a secure base from which the child can explore the surrounding environment.
  • Young children will try to maintain  proximity to their parent or caregiver. The parent or caregiver provides safety and protection and makes the child feel looked after.
  • The parent or caregiver provides a safe haven that the child can return to for comfort and safety when they feel afraid or threatened.
  • Separation  distress is the anxiety that occurs in the absence of the attachment figure.

Attachment styles

Mary Ainsworth observed how children resolved distress following separation from their mother. The four behaviours observed were: the amount of exploration, a child’s reaction to the departure of their caregiver, their anxiety when alone with a stranger and their behaviour when reunited with their caregiver.

Four basic attachment styles are described by psychologists:

  • Secure attachments evolve when a carer is loving and available and provides consistent, sensitive, attuned and responsive care. A securely attached child can regulate their distress in the knowledge that they can get help from their caregiver if needed. These children learn that people are available to them and they feel loved and likeable.
  • Insecure-ambivalent attachments develop when a carer is unreliable, inconsistent, intrusive, blaming or preoccupied with other things and is emotionally neglectful. These children exaggerate their feelings to try and gain a response from their caregiver. The response may be inappropriate, haphazard or not forthcoming. The child’s ambivalence may reflect their simultaneous need for, yet anger with, their caregiver.
  • Insecure-avoidant attachments develop when parenting or caregiving is hostile, rejecting, and unavailable or controlling. These children learn ways
  • to hide their distress for fear that displays of need, wanting or vulnerability will drive their caregiver away. They avoid their caregiver and show no preference for them over a stranger. They feel unloved and unlovable.
  • Disorganised  attachments develop when caregivers are frightening or dangerous. Children are afraid to approach their caregivers because they can’t predict their response – they may be cuddled or they may be shouted at or smacked. As a result children can not organise their behaviour and have difficulty regulating their emotions. They see others as people not to be trusted.

Caution: children’s behaviour rarely fits neatly into one discrete category and many children will show a mix of attachment styles or patterns.

Attachment is only one theory

  • The attachment styles or patterns we see are not clinical diagnoses but understanding attachment styles can help us understand children’s behaviour.
  • There are a range of factors that may explain a child’s behaviour. We cannot rely solely on attachment theory when understanding the relationship between a child and their primary caregiver.
  • Consider the circumstances within which relationships develop, and the wider family, community and societal issues that influence a child’s behaviour, development and relationships.

The impact of attachments

  • Attachments formed between 0–3 years affect brain development, wellbeing, relationships and interactions throughout the life cycle.
  • However, early secure attachment is only one important protective factor against the development of mental health problems later in life.

Can attachments change over time?

  • Research suggests that securely attached infants generally remain so over time and maintain a positive and coherent sense of self.
  • However, other research shows that in some situations attachments can change as a child develops. A previously secure relationship between a child and their attachment figure may become insecure due to ongoing stressors that impinge on the relationship.
  • Similarly, children with histories of problematic attachment relationships may gradually change if subsequent relationships develop along different and more positive lines.

Multiple attachments

  • Attachment relationships are person specific. It does not matter who the attachment figure is as long as there is at least one.
  • Infants and young children can form affective bonds and organised attachment with mothers, fathers, grandparents or longer-term foster parents.
  • Children can and do demonstrate close attachments to a number of different attachment figures including siblings.
  • Resilience research suggests that maximising the potential for a number of attachment figures can be protective for children living in adversity.
  • Take care not to limit ‘shared care’ for fear that it may threaten the primary carer or confuse the child. Consider whether shared care arrangements may provide a child with  important relationships.

Is attachment transferable?

  • To form an attachment a child needs an enduring, specific and ongoing or continuous relationship with a carer.
  • Studies among ethnic minority groups show that children with poor attachment histories are able to develop secure attachments with new caregivers. Yet older children may face more difficulties in developing secure attachments because they may have been exposed to adversity for longer periods.
  • When thinking about a child’s ability to form new attachments, consider the age of the child, the need for relationship continuity, and the potential for developing sensitive parent–child relationships.
  • Be aware that placement breakdown or multiple placement changes can impact on a child’s need for an enduring bond.

Sibling relationships

  • Sibling relationships are critical in providing children and young people with a sense of connection, emotional support and continuity.
  • Research has shown strong and consistent sibling relationships among foster youth are associated with enhanced reunification and mental health and wellbeing.
  • Separated siblings in foster care are at heightened risk for a number of negative outcomes including placement disruption, running away and failure to exit the care system.

While research and practice generally supports placing siblings together in care, consider when it may not be preferable to keep siblings together, for example when a child experiences:

  • a mental health issue
  • problematic sibling relationships
  • sexual abuse by a sibling.