“A lasting psychological connectedness between human beings.” – John Bowlby
Humans are social beings. From the moment we are born, we enter a world filled with people. Babies make sense of their world through the relationships and interactions they have with their primary caregivers. This is how an attachment is formed and generally this takes place within the first year of life. An attachment is an emotional bond with another person. It can be formed with a child, parent, friend, teacher or student.
At the heart of evolutionary theory of attachment is a psychiatrist by the name of John Bowlby. His work at a clinic in the 1930s with children who were emotionally disturbed led him to explore the importance of the mother-child relationship in children’s earliest stages of development. Bowlby noticed that children showed great distress when separated from their mothers and that they represented a source of security for the child to explore and engage with the world. He suggested that this mother-child relationship sets the template for which children will view future social relationships they encounter later in life. He believed the window for attachment to develop is from birth to 5 years of age and if an attachment is not established within this time, there are consequences to a child’s development (McLeod, 2017).
At the heart of attachment styles is a psychologist by the name of Mary Ainsworth. She was interested in investigating the varying styles of attachment among children. Ainsworth devised an experimental study in the 1970s called the Strange Situation which observed the interaction between a mother and child in a room, the behaviour and reaction of the child when a stranger entered the room, when the mother left the child with the stranger and then when she returned. The results from the study yielded three main attachment styles among 1 to 2-year-old babies:
Secure – The attachment figure is a safe base (a source of safety, security and comfort) for the child to freely explore and in times of distress. When a child feels a sense of safety and security they will feel comfortable with exploring and interacting with their environment. The child is easily soothed when the mother leaves the room and returns. The attachment figure is overall available, caring, attuned, consistent and responsive to the child’s needs (McLeod, 2018).
Insecure-Avoidant – The child is physically and emotionally independent of the attachment figure. The attachment figure is not sought out by the child during distress when the mother leaves the room and returns. The attachment figure is likely unavailable, insensitive and rejecting of the child’s needs (McLeod, 2018).
Insecure Ambivalent/Resistant – The child displays clingy, dependent behaviour towards their attachment figure. The child does not feel a sense of security from their attachment figure and is hard to soothe and feel comforted when in distress. The attachment figure is considered inconsistency in their responsiveness to the child’s needs (McLeod, 2018).
The level of sensitivity and responsiveness that a caregiver displays plays a role in the type of attachment style a child will develop and the way in which the child will view themselves and their worth as they grow older and into an adult. Children who have a secure attachment may likely develop a positive outlook, seeing themselves as worthy of care and respect, and may view others as trusting and helpful. A secure attachment tends to lead to healthy self-regulation and coping skills and the development of future relationships that have a balance of intimacy, independence, reliability and trust (McLeod, 2018).
Children with an avoidant attachment style may likely to view themselves as devalued, unworthy and unacceptable due to the rejecting nature of their caregiver. As an adult, they may be emotionally distance from others, fear closeness, intimacy and being vulnerable, as a means of protecting themselves from getting hurt. They may view the world as unreliable, leading them to be self-reliant, self-dependent and protective (McLeod, 2018).
Children with an ambivalent/resistant attachment style may likely have a negative self-image, be angry and confused and seek out ways to gain attention. They may be disinterested and anxious towards others and struggle with forming strong and positive emotional connections. They may also have feelings of insecurity, be overdependent and always seek approval from others (McLeod, 2018).
While a caregiver’s level of sensitivity is one factor, there are many other factors that can influence a child’s attachment style such as their temperament and experiences. Ultimately, early attachment sets the template for the future development of relationships later in life. This is why it’s important that families, parents/caregivers and provided and offered with supports to ensure the healthy development of their child’s social-emotional and overall development.
If you are interested in exploring attachment theories further, I have referenced a couple of links below where you can find more information:
John Bowlby – Attachment Theory; Stages of Attachment:
McLeod, S. A. (2017, Feb 05). Attachment theory. Retrieved from https://www.simplypsychology.org/attachment.html
Mary Ainsworth – Strange Situation:
McLeod, S. A. (2018, Aug 05). Mary Ainsworth. Retrieved from https://www.simplypsychology.org/mary-ainsworth.html
This website is provided only for informational purposes and not intended to be used to replace professional advice, treatment or professional care. Always speak to your physician, healthcare provider or pediatrician if you have concerns about your own health or the health of a child.