The Theory of Attachment: From Bowlby and Beyond
John Bowlby was one of the first psychologists to present ideas about emotional attachments and adult relationships. His research gave birth to the Theory of Attachment—a theory about human relationships that is relevant to this day, especially in counseling and psychology. According to this theory, early attachments formed in childhood affect the types and quality of relationships formed later on in life.
Development of the Attachment Theory
John Bowlby defined attachment as a lasting bond between individuals. Before Bowlby’s research, psychologists believed that attachments are formed based on the caregivers’ ability to meet the basic needs of a child (i.e., food).
Bowlby’s research suggests that all children have an innate need to form connections with their immediate caregivers as a way to survive. A child looks to the person who is close to them. Through this proximity, children can receive comfort and protection and will likely survive.
Caregivers meeting the child’s needs for nurturance and responsiveness are determinants for attachment. Proximity plays an essential role in the formation of attachments. Bowlby observed that when children feel anxious, they seek proximity to their caregiver to feel care and comfort. When a child is close to a caregiver, his or her needs can be met successfully. It is not just food but the emotional connection that a child needs.
Mary Ainsworth: The Strange Situation
Psychologist Mary Ainsworth added to the Attachment Theory by conducting an experiment called “The Strange Situation.” This experiment revealed different reactions from the children when they were left in a room without their primary caregivers (in this case, their mothers) and reunited afterward.
Ainsworth and her team found that the children’s reactions to being separated from their caregiver and later on being reunited were predicted by the types of attachment each child has with their caregiver. These attachment types were classified into three categories, which will be explained in the next section. A fourth attachment style was added to the research of Main and Solomon.
Types of Attachment
Attachments are formed when primary caregivers respond to a child’s needs. When done consistently, the child gets a sense of security. The first three attachment types are attributed to Ainsworth’s experiment, while the fourth type is the one contributed by Main and Solomon.
To illustrate each attachment style, consider this scenario: a parent takes their child to school. Once the child is with the teacher, the parent starts to walk back to the car. The child starts to react to being separated from the parent. How the child reacts will show their attachment style. Below are examples of what the reactions will look like:
1. Secure – when the parent says goodbye, the child may feel distressed. However, the child will recover quickly once the parent assures the child that they’ll pick him or her up at the end of the school day. Because the parent has always kept their promise to the child, the child knows that their parent will show up.
2. Ambivalent-insecure – children with ambivalent-insecure attachment style are quite reluctant and wary of strangers, even if the parent (the person who they trust) is present. When the parent drops a child off at school, the child will likely show distress when the parent starts walking away but will show ambivalent behavior when the parent comes back. This attachment style results from irresponsible parenting—the parents are not completely neglectful but cannot always meet their child’s needs.
3. Avoidant-insecure – as the name suggests, those who have this type of attachment style avoid their caregivers. They may respond to a caregiver and a stranger with the same level of (or lack of) enthusiasm. When a parent drops off their child, the child may immediately join the class without hesitation. The child will show little to no distress when the parent says goodbye and will also show no enthusiasm when the parent returns. Studies suggest that this may happen when children are punished or ignored when seeking help from caregivers.
4. Disorganized-insecure – this attachment style is characterized by a mixture of different behaviors. Compared to the other attachment styles mentioned, this one likely results from an unpredictable relationship with the caregiver. When a parent drops their child at school, the child may one day show avoidant behaviors and show distress on other days. There is no clear pattern of behavior of attachment style.
Harry Harlow and the Rhesus Monkeys
This controversial experiment explored the factors that help form the bond between a child and a caregiver. In the experiment, it was observed that the monkeys went to the wire “parent” for food but spent most of the time with the “parent” with a soft cloth. In moments of distress, the monkeys immediately ran to the cloth parent instead of the wire parent. The results show that bonds are formed and strengthened when the monkeys were comforted and cared for rather than simply being fed.
Stages of Attachment (Schaffer and Emerson)
1. Pre-attachment stage (0-3 months) – a parent responds to a baby’s needs based on the signal sent: crying, fusing, cooing, etc. There is not apparent attachment style formed at this stage.
2. Indiscriminate attachment (6 weeks to 7 months) – a child will respond to any caregiver (a parent, a nanny, grandparent) that meets their needs.
3. Discriminate attachment (7-11 months) – the child will show preference to one caregiver and will show distress when separated from them. This person is likely the one who has been the most consistent when it comes to responding to their needs.
4. Multiple Attachments (9 months onwards) – the child will form attachments with other people (grandparents, older siblings) while maintaining the bond with the primary caregiver.
Factors that Influence Attachment
– Opportunity for attachment –to observe attachment patterns, a child must first have an attachment figure (a caregiver). This caregiver, whether it is a biological parent or a close relative, is presumed to be able to meet the child’s needs.
– Quality of caregiving –when a caregiver meets a child’s needs consistently and immediately, trust between the former and the latter is formed. This trust is the foundation for forming attachments.
Attachment styles impact the behavior and relationships that are formed in adulthood. Many published studies even link attachment styles formed in childhood to romantic relationships formed in adulthood. It is essential to form strong emotional bonds starting from infancy. In most cases, the primary caregiver is the mother; however, this may not be the case for every child. Those whose mothers left or passed away very soon after they are born can form emotional bonds with others, such as their father, aunt, or grandparent.