By Brandy Browne
Attachment theory refers to how relationships developed in the first year of life play a pivotal role in how an infant will develop emotionally across the lifespan. British psychiatrist John Bowlby first coined the term “attachment” in the late 1950’s (Broderick & Blewitt, 2015). Bowlby was convinced that how a caregiver responds to an infant’s needs plays a critical role in shaping the personality of the infant. Bowlby argued that if the attachment a child develops with his or her caregiver is healthy and secure (child feels safe and that needs are met in a timely manner), his or her needs will ultimately decrease over time, and independence will be fostered (MacNamara, 2016, p 78).
The concept of attachment to caregivers serves three purposes. First, it strengthens the emotional bond when the infant and caregiver are in close proximity to one another. Next, the infant develops a sense of safety because physical and emotional protection is provided from the caregiver. Finally, if the infant becomes distressed, the caregiver is able to alleviate his or her stress (Broderick & Blewitt, 2015). Attachment is important to the field of human development because research has proven that attachments formed in the first year of life help shape emotional and relational development (as well as basic personality) across the lifespan. Insecure attachments in infancy have been linked to problems such as depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and even a higher risk for divorce.
Attachment theory is typically referring to attachments created between infants and their caregivers in the first year of life. Dr. Mary Ainsworth expanded on the work of her colleagues John Bowlby and Erik Erikson by conducting research on the impact of the quality of attachments between infants and their caregivers (Broderick & Blewitt, 2015). Through a test where infants were placed in strange situations where their primary caregiver would leave and reenter the room, along with a stranger entering and exiting the room (varying degrees of stress for the infants), Ainsworth observed three different types of attachment patterns between infants and caregivers (a fourth was later identified by other researchers, bringing about the four basic attachment patterns developmental researchers study today). A child that is “securely attached” will become distressed when his or her caregiver leaves, but will greet them happily upon their return. These children are secure in their caregiver’s responsiveness to their needs, and will usually happily explore their surroundings, returning to the caregiver periodically for reassurance and connection. “Anxious ambivalent” infants are often stressed. These infants are very distraught when the caregiver leaves, and they may show a range of emotion from anger to sadness to confusion upon the caregiver’s return. These children are unlikely to venture off to explore surroundings. Simply put, they are not secure in the responsiveness of the caregiver, and therefore, they do not want to leave him or her. “Avoidant” children do not show signs of distress during separations, and they may actively avoid the caregiver upon his or her return. They maintain the same heart rate patterns of other babies, but they may look to external objects (such as toys) to provide comfort, rather than attuning to the caregiver to alleviate stress. Finally, “disorganized disoriented” infants showed conflicting patterns of behavior during separations from caregivers. They may appear stressed and try to run after the caregiver, but if the caregiver were to turn around to approach them, they may run away from the caregiver, rather than to them.
Schroder et. al (2019) focused their study on the effects attachment has during middle childhood into adolescence and adulthood. They found that children that were not securely attached during infancy and early childhood were at increased risk for behavioral and emotional problems, including depression, anxiety, eating disorders, poor relationships with peers, and an inability to regulate emotions properly. Unsurprisingly, Schroder et. al also found that children in foster care and children that were adopted past infancy were more prone to develop attachment disorders as well, presumably because secure relationships were not established during the first year of life.
Pietromonaco, Uchino, and Schetter (2013) took attachment theory to a test with married couples. Attachment style cohesivity still mattered greatly. For example, an anxious wife paired with an avoidant husband would likely struggle through transitional periods in life and stressful episodes (such as one partner being diagnosed with cancer). Interventions to help both partners form more secure attachments would be useful. This reaffirmed that insecure attachments formed early in life continue to be problematic all the way through adulthood.
Why does this matter?
Rees (2007) argues that a child’s attachment pattern is certainly impacted, if not defined, by the attachment pattern of his or her caregiver. Plainly stated, this suggests that if a parent lacked a secure attachment to his or her caregiver, their child may lack a secure attachment as well. So, these issues that stem from insecure attachments are likely to be perpetuated and cyclical in nature. At some point, an intervention will need to take place to break the cycle for future generations.
Rest play grow: Making sense of preschoolers (Or anyone who acts like one)
This text focuses on relationship building with the preschool aged child. In particular, MacNamara (2016) discusses how the purpose of attachment is to help the young, immature soul learn to depend on those around him or her. One practical suggestion she offers to parents is to take the lead in setting limits for children. In order for a child to feel securely attached, he or she must feel safe emotionally and physically. This happens when the child is secure in the parent’s ability to keep him or her safe.
Practitioner Review: Clinical applications of attachment theory and research for infants and young children
Zeanah, Berlin, and Boris (2011) define different types of attachment in this article. Time is also spent on specific interventions to use when an insecure attachment is identified in young children. Child-parent psychotherapy, video based interventions promoting positive parenting, and the circle of security are discussed as ways to help intervene in these families and assist them in building more secure attachments, ultimately resulting in the young children being able to regulate emotions more effectively.
Payne County Youth Services
Payne County Youth Services offers family counseling services to families that would be unable to provide services otherwise. There is no charge for the services provided. Family counseling would be beneficial to families struggling with poor attachment, as specific skills to help youth develop secure attachments and healthy emotional regulation skills, thus minimizing the damage that insecure attachment can cause well into adulthood.
Oklahoma State University Center for Family Services
OSU’s center for Family Services provides parent-child interaction therapy, which could be helpful in helping the parents develop skills needed to assist their children in being able to develop a secure attachment. Parent-child interaction therapy teaches parents positive language to use with children and healthy boundary setting procedures. This is imperative to help children develop the necessary sense of safety provided by the care and responsiveness to their needs from the caregiver. A child that feels safe is a secure child.
Rees (2007) explores the role that attachment plays throughout the lifespan and how underrepresented it is in the medical sector. Rees defines many of the problems that can result in poor attachment in childhood, and argues that many of the problems society faces today results from insecure attachment styles.
Broderick, P. C., & Blewitt, P. (2015). The life span: Human development for helping professionals (4th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.
Dobson, J. (2007). Parenting isn’t for cowards. Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House.
MacNamara, D. (2016). Rest play grow: Making sense of preschoolers (or anyone who acts like one). Vancouver, Canada: Aona Books.
Oklahoma State University Center for Family Services. (2020). https://humansciences.okstate.edu/hdfs/cfs/
Payne County Youth Services. PCYS. (2020). http://www.pcys.org/services/
Rees, C. (2007). Childhood attachment. British Journal of General Practice. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2169321/
Schroder, M., Ludtke, J., Fux, E., Izat, Y., Bolten, M., Gloger-Tippelt, G., Suess, G., Schmid, M. (2019). Attachment disorder and attachment theory- Two sides of one metal or two different coins. Comprehension Psychiatry, 95. Retrieved from: sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0010440X19300628
Zeanah, C., Berlin, L., Boris, N. (2011). Practitioner review: Clinical applications of attachment theory and research in infants and young children. The Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 52 (8). Retrieved from: