Attachment Theory

Attachment Theory is a psychological model that states strong emotional and physical attachment to at least one primary caregiver is critical in personal development of a child. Children are motivated to seek protective contact with caregivers, and if a parent responds sensitively to a child's distress, then the child feels secure enough to explore their environment.

What is Attachment?

Attachment is a particular emotional tie between an infant or child and a specific caregiver – particularly when the child is frightened, upset, tired or ill. In these instances, the child seeks security or comfort from the relationship with that specific caregiver.

Attachment Theorists

Claim to Fame Consequences of Theory
Harry Harlow Studied maternal deprivation, social isolation, and its effects in rhesus monkeys Reinforced the importance of mother-and-child bonding. Also discovered that physiological needs (warmth, safety, food) alone are not enough, but also emotional needs are required (acceptance, love, affection).
John Bowlby Coined “attachment behaviour” and founder of attachment theory A child has an innate need to attach to one main attachment figure (i.e., monotropy, usually the mother). Believed mother-child attachment was an essential medium of human interaction. Attachment had important consequences for later development, personality, and risk of mental illness. Also coined the idea of an “internal working model,” where a child behaves according his representational system of self and other. This model originates from his relationship with his parent.
Mary Ainsworth The “Strange Situation” experiment Discovered that the interaction between mother and baby during attachment period significantly influences baby’s current and future behaviour. Maternal sensitivity and responsiveness are the main determinants of secure attachment.

Infant Behaviour in the Strange Situation

Positive view of self Negative view of self
Positive view of others Secure
(Higher self-esteem, higher sociability)
Anxious-ambivalent/resistant, insecure
(Lower self-esteem, higher sociability)
Negative view of others Anxious-avoidant, insecure
(Higher self-esteem, lower sociability)
(Lower self-esteem, lower sociability)

Infant Behaviours in the Strange Situation

Attachment Style as Child Expected Behaviour From Caregiver Description Corresponding Attachment Style as Adult
Secure Expects responsiveness Explores rooms and toys with interest in pre-separation episodes. Shows signs of missing parent on separation, often crying by second separation. Obvious preference for parents over strangers. Greets parent actively, usually initiating physical contact. Usually some contact-maintaining by second reunion, but then settles and returns to play. Secure/Autonomous
Insecure (Avoidant) Expects rebuff Fails to cry on separation from parent, often continues to play even when left entirely alone. Actively avoids and ignores parent on reunion, i.e., moving away, turning away, or leaning out of arms when picked up. Little or no proximity or contact seeking, no distress, and no display of anger. Response to parent appears unemotional. Focuses on toys or environment throughout procedure. Dismissve
Insecure (Ambivalent/Resistant) Expects inconsistency May be wary or distressed even prior to separation, with little exploration. Preoccupied with parent throughout procedure, may seem angry or passive during reunion. Following reunion, fails to settle and take comfort in parent, usually continuing to focus on parent and cry. Fails to return to exploration. Preoccupied
Disorganized Expects to be frightened/abused The infant displays disorganized and/or disoriented behaviours in the parents presence, suggesting a lapse of behavioural strategies. For example, the infant may freeze with a trancelike expression, hands in the air; may rise at parents entrance, then fall prone and huddled on the floor; or may cling while crying hard and leaning away with gaze averted. Infant may otherwise fit to secure, avoidant, or resistant categories. Unresolved/Disorganized

The Adult Attachment Interview (AAI) is an important tool in attachment research and clinical use, and uses 20 open-ended questions about an individual's recollection of their own childhood. What is powerful about the AAI is that it is highly effective at predicting how a child of the adult interviewee would be attached to his/her parent (with more than 80 percent predictability).[1] The AAI provides an empirically validated method to follow the transmission of attachment patterns from generation to generation.

Attachment Scales

Adult Attachment Interview (AAI)
Rater Clinician/Patient
Description 20 open-ended questions about an individual's recollection of their own childhood
Download Download
Name Rater Description Download
Adult Attachment Interview (AAI) Clinician/Patient 20 open-ended questions about an individual's recollection of their own childhood Download

Using attachment theory can help inform the management of children with attachment issues. For example, if a child's personality is:

  • Anxious - respond by being more supportive
  • Avoidant - respond by promoting independence

This balanced response is called attunement, or simply put, you are responding to the child’s needs.