Attachment Theory

Attachment theory can be broadly thought of as the following:


  • Studied social learning and effect of social isolation on rhesus monkeys.
  • He placed newborn monkeys with a wire mother and feeding bottle and a terrycloth mother without feeding bottle (one variation). Monkeys spent more time with terrycloth mom except when hungry (and would return quickly after feeding).
  • When they were frightened, they would show intense clinging behaviour and appeared to be comforted by terrycloth monkey, whereas those with wire mother gained no comfort and appeared disorganized.
  • Results: infant attachment is not just secondary to feeding, all monkeys unable to adjust to life, had difficulty mating, and did not mother own children.


  • Suggested that attachment constituted a central motivating force and that mother-child attachment was an essential medium of human interaction
  • Believed attachment had important consequences for later development and personality functioning
  • Coined term “attachment behaviour”
  • Believed attachment was essentially “monotropic” but that an infant could form attachment to father and other caregivers as well


  • The Strange Situation
  • Found that interaction between mother and baby during attachment period significantly influences baby’s current and future behaviour
  • Confirmed that attachment serves to reduce anxiety in strange situation procedure
  • Secured base effect: enables a child to move away from the attachment figure and explore the environment
  • Maternal sensitivity and responsiveness: main determinants of secure attachment
  • Infant temperament: main determinant of type of insecurity (avoidant, anxious and ambivalent)
  • Found male infants are less likely to have secure attachments and are more vulnerable to changes in maternal sensitivity than female infants
  • Found the attachment of firstborn child is decreased by the birth of a second, but it is decreased much more if the firstborn is 2-5 years of age when the younger sibling is born. Also depends on mother’s own sense of security, confidence and mental health.
  • According to Ainsworth, disorganization is a severe form of insecure attachment and a possible precursor of severe personality disorder and dissociative phenomena in adolescence and early adulthood
Positive view of self Negative view of self
Positive view of others Secure Insecure (ambivalent)
Negative view of others Insecure (avoidant) Disorganized

Based on Attachment theory, this can inform some of our management in children with attachment issues. For example, if a child is:

  • Anxious - we can respond by being more supportive
  • Avoidant - we should respond by promoting independence

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