What is Attachment Theory?

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  • Written By: Allison Boelcke
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 05 October 2019
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Attachment theory is a psychological concept that states that the type of attachment style infants form with caregivers can cause major lifelong effects. "Attachment" refers to the emotional bond a child forms with his or her main caregivers. According to this theory, the more reliable and comforting caregiver is, the higher the likelihood that the child will feel trusting of other people and secure in his or her surroundings.

British psychologist John Bowlby first came up with the attachment theory in 1969. He was primarily interested in child development and through his research, came to the conclusion that infants require the attention and help of trustworthy and reliable caregivers during times when the infants feel scared or helpless. If the caregivers do not adequately respond to the infants during these times, according to Bowlby, the infants will not feel protected or secure and those feelings of insecurity will affect their social interactions with others as they develop.

Canadian psychologist Mary Ainsworth expanded on Bowlby’s fundamentals of the attachment theory and developed an experiment known as a "strange situation." This is a procedure in which a child is observed playing for approximately 20 minutes. During this time period, the child’s caregiver systematically leaves and returns. The child’s reactions are carefully observed to see how he or she acts when the caregiver during the periods of separation and reunion.


It was concluded that children tend to fall into one of four types of attachment. "Secure attachment" describes a child who is anxious when the caregiver leaves, but is content when the caregiver returns. This type of attachment means the child is trusting of the caregiver. "Anxious-resistant insecure attachment" is when a child is extremely upset when the caregiver leaves, but acts resistant or angry when the caregiver returns and shows attention; this is thought to be the result of a caregiver who is only attentive at times when it is convenient for him or her.

Another type of attachment is "anxious-avoidant insecure attachment," or a child who seems distant from his or her caregiver and ignores the caregiver during a reunion. This generally occurs when a caregiver is frequently inattentive and the child feels that interaction is futile in getting his or her needs met. The final style is called "disorganized attachment," in which a child is upset when separated from his or her caregiver and may freeze, rock back and forth, or even hit himself when reunited; children whose caregivers experienced severe trauma and became depressed around the time of the child’s birth tend to be most likely to have this type of attachment.

Critics of the attachment theory often say there is no proof that a child’s attachment style with his or her caregiver will prevent the child from forming attachments to friends or lovers. Critics may believe that insecure attachments may lead a person to be more desperate to form a secure attachment with another person since he or she was never able to experience it with a caregiver.


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Post 3

Can infants with insecure attachment develop self confidence when they are older?

Post 2

@fBoyle-- The link between infant attachment and adult attachment was established several decades after attachment theory was founded. I personally think that it may be best to think about attachment theory in relation to infants primarily. I think that linking attachment issues during infancy with social relationship issues in adulthood is problematic because it can cause people to feel that their problems are unsolvable. It also doesn't help to blame parents for all issues that an adult faces.

Attachment theory was found as a result of research on orphaned children after World War II. So the original goal of the research was to discover issues experienced by infants who are separated from their parents and how these issues can be overcome.

Post 1

I think that an infant's attachment to a caregiver and how this affects the infant's relationships as an adult is much more complex than we think. I think there are many factors involved.

I think I had a secure attachment with my mother as an infant and anxious-avoidant insecure attachment with my father. My mother worked full time when I was an infant and could not spend a lot of time with me. But when she was home, she paid attention to me completely and always responded to my needs. My father did not interact with me even when he was not working. So even though I did receive love and attention from my mother, I still developed an insecure personality. I generally do not trust people and do not warm up to others easily.

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