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.