Attachment Theory

Attachment Theory


The aim of this article is to understand the different types of Attachment styles and how these may affect behaviour and personality. We will look at the different relationships we form and how these meet specific needs as we grow up. TDad and Sonhrough applying this to ourselves we will learn how our styles may affect the relationship with the child with the aim of adapting what we offer the child/young person as a model of attachment.


When we think about the different relationships we have and the relationships we see that other people have we may see that these relationships are different. People seem to relate to different people in different ways depending on the type of relationship they have with them. For instance, a mother and child relationship may be different to a sister and brother relationship yet there would still be what is called ‘attachment’ in both. In the following sections we will refer to the child or infant as ‘he’ purely for the ease and flow of discussion.


What do you think this ‘attachment’ is?

People see ‘attachment’ differently, however; John Bowlby sees it:

Is a unique response that protects the young from harm

Maintaining proximity or closeness to the caregiver is essential for survival

Behavioural system built to ensure goal of proximity or closeness

The development of attachment follows a clear developmental course

These are very important points as the core attachment relationship is often seen as the relationship between the mother and the infant. We know that there are many times when this does not work well and we will look at that later but for the moment we will look at the ‘normal’ pattern of attachment. We can see from the list above that the relationship has a purpose and that both people involved in this have to behave in a certain way to allow for this to work and this can be seen in the characteristics of attachment:

Safe Haven: When the child feels threatened or afraid, he or she can return to the caregiver for comfort and soothing.

Secure Base: The caregiver provides a secure and dependable base for the child to explore the world.

Proximity Maintenance: The child strives to stay near the caregiver, thus keeping the child safe.

Separation Distress: When separated from the caregiver, the child will become upset and distressed.

(Van Wagner, K. (2007))

So, from this information we can see that Secure attachment has something to do with keeping someone safe and being kept safe and growing and developing in a world they are not ready to be alone in. The relationship serves the immediate needs of the infant as well as equipping them for later relationship as this attachment becomes the ‘master template’ for future relationships. When we consider the work of Erik Erikson (1902-1994) we may remember the importance of the building up of Trust and balancing that out with Mistrust as a springboard for development throughout life. Similar to that, attachments at the early stage of life significantly impact on the development of the individual throughout their life.

Richard Gross discusses the attachment process as set out by H.R. Schaffer (1996a) in a three phased development:

The Pre-attachment phase (6weeks-3 months)

The infant develops an attraction to human rather than specific objects around them. This can be exhibited through nestling, gurgling and smiling. At this stage this is no apparent distinction between specific individuals .

(Schaffer, 1996a, as cited in Gross, R., 2005, p460)

The Indiscriminate attachment phase (3-7 months)

At this stage the infant begins to discern between familiar and unfamiliar people. However as long as the unfamiliar provide the feeling of comfort and security required by the infant their attention will be accepted .

(Schaffer, 1996a, as cited in Gross, R., 2005, p460)

The Discriminate attachment phase (7-9 months)

It is here that the child develops what is known a separation anxiety. This is due to the child recognising that there is a significant individual that provides for its needs and if that person is not around then anxieties develop with regard to the meeting of those needs. We also recognise the development of the fear of strangers as the unfamiliar can cause the child to cry or recoil away from .

(Schaffer, 1996a, as cited in Gross, R., 2005, p460)

The Multiple attachment phase (9 months onwards)

“strong additional ties are formed with other major care givers (such as the father, grand-parents and siblings) and with non-caregivers (such as other children). Although the fear-of-strangers response typically weakens, the strongest attachment continues to be with the mother.”

(Schaffer, 1996a, as cited in Gross, R., 2005, P460)

This development would lead to what Mary Ainsworth called a Secure Attachment style. The child who has developed has developed in this way will be able to relate to the mother effectively and will feel safe enough to explore the world around him knowing that the secure base found in the relationship he has with mum. This was seen in the studies that Ainsworth and Wittig (1969) carried out where a mum would take their child into a strange situation they had never been in before while the researchers observed them from behind a two way mirror.

The child in this instant would play happily almost ignoring the mother even when a stranger came into the room. When the mother left the child would be uneasy and may be upset. Whilst the child may allow the stranger to offer some comfort they did demonstrate a significant easing when mother came back. In the study 70% of the children responded to the ‘Strange Situation’ in this way. (Gross, R., 2005, P465)

In order for this type of attachment to take place there is a need for the child and mother to behave and respond in effective ways.


What behaviour does an infant show to encourage ‘Mum’ to come?

What we have identified are the behaviours used by the infant to communicate a need. We know that the infant is not able to, at such an early stage, tell mum that he is hungry or has a dirty nappy. The infant has to then let them know that something is needed through these behaviours. Then the mother has to behave in a way in response to this.


What do you think is needed from mum when the infant behaves in this way?

In this task it is important to see that the behaviour of the child has influenced the response of the mother. At this point we are thinking about what could be seen in the behaviour of both child and mother and not what we may have seen or experienced ourselves. Whilst is it important to reflect on our own situations it is as important to be aware of what it could be like. The reason for this is that it is hoped that when you begin to understand what responses are needed you will be able to help the person you are caring for to develop a more secure attachment.

Bowlby’s major conclusion, grounded in the available empirical evidence, was that to grow up mentally healthy, “ the infant and young child should experience a warm, intimate, and continuous relationship with his mother (or permanent mother substitute) in which both find satisfaction and enjoyment ” (Bowlby, 1951, p. 13).

Daniel Hughes writes that “Stern (1985, p. 70) states that the infant's "first order of business," accomplished to a large extent during these early 4 or 5 months, is to form "the sense of a core self and core others." During the first year the infant is not fully differentiated from the mother, but the origins of the sense of self are evident as the child is becoming more autonomous. He is becoming defined within this intimate relationship with his mother. The self and mother are the two sides of the same coin.” (Hughes, D.A., 2004, P14)

So while the mother responds to the attachment behaviour of the child we would see the development of the infant’s idea of who he is and who the mother is. The relationship they create within the behaviour and response “dance” (Kaplan, 1995) establishes the core template for relationships and emotions in days and years to come.


What do you think could affect this relationship?

There are a number of factors that may cause difficulties where the attachment between the child and mother does not turn out to be as secure. This does not mean that the relationship is a ‘bad’ relationship but that the style of attachment can be seen to affect the relationship, behaviour and personality of the individuals involved. The circumstances that are experienced by children coming into care could be seen to impact on the development of core attachments. These circumstances may cause stresses and strains on the child – mother attachment when the needs of the child are not picked up on because the mother is not in the ‘right mindset’ to see those needs. This, in turn, could be seen to affect the behaviour that the child is demonstrating and the personality this reflects.

Children who were observed by Ainsworth and Wittig (1969) did not all ‘fit’ into the Secure Attachment category and two other ‘types’ associated with Insecure Attachment were identified. These types were given the names Insecure-Avoidantand Insecure Ambivalent due to the way that the children in the study responded.

In the studies the Insecure Avoidant child did not demonstrate any real closeness to the mother when they went into the ‘Strange Situation’. The child did not show any need to rely on the mother as a source of comfort or security in the new environment nor when the stranger came into the room. When the mother left the child appear unaffected as long as there was someone there, even a stranger. The distress displayed seemed to relate to being left alone and not the fact that the mother had left (Ainsworth, 1978, as cited in Gross, R., 2005, P465). This is quite significant as the child seems to demonstrate a level of self trust or reliance that is not dependent on the capacity of the mother to provide for a secure environment. It may be that the circumstances around the child has encouraged them to look out for themselves as the mother may not have been able or willing to meet the needs of the child. This can have a great impact on the child’s ability or willingness to trust others or to let them get close. Very often children who have been let down by significant carers try to maintain a distance between themselves and others in an effort to protect themselves.


Can you think of a child who has used behaviours to keep people away? What behaviours did they use and what effect did this have on the relationships?

For the child the behaviour demonstrated will serve a specific purpose. The effect the behaviour has on the relationships or the environment will either confirm how they see relationships are or challenge this. So your response is vital as you show the child they can trust you and let you in without them feeling threatened by a relationship type they are not used to. It is important to see the behaviour as a response to circumstances as there may be times when it can feel like the behaviour is directed ‘at’ you.

You may find that the child who could be said to have an Insecure Avoidant attachment style may demonstrate personality traits that resists closeness and may appear cold and detached from people and issues. The emotional connectivity may not be evident as they try not to let situations affect them. They may deal with problems in a practical way with a business-like manner or just avoid the issue or problem and pretend it does not exist.

The Insecure Ambivalent type was found to be quite anxious in the new setting which was evident in the way they clung on to their mother. This anxiety meant that the child would not explore the new environment and was seen to cry more than the other children in the study. The child became very upset when their mother left and yet when the mother return could not be easily consoled. The sense of uneasiness remained as the child seemed to get no sense of security (Ainsworth as cited in Gross, R., 2005, P465). The child here seems to be quite distraught and “wary” in the situation and there appears to be no sense of self trust or reliance that they will be okay. This child shows quite a clingy nature and seems to appear quite ‘needy’.


Can you think of a child who has behaved in a way to keep you or another close? What behaviours did they use and what effect did this have?

The behaviours demonstrated here serve to keep the mother close at hand and the mother may feel she is unable to leave that child. The child may be very nervous when approaching new situations and not want to go. He may try to make it difficult to go to these new situations and ‘play up’ so that you may not want to go. This can be very difficult considering the way the children are expected to participate in groups and education as part of the ‘normal’ growth and development of a child in our culture.

“According to Main (1991), there’s a fourth attachment type. This describes a baby that acts as if afraid of the attachment figure (as well as the environment). Fear usually increases attachment behaviour, which includes seeking close proximity to the attachment figure. But since the attachment figure is itself a source of fear, the infant faces a conflict between seeking and avoiding closeness to the attachment figure.” (Gross, R., 2005, P466)

This Insecure Disorganised attachment style can result in a mixture of behaviours where the child may try to keep the mother close and yet make sure they do not come too close. This can cause the child a lot of distress and may demonstrate conflicting and extreme behaviours. The internal conflict has been caused by the lack of any consistent model of attachment with no opportunity to have a clear concept of who they are and what role they play in the scheme of the family group. Whilst the Insecure Avoidant type may see them as having to be the ‘strong one’ and theInsecure Ambivalent type may provide an opportunity to be cared for or be the needy member of the family the Insecure Disorganised type has not been able to internalise a working model for there has been no consistent attachment pattern experience.

When you look at the child and the relationship types he has you find that he ‘fits’ into one of more styles. This does not mean that there is a problem. We can all demonstrate different attachment styles depending on the person we are relating to; our mood or temperament that day; or the type of interaction we are having with a particular person. Nonetheless; when life ‘hits us’ with a challenging situation or something we may find difficult we will find ourselves reverting back to a style that leaves us demonstrating ‘needy’ behaviour or we may try to ‘tough it out’. These, of course, tie in with the Insecure Ambivalent and Insecure Avoidant styles of attachment. How we respond in such situation demonstrates for us the dominant attachment style we have internalised.


I want you to think of the range of people who have some form of a relationship with the child or young person you provide care for?

The reason for looking at who is in the life of the child is that we need to recognise that all of these people, including yourself, has gone through this same process of internalising models of attachment which affect the way we relate to others. Our experiences will mean that we will have had attachments that draw us towards one of the attachment styles. It is important to be able to see how the attachment style we have influences the type of relationship we have with the child. Therefore; it is also important that we identify the most influential attachment you think you have internalised.


Look back at the descriptions of the attachment styles. Which one do you feel best describes how you relate to people? Remember, there is no ‘good’ or ‘bad’ here. We are only trying to understand how we relate.

Why do you think it is important to be able to know your attachment style? It is important because it is who you are. You are the one who is caring for the child and the way you relate to that child affects any progress that child is able to make given the circumstances he has been affected by. You may see that the child has a particular need and you would want to make sure that need is attended to. Your attachment style affects how you meet that need: do you attack it; do you avoid it; are you frightened by it; do you seek help; all of these have there time and place and we are not saying these are wrong, however, if you only attack problems you may find yourself in situations you are not equipped to deal with. If you only avoid issues things may pile up. If you always run to someone for help you will never learn to ‘stand on your own two feet’. And, if that is the way you deal with it you are in turn teaching the child that way also.

If we are providing care for someone then we need to make sure that the type of experience they have with us is one that will support the child to overcome some of these relationship issues. These relationship issues may be at the heart of the difficult behaviour the child is demonstrating as they respond to circumstances they have little or no control over. So what can we do?

“For parents to assist their poorly attached child to manage, integrate, and resolve these intense conflict situations, they need to:

Maintain a habitual positive family atmosphere that facilitates a sense of attachment preceding the incident;

Respond to the behavior and the underlying contempt, fear, and rage with empathy and matter-of-fact consequences; and

Reestablish the atmosphere and attachment quickly, thus reducing the child's fear and rage, making the shame an integrated aspect of
a healthy sense of autonomy, and building trust in the attachment.”

(Hughes, D.A., 2004, P205)


Discuss how this might be done with the child you are caring for.

What we are trying to create here is the feeling that the “child gradually comes to realize that his self-worth and his attachments with his parents are both of greater significance than his specific behaviors, no matter how outrageous.” (Hughes, D.A., 2004, P205)

What you are telling the child is that they are more important to you than the behaviour. This does not mean that there will be no consequences for behaviours that require consequences. However, you make it very clear by your interaction with him that your relationship with him remains constant. It is this that begins to build up for the child that sense of who they are that was missed out in earlier experiences. They begin to see themselves in relation to others as someone of value, with something to offer to the home. This then serves well for the internalisation of a self-image that not only has self-value but also sees himself as contributing to the needs of others.


Bowlby, J., 1951, Maternal care and mental health, World Health Organization Monograph (Serial No. 2)

Daniel A. Hughes, 2004, Facilitating Developmental Attachment- The Road to Emotional Recovery and Behavioural Change in Foster and Adopted Children, USA: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc. ISBN 0-7657-0270-3

Category: Social Care