Attachment theory is a psychological theory that has come to encompass information on how individuals bond, or attach, to one another. It is most often used to describe the emotional connection between parent, or caregiver, and child. John Bowlby is credited with developing the initial concept of attachment theory. Mary Ainsworth, building on Bowlby's work, is credited with identifying attachment types.
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John Bowlby described the attachment system as one whose primary purpose is to ensure the safety and survival of an infant. Bowlby suggested that babies go through stages of attachment to caregivers and demonstrate full attachment around seven or eight months of age. The key elements of Bowlby's theory indicate that attachment is more of a system than a set of behaviours and that the system serves three primary purposes: proximity maintenance, secure base and safe haven. Proximity maintenance determines the emotional bond and physical closeness of child and caregiver. The secure base provides ongoing protection to the child and the safe haven provides the child with a sense of safety when he feels stressed or senses danger.
Mary Ainsworth developed an experiment using what she called the "strange situation" test to measure the attachments between children and their caregivers. In this experiment, babies and mothers were observed through several situations including calm and stressful events. From these observations, Ainsworth developed three patterns of infant responses or attachment types: securely attached, anxious-ambivalent insecurely attached, and avoidant insecurely attached. Since then, a fourth attachment type, disorganised-disoriented insecurely attached, has been added to this typology.
A securely attached infant generally shows distress when separated from his mother and expresses happiness when she returns. Often this child will seek comfort from his mother, reaching up to be held or clinging to her for a moment. This child is usually reassured fairly quickly and is able to go back to independent activities and exploration. The securely attached infant sees mom, or key caregiver, as a secure base, and thus feels safe when she is around. He tends to be more willing to explore his environment and tolerates more separation from mom, trusting that she'll be there when he needs her.
Anxious-Ambivalent Insecurely Attached
The anxious-ambivalent infant demonstrates an insecure attachment to the key caregiver. This child may show signs of stress in new situations, even when mom is available. She will show great distress when separated from mom, but when mom returns, an anxious-ambivalent infant might display anger and a mixed reaction of simultaneously approaching and resisting mom. She will be difficult to comfort and will be unlikely to play or explore even after mom has returned.
Avoidant Insecurely Attached
The avoidant infant generally does not cry when mom leaves the room nor does he greet her when she returns. Sometimes he will actively ignore her or move away. The avoidant child still seeks comfort in times of stress, but he is more likely to seek it from toys or objects than from his mother or primary caregiver.
Disorganised-Disoriented, Insecurely Attached
The disorganised-disoriented child shows conflicting behaviours and doesn't fall neatly into one of the three traditional attachment types. She wants to approach mom when stressed, but then becomes avoidant when mom approaches her. Sometimes she will display strange behaviours such as freezing with her arms in the air, rocking on her hands and knees, or even leaning against the wall. Sometimes she will start to get up to meet the parent, but then will fall to the ground and lie still.
Isolation and Its Relationship to Attachment Types
There are a number of theories as to what factors contribute to the different attachment types, but isolation seems to be a key ingredient. There are two primary types of isolation: physical isolation and emotional isolation. A physically isolated child is one who is not held often by parents or does not experience physical closeness. An emotionally isolated child might be held or kept near his parents, but does not have his emotional needs attended to. For example, he might attempt to play, interact, or communicate with a parent but find that his efforts are ignored or unnoticed. Some children are both emotionally and physically isolated. In general, emotional and/or physical isolation seem to correspond to the insecure attachment types.
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- "The Lifespan"; Patricia Broderick and Pamela Blewitt, eds; 2006
- "Patterns of Attachment"; Mary Ainsworth et al; 1978
- "A Secure Base: Parent-child attachment and healthy human development"; John Bowlby;1988
- "Attachment in the Preschool Years: Theory, Research, and Intervention"; Greenberg, et al.; 1990