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A Beginner's Guide to Attachment Theory

Studies show that even the best parents make at least one mistake with their infants every 19 seconds. These parents are what psychologists call good enough, generally meeting their children's needs 30% of the time. Though they are not perfect, their offspring are likely to develop into well-functioning adults with strong emotion regulation skills, fulfilling (romantic) relationships, and few mental health concerns. One can guesstimate that 60% of the population grows up with good enough caregivers, while the remaining 40% do not.

This discussion is all about attachment, the affective bond between child and caregiver, and its long-term impact on socio-emotional development. British psychologist John Bowlby founded attachment theory by working with young children evacuated from cities and separated from their homes and families during World War II. Accordingly, he observed that most of these children developed chronic emotional issues.

Bowlby also found evidence of attachment within ethology, the study of nonhuman animal behaviour. Take imprinting, for example: a process where newly hatched quail, chickens, and ducks instinctively recognize movements in their environment and follow the moving object (typically the mother) before knowing their relationship to that object. The person who discovered imprinting, Konrad Lorenz, found that baby birds would imprint on him once he replaced their mother figure. (FYI, humans and birds shared their last common ancestor over 300 million years ago).

Further evidence of attachment in nonhuman animals comes from American psychologist Harry Harlow’s research (1958) on rhesus monkeys (research that was unethical by today's standards). Harlow placed the monkeys (newborns and orphans) in cages with two types of inanimate surrogate mothers. These artificial mothers were the same, except one was padded with a cloth while the other was comprised of bare mesh wire. Harlow made several discoveries:

  • the monkeys demonstrated more attraction to the cloth mother than the wire mother, though the wire mother provided the only food source;

  • when in distress, the monkeys were more likely to cling to the cloth mother for comfort than the wire mother; and,

  • when placed into a novel rich environment, the presence of the cloth mother helped stimulate the monkeys’ curiosity and exploration of the new territory, while her absence affected them with fear and panic or immobility.

With Harlow’s findings and the discovery of imprinting, psychologists had uncovered the evolutionary basis for attachment. Many thus concluded that attachment is a basic human need, just like food, sex, and sleep.

In this way, infants are equipped with an attachment behavioural system motivating them to seek physical and emotional closeness to their caregivers. They utilize attachment behaviours, such as crying, clinging to, or frantically searching for their parents to establish a sense of security in moments of perceived threat. Importantly, the quality and consistency of parents’ responses to children’s attachment needs, in turn, shape children's style of managing and fulfilling those needs with others.

Mary Ainsworth, Bowlby’s colleague, made significant progress delineating those styles. In her Strange Situation laboratory study, Ainsworth examined the behaviour of 12-month-old infants before, during, and after brief periods of separation from their mothers. Throughout the separation children were left alone in the room with a stranger. This research found three main attachment styles: secure, ambivalent, and avoidant.

  • Secure could explore their environment freely, retreating to their mothers for support when necessary. Although the separation frightened them, their caregivers easily comforted them.

  • Ambivalent could not explore the environment, constantly preoccupied with the whereabouts of their caregivers. Like secure children, the separation frightened the ambivalent ones. However, parents of ambivalent children could not soothe them upon reunion. The ambivalent children alternated between clinging and angrily resistant behaviour towards their parents.

  • Avoidant were unlike the secure and ambivalent ones in their apparent indifference to their parents. They were more focused on the environment and toys than anything else. The separation did not concern them, nor did they seek comfort from their parents upon reunion. (Interestingly, although avoidant children appear indifferent to their parents, their cortisol levels (stress hormone) were greater than those of secure children.)

Ainsworth noticed crucial differences in the parenting of these children. The parents of ambivalent children were unpredictably responsive. They were sometimes emotionally available, and other times uncaring or restrictive of their children’s autonomy. Consequently, ambivalent children generally develop a hyperactive attachment system to secure their mother’s attention or resist it when necessary.

On the other hand, avoidant children’s parents were predictably unresponsive: rarely emotionally available or physically affectionate. As a result, avoidant children typically develop a hypoactive attachment system, learning to “turn off,” deactivate, or suppress their innate attachment needs. Since these needs are inborn, however, avoidant children often become wedged between contradicting models of self-reliance and independence on the one hand, and feelings of inadequacy, dependency, and helplessness, on the other. Importantly, regardless of which attachment style a person develops, all are adaptive strategies that help children cope with insecure environments.

The psychologist Mary Main brought Ainsworth’s research a step further. She created the Adult Attachment Interview (AAI) to measure adults’ “state of mind” regarding attachment. Significantly, she found (with 75% accuracy) that children’s Strange Situation classifications predicted their AAI results. Bowlby and Main thus theorized that children’s initial expectations about their parents’ availability and accessibility in times of need gradually develop into a generalized template of attachment. This template or internal working model includes nonconscious beliefs about one’s self-worth in relation to others, whether that be friends, strangers, colleagues, or romantic partners. According to Bartholomew's two dimensional model, there are four main attachment styles in adults:

  • Secure/Autonomous hold a positive evaluation of themselves and others. They feel worthy of love and support and view others as trustworthy and available.

  • Preoccupied have a sense of unworthiness or unlovability combined with a positive evaluation of others. They thus strive for self-acceptance by attaining the acceptance of valued others.

  • Dismissive-Avoidant view themselves as worthy of love and support and hold a negative evaluation of others. By avoiding intimate relationships, they protect themselves from disappointment and preserve a sense of independence and invulnerability.

  • Fearful-Avoidant have a sense of unworthiness combined with an expectation that others are unsafe (i.e., untrustworthy or rejecting). These individuals anticipate others’ rejection and thus refrain from intimate relationships.

Good news, increasing evidence suggests that attachment style is malleable. Indeed, the concept of earned security refers to securely attached individuals with traumatic histories of neglect, rejection, and abandonment. Part of the journey of developing secure attachment involves mindfully reflecting on early life experiences. Indeed, this reflection process can help cultivate greater coherence and objectivity toward attachment-related memories and experiences. Identifying current relational patterns and recognizing how they connect to the past builds self-awareness necessary for updating preexisting and conditioned attachment models with more accurate and adaptive beliefs. The following questions (from the AAI) can help guide this self-exploration process:

  • As a young child, what was your relationship with your parents like?

  • How would you describe your mother and father during childhood? Provide several descriptive adjectives.

  • What would you do when you were upset as a child? What would happen?

  • Could you describe your first separation from your parents?

  • Did you ever feel rejected by your parents as a child? Do you think they realized they were rejecting you?

  • How do you think your early life experiences have influenced your adult personality?

  • What is your relationship like with your parents currently?

You can also take one of many free attachment style tests online. Though not meant to replace clinical assessment or psychotherapy, they can provide a good starting point.

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