An Attachment Primer

I rarely write about attachment beyond the role it plays in childhood resilience. This is despite having a strong professional and personal interest in it (as well as having taught the topic for more than a decade). My professional interest lies in both my role as a psychologist and a teacher; the way in which our early experiences shape our later relationships and life trajectories. On a purely personal level, attachment is an important issue because I am a father but, more specifically, a father to a son who lost his mother at very early age.

It wasn’t a particularly rapid separation, not for a three-year-old anyway, but he was aware that his mother was poorly and that was why she couldn’t play with him as much as she once did or take him to swimming lessons and walks down by the river on sunny afternoons. He had just turned three when his mum was diagnosed with a brain tumour that would take her life eleven months later, a significant time developmentally; attachment bonds having already been formed but destined to be broken far too early. It’s only natural, I suppose, that I would become concerned about how this early permanent separation would impact the rest of his life.

I’m also aware that many teachers are interested in, yet not so well informed, about the intricacies of attachment. Indeed, attachment is a vast topic that investigates both the formation of attachment and the maintenance of these emotional bonds. What follows is more of a primer than an in-depth critical investigation, but I hope it will at the very least provide some useful background reading from which to begin a more detailed examination.

What do we mean by attachment?

We can think of attachment as an enduring two-way emotional bond to a specific person which develops in a set of stages and within a fairly predictable timescale. This bond is most often formed between the child and the parent, generally the mother, but this isn’t set in stone. Infants may also form attachment bonds with the father or grandparent or another person who responds sensitively to their needs (this caveat is important, as we shall see later). We generally know when an attachment bond has been formed because the infant will display certain behaviours, including what is known as stranger anxiety, that is, distress in the presence of people they do not know.

John Bowlby and Attachment Theory

John Bowlby

John Bowlby, the British psychologist, psychiatrist and psychoanalysts was one of the first pioneers of attachment theory.

Although influenced by previous attachment studies conducted on non-human animals, particularly the work of Harry Harlow and Konrad Lorenz, Bowlby was also immersed within the psychodynamic (psychoanalytic, Freudian) tradition. However, he entered psychoanalytic training under the supervision of Melanie Klein, pushing him closer to object relations theory than classical Freudian ideas. The London psychoanalytic community at the time had splintered, with two specific schools of thought developing under Klein on the one hand and Anna Freud (the sixth and youngest daughter of Sigmund Freud) on the other. A third ‘independent’ group was beginning to form, which included amongst their ranks Donald Winnicott, a lesser known but undoubtedly equally influential figure at the time.

Despite his connection to the psychodynamic tradition, many of Bowlby’s theories fit uneasily within this school of thought. He saw emotional bonds as having an evolutionary function, in that the purpose of attachment was to ensure close proximity between infant and adult caregivers, thus ensuring protection and enhancing the chances of survival. Infants are, according to Bowlby, biologically predisposed to behave towards their mothers in ways that increase their chances of survival.

These genetically determined behaviours are what Bowlby called social releases. Crying, therefore, is a social releaser that attracts the attention of the mother; looking, vocalising and smiling maintains the attention while following the mother around and clinging helps the child to both gain and maintain proximity.

During the very early stages of life, these behaviours are triggered by many people, but as the child develops they become more focussed on just a few individuals while also becoming more flexible and sophisticated. Attachments form only when the caregiver responds meaningfully and sensitively to these social responders. This will, according to Bowlby, usually be the mother.

If we, therefore, think of attachment as a control system to maintain proximity to the mother, then when this state has been achieved attachment behaviour becomes quiet, that is, the infant has no need to cry or cling and can, instead, confidently explore its surroundings and engage in play – necessary behaviour for healthy cognitive and social development. On the other hand, when this state is threatened in some way (perhaps the mother is out of the infant’s line of sight or a stranger appears), attachment behaviours are activated in order to restore the previous state. These responses change as the infant becomes more behaviourally and cognitively competent.

Types of Attachment

Mary Ainsworth was a student of Bowlby’s and extended and adapted his theories on attachment and maternal deprivation. Ainsworth developed an experimental paradigm known as the strange situation, designed to measure attachment style in young children. The strange situation set out to investigate some key elements related to the survival advantage and proximity seeking elements of Bowlby’s ideas.

The Strange Situation Procedure (see here for a detailed description) involves a number of stages where the behaviour of the infant is observed in different situations or episodes (alone with Mother, with stranger and Mother, alone with stranger and reunion with Mother). Observational data determines where the infant falls in terms of attachment style: secure, insecure-avoidant or insecure-resistant. A fourth style was later added by Ainsworth’s graduate student, Mary Main, of disorganised/disoriented. In the original study, around 65 percent of infants were found to be securely attached (a figure supported by subsequent studies).

Cross-Cultural Differences

However, the Strange Situation has been criticised on cross-cultural grounds. Bowlby’s theory rests on the premise that attachment is innate and a consequence of evolution. If this is indeed the case then all cultural groups should display a similar pattern of behaviour. This is not necessarily the case partly due to varying child-rearing styles and differing attitudes toward patterns of behaviour. For example, in Britain, being insecure-avoidant is seen as negative but in Germany, this behaviour is looked on more favourable.

Indeed, a number of cross-cultural studies have seen widely differing patterns of attachment style. For example, a study of Japanese children by Keiko Takahashi in 1990, found similar patterns of secure attachment but also found that many of the children became highly distressed when left alone (indeed, the left alone stage was abandoned for 90 percent of the participants because of the stress it induced). It’s likely that results of the Japanese study are, in part, due to differing child-rearing practices and cultural protocols (Japanese children are rarely left alone and avoidant behaviour is seen as impolite).

Additionally, a meta-analysis by Van Ijzendoorn and Kroonenberg in 1988, found significant differences between individualistic and collectivist societies in terms of attachment style (see below).


Time frames for the formation of attachment

Bowlby argued that the formation of attachments is time-sensitive and must take place within a year for most children or before three years for all children. He called this the critical period, after which attachment is unlikely to occur. However, later evidence taken mainly from case studies has rejected this idea, and we now tend to refer to a sensitive period, within which it is easier to bond but still possible beyond this point.

One of the main pillars of Bowlby’s theory is what he termed the internal working model. Essentially, our later relationships are dependent on our early relationships with our mother or primary caregiver. These early experiences form an internal blueprint or template on which later relationships depend. If we are loved and cared for as infants we then become loving and caring adults; if there was little love or sensitivity when we were infants, then our later relationships will be based on these factors.

‘Mother love in infancy is as important for mental health as vitamins and proteins are for physical health’ – John Bowlby

One or Many?

Bowlby’s model was also based on the notion of monotropy, that is, the innate capacity to attach primarily to a single caregiver. All other attachments are therefore secondary. Monotropy, in turn, is a necessary component in Bowlby’s Maternal Deprivation Hypothesis (MDH).

The problem arises once we examine other studies and find that infants often form multiple attachments. Schaffer and Emerson (1964) found multiple attachments to be the norm with 39 percent of their sample having their main attachment to someone other than their mother.

Rutter (1981) argued that mothers aren’t special in the way Bowlby proposed. Infants display a range of attachment behaviours to other figures who are not their mother, leading Lamb et al. (1982) to propose that different attachments are used for different purposes.

The Maternal Deprivation Hypothesis

The Maternal Deprivation Hypothesis states that any disruption to the attachment bond (whether short or long term) will result in serious and permanent damage to the child’s emotional, social and intellectual development.


Short-term separation is brief and temporary, for example, day care or short periods of hospitalisation. According to Bowlby, in these circumstances children will display a relatively clear set of behaviours from protest, such as crying, lashing out, screaming and clinging, to despair, where the protect behaviour subsides and the infant becomes calmer and apathetic. They internalise their anger and respond little to offers of comfort, opting to comfort themselves by, for example, sucking their thumb. The last stage is detachment, where the infant resumes their responses to other people but treats them warily. They might reject the caregiver on return and continue to display signs of anger. Generally referred to as the PDD model, Barret (1997) has emphasised the role of individual differences, arguing that infants who are securely attached and more mature may well cope better with separation.


Long-term deprivation is vastly more complex than short-term separation and I’ll look more closely at this in another post (along with a related concept known as privation). Generally, however, we tend to think of long-term deprivation as a lengthy or permanent separation from an attachment figure. This could be through divorce or separation or other factors such as death or imprisonment.

Rodgers and Pryor (1998) found that children who experience more than two divorces have the lowest adjustment rates and the most behavioural problems, while Furstenberg and Kiernan (2001) found that children who have experienced divorce suffer not only emotionally, but also in terms of emotional wellbeing, academic attainment and physical health.

However, the picture isn’t all bad. Hetherington and Stanley-Hagen (1999) found that few children suffer long-term adjustment problems and that most adapt to their change in circumstances. In some cases, divorce leads to a more positive environment and stronger bonds between children and parents (Demo and Acock, 1996), especially if the deterioration in the marriage has led to the creation of a hostile environment.

Richards (1987) concluded that while attachment disruption through divorce is more likely to result in resentment and stress, the death of an attachment figure is more likely to lead to depression.

Where now?

While much of the early attachment research and ideas proposed paint a rather dismal future for those who were unable to form early attachments, case studies can provide a brighter conclusion. From a personal perspective, my own son hasn’t suffered the fate that Bowlby predicted and the two of us remain extremely close. In a follow-up post, I’ll discuss how and why many children flourish despite early attachment difficulties.

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