Attachment Theory.

The main person linked with the Attachment Theory is John Bowlby (1907-1990). He describes attachment as being a “lasting psychological connectedness between human beings.” He was a psychoanalyst who linked mental health and behavioural issues, with early childhood care, he believed that children and babies have evolved with a basic need to stay connected, in order to ensure their survival. The primary attachment (normally maternal) provides a blueprint for future relationships. If this attachment is not there or is disrupted, then the child does not feel secure.

Main Points of Bowlby’s Theory, according to McLeod (2007), are:

  • A child has an innate (i.e. inborn) need to attach to one main attachment figure (i.e. monotropy).
  • A child should receive the continuous care of this single most important attachment figure for approximately the first two years of life. In 1951 Bowlby postulated that mothering was ineffective if delayed until after two and a half or 3 years. Indeed the first 12 months are critical. and disruption will have long term affects on the cognitive, social and emotional well being of the individual.
  • The long term consequences of maternal deprivation might include the following: delinquency, reduced intelligence, increased aggression, depression, affectionless psychopathy.
  • The Internal Working Model is developed through the attachment with their primary caregiver.

In 1964 Schaffer & Emerson contended that specific attachments started at 8 months and then they quickly expand the number of people that they are attached to. Rutter (1978) noted that children reacted to the departure of a number of beings as well as inanimate objects.

Mary Ainsworth researched this area in the 1970’s, she described three main styles of attachment:

  • Secure attachment – Child is distressed when the care giver leaves, happy on their return. They have a belief that they will return and seek comfort when necessary from them.
  • Ambivalent-insecure attachment– When a parent leaves, they become very distressed, they cannot rely on the caregiver to return and/or offer comfort.
  • Avoidant-insecure attachment– They avoid the caregivers and show no preference between them and a stranger. They avoid seeking comfort.

Disorganised-insecure attachment was added on by further research by Main & Solomon (1986). The child may present as confused and avoid parents. This has been linked with inconsistent behaviours in ‘parents’ and this makes the child feel unsure about the response they will receive.

Some contributory factors are:

  • Neglect, physical & emotional.
  • Abuse (physical, sexual, verbal).
  • Separation from primary carer (illness, death, imprisonment, adoption, fostering).
  • Inconsistency from primary carer ( Daycare, nannies)
  • Change or frequent moves ( Foster homes, orphanages)
  • Trauma (serious illness or incidents)
  • Depression in primary caregiver.
  • Addiction of primary carer.
  • Lack of parenting skills &/ support (young mothers/fathers, suffer from attachment issues themselves).

Attachment is believed to be influential on the individuals life, secure attachment leads to better self esteem and better coping skills, meaning that they can achieve more in life, form positive relationships and suffer less from mental health issues.

Weisner & Gallimore (1977), Van Ljzendoorn & Tavecchio (1987) argue that the primary figure is not always the mother. In some societies, it is the whole village approach.

I know that this research sounds frightening if you are attempting to parent a child with an attachment disorder. Please see the practical advice page!

Useful References:

Ainsworth, M. D. S., Blehar, M. C., Waters, E., & Wall, S. (1978). Patterns of attachment: A psychological study of the strange situation. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.
Bowlby, J. (1951). Maternal Care and Mental Health. World Health Organization Monograph.
Bowlby, J. (1953). Child Care and the Growth of Love. London: Penguin Books.
Bowlby, J. (1969). Attachment. Attachment and Loss: Vol. 1. Loss. New York: Basic Books.
Cherry, K (. Attachment Theory: The importance of Early Emotional Bonds.
Attachment & Reactive Attachment Disorders (
McLeod S (2007),John Bowlby | Maternal Deprivation Theory – Simply Psychology
Schaffer, H. R. & Emerson, P. E. (1964). The development of social attachments in infancy. Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development, 29, 94.