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Attachment theory and early emotional bonds

What Is Attachment Theory And What Part Does It Have To Play In Early Emotional Bonds

The theory of attachment is centred around our bonds and relationships with others, most notably our longer-term relationships such as those developed between a parent and a child and in later life, between our romantic partners. There are several important theorists associated with this school of thought, including Bowlby, Ainsworth and Harlow. British psychologist, John Bowlby, is mostly credited with being the first person to discover attachment theory which he described as “lasting psychological connectedness between human beings”.

Stages of Attachment

There are thought to be four main stages of infant attachment broken down as follows:

Stage 1


Occurs from birth to 6 weeks when baby as yet exhibits no particular attachment to any given caregiver

Stage 2


Occurs between 6 weeks and 7 months when baby being to show a preference towards both primary and secondary caregivers

Stage 3


From 7+ months onwards when infant really begins to show a powerful attachment towards just the one specific caregiver

Stage 4


From 10+ months onwards when bonds begin to develop with a more extensive network of caregivers

How Attachment Theory Came About

As already mentioned, Bowlby was one of the first psychologists to really dig deep into the field of attachment by also researching and understanding the role of separation anxiety and the visible distress this caused infants. The very earliest behavioural theorists believed that attachment was simply a learned behaviour and was directly linked to the feeding process between the child and the caregiver providing the source of nourishment. However, what Bowlby uncovered was that even after feeding, if a child was separated from their primary caregiver, they began to exhibit signs of distress and unease. Bowlby concluded that attachment was characterised by distinct patterns of behaviour and motivation. So a frightened or anxious child, seeks out comfort and care from their primary caregiver, regardless of whether they are hungry or not.

Why Is It Important To Understand Attachment

On a simplistic level, attachment is merely an emotional bond we feel towards another person. Theorists such as Bowlby believed that our very earliest bonds continue to have a considerable impact throughout our lives, way beyond our childhood. Rather than believing that attachment was a learned process, Bowlby believed that all children were naturally born with an in-built drive to form long-lasting attachments with their caregivers. Those children who enjoy close proximity to a significant attachment figure, are more likely to receive comfort and protection when it is needed, which, in turn, helps them to better survive through to adulthood. Successful attachment requires a strong sense of nurturance as well as responsiveness from the caregiver towards the primary determinant of attachment.

The Profound Effects Of Attachment On Behaviour

Fellow attachment theory psychologist, Mary Ainsworth, expanded upon Bowlby’s initial work when in 1970 she released her ground-breaking research into attachment theory. Called the “Strange Situation” study, the research observed children between 12 and 18 months of age and specifically how they responded in situations where they were left briefly alone before being reunited with their mothers.

Based on this research, Ainsworth uncovered three significant styles of attachment:

secure attachment

ambivalent-insecure attachment

avoidant-insecure attachment

Much later, in the 1980s, two further researchers, Main and Solomon, went on to define the fourth style of attachment:

disorganised-insecure attachment

Understanding More About The Stages Of Attachment

We previously introduced the four stages of attachment, and now we are going to look in more detail at these distinct phases. Thanks to research carried out by Rudolf Shaffer and Peggy Emerson, who observed 60 infants every four weeks for the first year of their life, we can understand and appreciate the following:


From birth up to around three months, children show very little attachment to any one specific caregiver. The child receives attention through signals such as crying and fussing, which attracts the attention of the caregiver. The positive reaction of the infant to this attention encourages the caregiver to remain close and supply more attention.

Indiscriminate Attachment

From the three month stage, up to around seven months is when infants begin to outwardly demonstrate a preference towards a primary and secondary caregiver. During this phase, feelings of trust develop as the child recognises that their needs are being met. They may still be willing to accept care from other individuals during this phase. However, they are beginning to distinguish between familiar and unfamiliar people and respond more positively to their primary caregiver.

Discriminate Attachment

From the age of seven to eleven months is when infants display a much stronger attachment and noticeable preference to one principle caregiver. It is at this stage that the phenomena known as separation anxiety comes into play as infants begin to form anxiety when parted from their primary attachment figure and interact with strangers.

Multiple Attachments

Children begin to form much stronger bonds with other caregivers outside of their primary attachment figure from the age of nine months onwards. This includes forming better relationships with their older siblings, grandparents, other family members and of course, their father.

Some Of The Factors That Can Influence Attachment

The stages of attachment seem straightforward enough, but there are a couple of significant factors that can influence how they develop. Firstly, there needs to be an opportunity for attachment in the first place. Children without a primary caregiver, for example, those that grow up in an orphanage, may not have an apparent constant in their life to form that initial bond and trust with. Secondly, if the quality of caregiving provided lacks in some way, feelings of mistrust are likely to develop. The more readily, quickly and consistently the caregiver responds to the needs of the infant, the more likely that infant is to learn that they can depend upon people.

Understanding More About The Patterns of Attachment

We previously highlighted that there are thought to be four distinct patterns of attachment. Let us go ahead and take a look at those in a little more detail now.

Secure Attachment

This form of attachment involves distress when separated from the caregiver and a sense of joy and relief when reunited. Children with secure attachment understand that their caregiver will return and will provide them with comfort and reassurance in their time of need.

Ambivalent Attachment

While not as common a secure attachment, ambivalent attachment does exist and is marked by children becoming overly distressed when a parent leaves. It is thought to be a result of reduced parental availability, so the child isn’t confident that their caregiver will return any time soon to ten to their needs.

Avoidant Attachment

For children with avoidant attachment, they show no real preference as to whether they are provided with attention and care from a caregiver or indeed a stranger. This style of attachment may be the result of abuse or neglect.

Disorganised Attachment

Infants who display this final, disorganised form of attachment, may avoid and resist their parent, appearing to be confused and disorientated. Some theorists believe that this sporadic form of attachment behaviour is as a result of inconsistent attention from their caregivers. A parent may simultaneously be seen both as a course of comfort but also fear.

Faulty template

Someone with a secure attachment style feels valued by others, can rely on them to be helpful and is able to control their emotions. At the other end of the spectrum, someone with a disorganised style does not feel valued by others, easily loses control of their emotions and resorts to manipulative behaviour to coerce others into providing help.

When we feel anxious or fearful, the template created during infancy tells us how to respond. The world we live in now is often different from the one we were born into when our attachment style was forming, so our response to life’s events may be unsuitable. For example, someone with an anxious attachment style who constantly talks about their latest problem may lose friends who become frustrated by their inability to help.

Research shows that attachment style affects our performance in many areas of life, including physical and mental health, finding a compatible romantic partner, and our behaviour in family, social and work contexts. Attachment style even affects the type of religious belief we hold, our relationships with pets and whether our home feels like a haven.

Once you know your own attachment style, you will be able to predict what your response is likely to be in different circumstances. For example, if you have an avoidant attachment style, you fear rejection and may decide not to go for a promotion at work.

When you realise that your fear of rejection is caused by your carer’s own difficulties when you were little, it may help you change your own mindset. Taking such positive steps can help you develop a more secure attachment style.

Final Thoughts On Why Attachment Matters

It is undeniable that the attachment patterns established during our formative years can go on to have a profound effect on our later lives. Securely attached children tend to develop higher self-esteem and better self-reliance, going on to be more independent and to develop more successful social relationships. Attachment does matter.

Written by Mathilde Allemand

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