Attachment theory

Attachment Theory

Attachment is the unique relationship between a child and their caregiver. Attachment theory is a concept that is developed to understand the importance of attachment in terms of personal development.

Understanding Attachment Theory

This theory suggests the ability to form an emotional and physical attachment with another person is largely influenced by the early stages of attachment formed between a child and their primary caregiver. This gives the individual a sense of stability and security and enables them to take risks to grow and develop their personality. An attachment relationship is a reflection of how the infant and mother respond to one another. A 2011 study 1 has shown that a positive maternal-infant attachment can enhance a child’s emotional and cognitive development and their ability to explore the world from a secure emotional foundation.

John Bowlby’s Attachment Theory

The attachment theory was first formulated by psychiatrist and psychoanalyst John Bowlby. Attachment theory is an evolutionary and psychological theory 2 that attempts to understand the bonds and relationships people share with others. This theory demonstrates the influence of a caregiver on a child’s ability to form strong and secure relationships with others. The infant primarily seeks proximity to an attachment figure during stressful situations, especially when they are sad or upset. The infant tends to become attached to their caregivers when they feel comforted. They require consistent care from about six months to two years of age. As the child grows older, they begin to use attachment figures as a secure base from which they explore the world and then return to them. The pattern of attachment that the child develops in their early years determines the emotional, cognitive, and social development of the child in later life. Parental responses lead to the development of different attachment patterns that will guide the child’s feelings, thoughts, and expectations in later relationships.

The attachment theory suggests that without such a secure relationship in place, it may interfere with the relationships in the child’s adult life. Without a secure attachment, the child may become fearful and avoid seeking new experiences. A child with a strong attachment trusts that the caregiver will back them up and thus they become more eager to seek new experiences. According to Bowlby, the parental role grows with time as the child receives constant support and security during the formative years. The role of the parent as caregivers reduces as the child becomes more independent and learns to explore the outside world.

Bowlby’s research on attachment theory found that when the infants were separated from their parents and placed in an unfamiliar situation, they displayed three types of responses. They are:

1. Secure attachment

In case of secure attachment, it was found that when a child was separated from their parents, they could be easily comforted once their parents returned. Secure attachment is an emotional bond that is formed when a parent consistently responds to all their child’s needs. The child feels secure, understood, and calm. This attachment style can be protective and can ensure a foundation for exploration and normal development. A 2002 study 3 found that secure attachment relationships are associated with appropriate social development and the ability to interact with others throughout life.

2. Dismissive avoidant attachment

This emotional bond is formed when the child’s emotional needs are unmet when they are separated from their parents. Children with this form of attachment view emotional attachments as unnecessary and grow up believing that they are self-sufficient. A 2017 study 4 suggests that highly avoidant people have negative views of romantic partners and strive to create and maintain independence, control, and autonomy in their relationships.

3. Anxious/preoccupied attachment

This emotional bond is formed when the child feels anxious when they are separated from their parents. The infant is hard to console even when their parents return. As adults, they tend to need constant reassurance and affection from their partners. A 2009 study 5 found that children with anxious-avoidant attachment have reported behavioral problems, emotional difficulties, and social incompetence.

Mary Ainsworth’s Attachment Theory

The attachment theory was further developed by Mary Ainsworth after John Bowlby. She pointed out that attachment is “a secure base for which to explore” and this idea has remained a fundamental principle of attachment theory. Bowlby described the attachment theory as an inherent biological response and behavioral system that provides the satisfaction of basic human needs. Mary further demonstrated that adult attachment representations are largely influenced by how adults remember their own childhood experiences. This may also influence the attachment categorization of their own children.
A cross-sectional study 6 was conducted with varying degrees of attachment to their parents. The children were then separated from their parents in order to supervise their responses. It was found that the children with a secure attachment were relatively calm because they trusted that their parents would return shortly after. On the other hand, children with insecure attachments were found to demonstrate distress when they were separated from their parents. The child also couldn’t be comforted even after the parent returned.

Later the study exposed the same children to intentional stressful situations wherein all of them began to exhibit particular behaviors that proved to be effective in catching the parent’s attention. This proves that the attachment styles can be reversed in case a child has formed an insecure attachment with their parents.

Disorganized Attachment

Mary Ainsworth’s attachment theory further demonstrated another attachment pattern that is known as disorganized attachment. In this form of attachment, the child grows up believing that they are unworthy of love. This occurs due to severe childhood traumas, abuse, or emotional neglect. In this attachment style, there seems to be no predictable pattern of attachment behaviors. A 2017 study 7 pointed out that inconsistent behavior from attachment figures can be a crucial factor that influences the development of this attachment style. Another 1993 study 8 found behavioral problems such as aggression in children with disorganized attachment.

Erik Erikson’s Stages Of Psychosocial Development

Erik Erikson’s Stages Of Psychosocial Development

Erik Erikson, an ego psychologist, developed his attachment theory based on Freud’s psychosocial theory. According to him, there are eight stages of psychosocial development 9 .

1. Infancy Stage – Trust vs Mistrust

In this stage, the child is completely dependent on their parents to survive. This includes clothing, food, love, warmth, shelter, and others. An infant’s trust is formed when parents attend to the needs of the child and comfort them when they are distressed. This leads them to develop a sense of trust or mistrust depending on how they attend to the child’s needs.

2. Early Childhood Stage- Autonomy vs. Shame and Doubt

In this stage, the child starts to become more independent and develops their unique sense of selves. They start to perform basic actions on their own such as making their own food choices, selecting clothes or toys. Failure to achieve a sense of personal control leads to feelings of shame and doubt in the child.

3. Preschool Stage – Initiative vs Guilt

At this stage, a child learns to socialize and understand the social norms. They begin to assert power and control over their surroundings. A child who successfully completes this stage is excellent at taking initiative and responsibility. Children who fail are often found to have feelings of self-doubt, guilt, or lack initiative.

4. School Stage – Competence vs. Inferiority

In this stage, the child starts to build important relationships with peers. Children begin to achieve a sense of pride in their academic achievements and performance. Successfully completing this stage leads to a sense of competence. While failing this stage makes the child feel inferior. Parents and teachers are greatly responsible for the child’s development of competence. Receiving words of encouragement from parental figures can go a long way for the child to become successful and competent.

5. Adolescence Stage – Identity vs Role Confusion

In this stage, the individual starts to become more independent and starts experimenting with their independence. They begin to interact with people outside their family. Individuals who receive proper encouragement through personal exploration will develop a strong sense of self and independence. While others who fail remain insecure and confused about their future.

6. Young Adulthood Stage – Intimacy vs Isolation

In this stage, individuals begin to build satisfying and intimate relationships with other people. The individual starts exploring personal relationships. Successfully completing this stage leads to intimate relationships while failure results in loneliness and isolation. A 2014 study 10 suggests that those who have a poor sense of self have less committed relationships and are more likely to struggle with emotional isolation, loneliness and depression.

7. Middle Adulthood Stage – Generativity vs Stagnation

In this stage, the individual is more likely to have established their career, relationships and family. Having success in life makes a person feel accomplished. Unsuccessful individuals who cannot contribute to society or haven’t fulfilled their life goals feel stagnant and unproductive.

8. Late Adulthood – Integrity vs Despair

In this stage, the individual feels less productive due to their age. At this point, the individual tends to reminisce about the events of their lives. These events determine whether they have been happy in their lives or regret the things they did or didn’t do. According to Erikson’s attachment theory, older adults need to look back on life to feel a sense of fulfillment. An individual having an unsuccessful life tends to experience regret, bitterness, and despair when they look back on their lives.

Attachment Theory In Adults

The type of attachment formed during childhood is directly related to the attachment forms in adulthood 11 . Adults with secure attachments are more likely to be satisfied with their relationships. The relationships are usually based on honesty, support, trust, independence, and emotional connection. Dismissive avoidant adults are usually best at keeping their distance from their partners. They believe that they don’t need human connection in order to survive. They often shut out people if they believe they are getting emotionally connected with or when a potential hurtful event occurs.

Anxious preoccupied adults are often found to be desperate for love. They believe that their partners are what will make them happy and feel complete. Although they are keen on having a safe and secure relationship, their behavior may their partner feel otherwise. Some people with this form of attachment show signs of clinginess, demanding, or jealousy which may drive their partner away. Adults with disorganized attachment are often found to avoid feelings. They are often unpredictable and may hurt their romantic partner in fear of getting hurt by them. These adults are afraid of being emotionally involved with another person. The individual struggles to form and maintain healthy and meaningful relationships.

Attachment Theory In Grief And Trauma

Attachment theory may also be applied in understanding certain events that cause grief or trauma. Attachment styles may influence the grieving process of the individual. Research 12 shows that insecure attachment can significantly affect bereavement outcomes. “Anxious attachment was associated with severe shame/guilt, and avoidant attachment correlated with complicated grief,” explains a 2017 study 13 . Moreover, someone with a secure attachment style may experience the grieving process differently than someone with disorganized attachment. During Bowlby’s work, Colin Murray Parks, his colleague also noticed four stages of grief. They are:

Stage 1: Shock and Numbness

This phase begins immediately after the loss of a loved one. The person who is grieving feels shocked due to their loss and then feels numb because it feels impossible to accept the reality. They may even experience physical distress and may be unable to understand or communicate their feelings with other people.

Stage 2: Yearning and Searching

In this stage, the person who is grieving tends to fill the void of their loss with something or someone. The person may also express their emotions related to the loss during this stage such as anger, rage, weeping, or confusion.

Stage 3: Disorganization and Despair

During the third stage, the grieving person tries to withdraw themselves from social situations or other activities. The feelings of searching and yearning for their loss lessens. They may experience feelings of apathy, anger, despair, or hopelessness. They may also appear to be too engaged in making sense of the event.

Stage 4: Reorganisation and Recovery

In this phase, the grieving person attempts to rebuild and recover from their loss. They begin to set new goals and habits to recover from the hurt. For instance, in case the person experiences weight loss, they attempt to reverse it back by adopting healthy diet plans.

It is important to note that grief doesn’t end, but the thoughts associated with grief tend to perish with time and positive memories are replaced with them.

Criticisms Of Attachment Theory

There have been several criticisms 14 around the attachment theory. Some of the common ones are:

  • The influence of a parent’s ability to care on the child’s personality has way more emphasis on all attachment theory models. Psychologist J.R Harris 15 suggests that the personality of the child may also be influenced by genetics.
  • The models are based on the child’s reactions to stressful situations and have no observation around non-stressful situations
  • Children can be attached differently to different people and may not represent the same type of attachment they formed with their parents
  • The mother of the child was the only one represented as a primary attachment figure but the child may be more attached to a sibling, grandparent or step-parent

Practical Applications Of Attachment Theory

Attachment theory may also be used in real-life situations. Some of these practical applications can include:

  • Improving child-caregiver relationships
  • Making hospital policies, child custody, maternal employment, and others
  • Addressing psychological conditions 16 based on parental attachment styles
  • Making public health and policy changes

Impact Of Attachment Theory

Attachment theory suggests that it is essential to form a strong emotional and physical attachment to at least one primary caregiver to ensure personal development. Children who received care and support from their parents grew up to explore the world and learned to return to their “secure base”. On the other hand children with other attachment styles grew up with lower self-esteem and lacked resilience in stressful situations. It is of utmost importance to ensure that parents become more attentive to their child’s upbringing. This will enable them to grow into secure and responsible adults.

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  9. Orenstein GA, Lewis L. Eriksons Stages of Psychosocial Development. [Updated 2020 Nov 22]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2021 Jan-. Available from: []
  10. Mushtaq, R., Shoib, S., Shah, T., & Mushtaq, S. (2014). Relationship between loneliness, psychiatric disorders and physical health ? A review on the psychological aspects of loneliness. Journal of clinical and diagnostic research : JCDR, 8(9), WE01–WE4. []
  11. Patrick J. (2016). Attachment Theory in Adult Mental Health: A Guide to Clinical Practice. BJPsych Bulletin, 40(6), 352. []
  12. Huh, H. J., Kim, K. H., Lee, H. K., & Chae, J. H. (2020). Attachment Style, Complicated Grief and Post-Traumatic Growth in Traumatic Loss: The Role of Intrusive and Deliberate Rumination. Psychiatry investigation, 17(7), 636–644. []
  13. Huh, H. J., Kim, K. H., Lee, H. K., & Chae, J. H. (2018). Attachment styles, grief responses, and the moderating role of coping strategies in parents bereaved by the Sewol ferry accident. European journal of psychotraumatology, 8(sup6), 1424446. []
  14. Fitzgerald, M. (2020). (PDF) Criticism of attachment theory 2020. ResearchGate. []
  15. Wesseling, L. (2018). Judith rich Harris. Encyclopedia of Evolutionary Psychological Science, 1-7. []
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