Attachment Theory

Attachment theory is a concept in developmental psychology according to which a strong physical and emotional bond to a preferred attachment figure, usually the mother, is crucial for a child's normal social and emotional development. It was developed by the British psychologist, psychiatrist and psychoanalyst John Bowlby (1907 to 1990) between the 1950s and the late 1960s and later expanded by researchers like Mary Ainsworth. The theory describes the human propensity to proximity seeking, especially in infants from six months to two years of age, to a preferred attachment figure. Human beings are born helpless and their ability to connect to another individual gives them a sense of stability and security and increases their chances of survival. Parental responses are internalized and influence an individual's behavior in later relationships as an adult. Responsive and emotionally available caregivers who respond to the infant's needs raise individuals with an internally developed working model of intimate relationships. Unresponsive and emotionally unavailable parents are often seen to be the reason for aggressive behavior in children. It is important to distinguish between the concepts of attachment, attachment behavior and attachment behavioral system, which characterize the psychodynamic, the behavioral and the cognitive components of attachment theory. Attachment is the emotional bond to the caregiver and it can be secure and insecure. Crying, calling, reaching out and suckling on the caregiver are signals for positive attachment.

Attachment behavior refers to the need of the infant to stay in close proximity to the caregiver. It is observed in cases of separation or detachment and has a protective and instructive function. The protective function is in cases of danger when the infant seeks the proximity of its preferred attachment figure for security and comfort. In the absence of danger, the instructive function allows the child to interact and explore its surroundings while the mother serves as a secure base. Both attachment and attachment behavior are part of the attachment behavioral system which represents the relationship between the individual and its caregiver and the particular type of attachment. There are three main characteristics of attachment relationships: proximity seeking to a preferred figure, the "secure base," effect and separation protest. Proximity seeking refers to the dependency of the child on its caregiver and its need to stay close to one preferred figure. According to Bowlby, attachment is "monotropic," in nature because it occurs with a "discriminated figure," usually the mother, who is the main caregiver. However, children often seek the proximity of a small group of figures including the father, siblings and grandparents. The extent of proximity maintenance depends on the child's age and other outside factors such as potential danger or fear of separation. The "secure base," effect, first described by Mary Ainsworth, describes the mother as the safe haven to which the child goes for security and comfort when it is afraid or feels threatened. The secure base provided by the mother allows the child to explore the surrounding world.

The separation protest occurs when the child becomes upset and distressed because it is separated from its preferred attachment figure. In this case the infant is trying to punish the caregiver by crying, screaming, biting and kicking in a way to prevent separation and restore proximity.

If a child avoids its caregivers then it has an avoidant attachment to them. It is a consequence mainly of psychological unavailability and abusive or negligent care when children are punished for seeking proximity and comfort. As a result they try to minimize the need of attachment in order to prevent further rejection. The styles of secure attachment, ambivalent-insecure attachment and avoidant-insecure attachment were described by Mary Ainsworth in her Strange Situation research. There she revealed that children who cannot form a secure attachment to their parents in early childhood experience behavioral problems later in life. Early childhood attachment patterns are stored as internal working models and serve as guides in adolescence and adulthood. Neglected children who feel unworthy of care and later become unable to provide for others. Research shows that children with oppositional-defiant disorder (ODD), conduct disorder (CD), or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) experience attachment problems often due to early abuse, neglect or trauma.

Attachment Theory: Selected full-text books and articles

John Bowlby - from Psychoanalysis to Ethology: Unraveling the Roots of Attachment Theory By Seedall, Ryan B Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, Vol. 37, No. 4, October 2011
Peer-reviewed publications on Questia are publications containing articles which were subject to evaluation for accuracy and substance by professional peers of the article's author(s).
The Dissociative Mind By Elizabeth F. Howell Routledge, 2005
Attachment from Infancy to Adulthood: The Major Longitudinal Studies By Klaus E. Grossmann; Karin Grossmann; Everett Waters Guilford Press, 2005
Attachment Issues in Psychopathology and Intervention By Leslie Atkinson; Susan Goldberg Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2004
Enhancing Early Attachments: Theory, Research, Intervention, and Policy By Lisa J. Berlin; Yair Ziv; Lisa Amaya-Jackson; Mark T. Greenberg Guilford Press, 2005
Attachment in Middle Childhood By Kathryn A. Kerns; Rhonda A. Richardson Guilford Press, 2005
Measuring Lifestyle and Attachment: An Empirical Investigation Linking Individual Psychology and Attachment Theory By Peluso, Paul R.; Peluso, Jennifer P.; Buckner, Janine P.; Kern, Roy M.; Curlette, William Journal of Counseling and Development : JCD, Vol. 87, No. 4, Fall 2009
Peer-reviewed publications on Questia are publications containing articles which were subject to evaluation for accuracy and substance by professional peers of the article's author(s).
Attachment Theory and Psychohistory: Overview By Kurth, Winfried The Journal of Psychohistory, Vol. 41, No. 1, Summer 2013
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