Understanding Attachment Theory

“We do as we have been done by.”
― John Bowlby

The term attachment refers to a particular emotional connection that involves an interchange of care and comfort.

Attachment Theory focuses on relationships, especially those that are long-term, between people who have a special bond, such as parent and child and romantic partners.

The central theme of this theory is that if primary caregivers are available, supportive, and responsive to the child’s needs, the infant will develop a strong sense of security. If the child learns that the caregiver is dependable, they will feel safe exploring the world and forming healthy relationships with others.

Although a relatively recent concept, Attachment Theory has become integral to all types of psychoanalytical therapies and highlights the value of a child’s emotional bond with their primary caregivers. It is evidenced that disturbance to or loss of this bond can profoundly affect a child psychologically and emotionally. Furthermore, the effects will likely stay with the child and impact their future relationships as they progress into adulthood.

History of Attachment Theory

John Bowlby (1958), a British psychologist, was the first attachment theorist. Bowlby espoused the previously common psychoanalytic view that early childhood experiences influence both development and later life behavior and described attachment as a “lasting psychological connectedness between human beings.[1]

A chief component of Bowlby’s concept was the suggestion that attachment is best understood through an evolutionary context because an infant whose caregiver provides security and safety is more likely to survive and grow into an adult: “[t]he propensity to make strong emotional bonds to particular individuals [is] a basic component of human nature.”

At the time of Bowlby’s research, common behavioral theories proposed that attachment was primarily a learned behavior due to the provision of food and/or shelter by the caregiver to the child. However, Bowlby’s theory progressed beyond this idea due to his particular interest in the anxiety and distress most children feel when separated from their caregivers.

A key finding, therefore, was when Bowlby discovered that feedings/nourishment did not reduce separation anxiety.[2] Bowlby realized that attachment styles were characterized by marked motivational and behavioral patterns whereby a child seeks out their primary caregiver when frightened in order to receive care, comfort, and pleasure.

Another prominent attachment theorist was the psychoanalyst Mary Ainsworth. During the 1970s, her groundbreaking study, the “strange situation,” expounded upon Bowlby’s original research to reveal the profound effects of attachment on infant behavior.

The strange situation study observed infants between the ages of twelve and eighteen months during a scenario where they were briefly separated from, then reunited with, their mothers.[3]

The findings led to Ainsworth’s description of three key attachment styles:

  1. Secure attachment
  2. Ambivalent-insecure attachment
  3. Avoidant-insecure attachment

In 1986, researchers Main and Solomon included a fourth attachment style called disorganized-insecure attachment.[4] 

Characteristics of Attachment

Bowlby explained that there are four significant characteristics of attachment:

  1. Proximity maintenance – Wanting to be close to the people we have formed attachments with.
  2. Safe haven – When frightened or under threat, the child returns to the attachment figure for safety and comfort.
  3. Secure base – The child explores the environment around them from a focal point and base of security as created by the attachment figure.
  4. Separation distress – Distress and anxiety that is displayed when the child is separated from the attachment figure.

The demonstration and formation of these four aspects will lead to an attachment style, which is carried by the child into adulthood and which will form the basis for all future relationships, be they familial, friendship-oriented, romantic, or work-related.

The Formation of Attachment

It is widely accepted that there are four distinct phases to the formation of attachment, and various factors influence how attachment develops. For example, a child raised in an orphanage is unlikely to have a primary caregiver and may grow up feeling unease and distrust of others and struggle to form secure bonds. In comparison, a child whose primary caregiver responded quickly and compassionately to their needs is more likely to have a secure sense of self and stability in relationships.

The four phases of attachment are:[5]

  1. Pre-Attachment (0 to 3 months) – At this age, infants’ signals, such as crying when hungry or in pain, attract the attention of their caregiver(s). Still, the infant doesn’t show signs of any particular attention to the caregiver(s) that respond.
  2. Indiscriminate Attachment (6 weeks to 7 months) – At this age, a preference for a particular caregiver develops. A trust forms between the infant and the caregiver who responds most positively to their needs. During this stage, infants also start to distinguish between those that are familiar and unfamiliar.
  3. Discriminate Attachment (7 months to 11 months) – Infants will now show strong attachment to a specific caregiver. They will display preference towards this individual and become anxious or distressed when separated or around strangers.
  4. Multiple Attachments (9 months onwards) – Around this age, infants will begin to forge emotional bonds with other caregivers, beyond the primary caregiver, such as a second parent, grandparents, close family friends, siblings, and pets.

The Four Attachment Styles Explained

As discovered by Mary Ainsworth and later expanded upon by Main and Soloman, there are four styles of attachment:[6]

Ambivalent attachment

  • Due to poor parental availability, these infants cannot depend on their caregiver for comfort, safety, or support.
  • There is often a strong suspicion of strangers.
  • These children may exhibit distress when separated from their caregiver, but they do not appear reassured or comforted by their return.
  • The child may even reject the caregiver or display aggression.

Avoidant attachment

  • This style may be the result of neglectful or abusive caregivers.
  • Children may be punished for seeking help or reassurance from a caregiver.
  • They learn to avoid caregivers and self-soothe.
  • They are unlikely to show preference between a caregiver and a stranger.

Disorganized attachment

  • This is usually a result of inconsistent caregiver behavior.
  • These children can exhibit an array of concerning behavior, such as confusion, disorientation, or appearing dazed.
  • This attachment style may avoid the parent as the caregiver is seen as a source of both fear and comfort.

Secure attachment

  • These children can depend on their caregivers to be available for them.
  • They will show distress if separated and joy when reunited.
  • This type is comfortable seeking reassurance from caregivers.

Attachment and Mental Health

Infants who fail to form secure attachments with their primary caregiver(s) often struggle to form positive relationships later in life and have been shown to be more at risk of mental health disorders such as substance use disorder, anxiety, and depression.

In contrast, children who are securely attached are more likely to have a strong sense of self, higher levels of self-esteem ,and increased self-reliance. These children additionally perform better at school, are more independent, have successful positive relationships, and experience improved mental health.[7] 

 If you are concerned about any issues discussed in this blog, please contact Heather R. Hayes & Associates – call 800-335-0316 or email info@heatherhayes.com today.


[1] Bowlby J. Attachment and Loss. Basic Books.

[2]Bowlby J. Attachment and loss: Retrospect and prospect. Am J Orthopsychiatry. 1982;52(4):664-678. doi:10.1111/j.1939-0025.1982.tb01456.x

[3] Ainsworth MD, Bell SM. Attachment, exploration, and separation: Illustrated by the behavior of one-year-olds in a strange situation. Child Dev. 1970;41(1):49-67. doi:10.2307/1127388

[4] Main M, Solomon J. Discovery of a new, insecure-disorganized/disoriented attachment pattern. In: Brazelton TB, Yogman M, eds., Affective Development in Infancy. Ablex.

[5] Schaffer HR, Emerson PE. The development of social attachments in infancy. Monogr Soc Res Child Dev. 1964;29:1-77. doi:10.2307/1165727

[6] Lyons-Ruth K. Attachment relationships among children with aggressive behavior problems: The role of disorganized early attachment patterns. J Consult Clin Psychol. 1996;64(1):64-73. doi:https:10.1037/0022-006X.64.1.64

[7] Young ES, Simpson JA, Griskevicius V, Huelsnitz CO, Fleck C. Childhood attachment and adult personality: A life history perspective. Self and Identity. 2019;18:1:22-38. doi:10.1080/15298868.2017.1353540

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