Attachment: An introduction

Attachment: an introduction

Understanding the theories of attachment.

What is Attachment?

Attachment is described as a unique emotional bond between carer and child that involves an exchange of comfort, care and pleasure. The attachment system has ‘its own internal motivation distinct form feeding and sex and of no less importance to survival’ (Bowlby (1988). This system is used to promote survival of young children by ensuring that they stay close to their caregiver, especially when there is threat. When a threat does occur, children will show specific behaviours to try and establish contact with an attachment figure – which include crying, clinging, or being quiet. How the attachment figure responds will impact on how the child’s attachment develops.

Over time children will internalise their attachment experiences with their caregivers and develop an ‘internal working model’ of how they view themselves, others and the world. These internal working models then impact on how the child interacts with others, and in turn how others interact with them. Therefore they form the basis of their personality. The hypothesis is that, unless there is intervention at an earlier age, we take similar attachment styles through into our adulthood.

Attachment Styles

Mary Ainsworth (1978) is credited with developing the idea of attachment styles.  These are:

  • A secure attachment, where children will seek closeness to their parental figure, show distress when separated and have some interest when introduced to strangers.
  • An anxious-ambivalent attachment, where the child will show significant distress when separated from their caregiver, will be difficult to console or comfort and require constant attention and closeness from this person. 
  • An avoidant attachment, where children do not show any sign of distress when separated from the caregiver, may not show interest when they return and may treat people they know and strangers the same. 

Main and Soloman (1986) later added a fourth attachment style:

  • Disorganised attachment, which is characterised by a child who appears confused and disorientated in their interactions with caregivers. 

Bartholomew and Horowitz (1991) developed the dimensional model of attachment, based on the idea that as young children we learn internal positive or negative representations of ourselves and others. The mixture of how someone views themselves and others will effect the attachment style that they have. They identified the four types of attachment as:

  • Secure (positive view of self and others)
  • Dismissive (positive view of self, negative of others)
  • Anxious/ Preoccupied (negative view of self, positive view of others)
  • Fearful/ Avoidant (negative view of self and others).

Can attachment styles change?

Crittenden (2005) suggests that attachment experiences can impact on our neurobiology significantly in the first two years of life. However, attachments are ‘plastic’ and are open to change if people experience life events that are inconsistent with the initial attachment that is developed.

  • After the age of six attachment will be affected by social and environmental factors, such as forming reciprocal relationships, as we move away from being reliant on our caregivers. 
  • It is from the age of seven that we start to make our own cognitive evaluation of others (moving from concrete beliefs to using the environment to decide on what we think).  
  • In puberty, sexuality and developing intimate relationships offers another significant point when attachments can be changed.

Therefore, significant positive relationships at any of these times can help to ‘mend’ insecure attachments.  The brain remains plastic and therefore such changes can also help to change the neurobiology of this.  

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