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Attachment: The Foundation of Human Relationships

In scientific terms, attachment refers to the drive or relationship characterized by the pursuit and preservation of proximity. Proximity is Latin for “nearness”. In its broadest definition, the human attachment includes the movement toward nearness of every kind: physical, emotional, and psychological.

Securely Attached

A Brief Introduction to Attachment Theory

The theory of attachment was developed by John Bowlby in the 1950s, a British psychoanalyst who was attempting to understand the intense distress experienced by children/infants who had been separated from their parents. Bowlby observed that separated infants would go extraordinary lengths (i.e. crying, smiling, clinging, frantically searching) to prevent separation from their parents or to reestablish proximity/closeness to a missing parent.

Bowlby recognized that there are individual differences in the way children appraise the accessibility of the attachment figure and how they regulate their attachment behaviour in response to threats. However, it wasn’t until his colleague, Mary Ainsworth, an American developmental psychologist developed a technique known as Strange Situation, to systematically study infant-parent separations that established a formal understanding of these individual differences.

The Strange Situation

This technique assessed different attachment styles by observing a child’s response when the mother briefly left the child in a room (sometimes with a stranger present) and returned/reunited. Note: the scenario described below is an abbreviated version of the test.

Jessy and her 12-month-old daughter, Kimmy, enter a room full of appealing toys. Little K starts to explore this newfound toy heaven – she crawls around, picks up toys, checks whether they roll, light up, or making funny noises while glancing at her mom from time to time.

A friendly young assistant enters the room and interacts with Jessy and K briefly. A couple of minutes later, Jessy is instructed to leave the room; she gets up and quietly walks out. The minute K realizes what has happened she becomes distraught. She crawls over to the door as quickly as she can; she calls out to her mother and bangs the door. Without her mom in sight, she starts sobbing.

The young assistant tries to interest K with the colourful building blocks, but this only makes K more agitated. After a short while, Jessy returns to the room and K rushes toward her, raises her arms to be held. They embrace one another, Jessy calmly reassures her daughter, K hugs her mom tight and stops sobbing. Once she is at ease again, she resumes playing.

The Four Attachment Styles (Childhood)

They observed and outlined four attachment styles:

  • Secure
  • Anxious
  • Avoidant
  • Disorganised

Secure (just over 50%): The baby is visibly distressed when mommy leaves the room. When the mother returns, he is very happy and eager to greet her. Once in the safety of her presence, he is quick to be assured, calm down, and resume play activity.

Anxious (20%): This baby becomes extremely distressed when mommy leaves the room. When her mother returns, she reacts ambivalent – she is happy to see her but angry at the same time. She takes longer to calm down, and even when she does, it is only temporary. A few seconds later, she’ll angrily push mommy away, wriggle down, and burst into tears again.

Avoidant (25%): When mommy leaves the room, this baby acts as though nothing has happened. She shows little distress over the mother’s absence. Upon her return, she remains unmoved, actively ignores her mom, and continues to play indifferently. But this façade doesn’t tell the whole story. In fact, inside, this baby is neither calm nor collected. Researchers found that these babies’ heart rates are just as elevated as other babies who express immense distress, and their cortisol (stress hormone) levels are high.

Disorganised (combination of anxious & avoidant; 3-5%): This baby shows signs of disorganisation. She cries for her mom at the door and running quickly away when the door opens. She approaches her mom with her head down. She looks dazed, seeming to freeze for a few seconds, and engages in repetitive behaviours.  

Parents’ Style of Interaction on Attachment  

Like any relationship, infant-parent attachment is a two-way, mutually reinforcing process that develops through parental attunement to the baby’s needs, involving a tone, pitch, and rhythm of the voice, posture, facial expression, movement and touch.

Children with a secure attachment, tend to have parents who are sensitive and responsive to their state, mood, and interests and did not interfere with their children’s activity. They are accepting of their child, and their acceptance overrides any frustrations, irritations they feel, so they rarely reject their baby. They are physically, emotionally, and psychologically available; they are alert to the baby’s signals and actively acknowledge and respond to them.  

Children with avoidant attachment, tend to have parents who are intrusive and rejecting – who fail to respond to the baby’s signals, rarely have bodily contact, and often act angry and irritable when they are together.

Children with anxious attachment, tend to have parents who are unaffectionate and inconsistent responsive – who sometimes respond, and at other times ignore their baby’s needs. The child doesn’t know what to expect – a kind word or a cold glance.

Children with disorganized attachment, are likely to experience the worst caregiving. Their parents often neglect them or abuse them physically and emotionally.

Note: Whilst children’s attachment styles are substantially influenced by those of their parents, however, maternal depression, parental age and education, major stressful events (i.e. loss of a parent, severe illness, marital relationships and breakdown), culture, institutionalization and foster care – all in which affect the quality of attachment relationships.  

Continuity across the Lifespan

Attachments develop throughout the lifespan, but early foundations in childhood remain crucial. It creates a ‘template’ for future relationships as what Bowlby referred to as an internal working model. As children grow into adulthood and when they become parents themselves, they tend to recreate relationships with their children that replicate the internal working model of their own relationships in childhood. That said, attachment is stable but also plastic – meaning it can be changed.

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