Monday, December 1, 2014

Attachment Theory

Attachment theory explores the relationships between humans using psychological, ethological and evolutional theory. John Bowlby, a British psychoanalyst and psychiatrist who lived from 1907 to 1990, created the original theory. The central tenet is the belief an infant needs to develop a relationship with one or more primary caregivers for normal emotional and social development to occur.

Bowlby believed in four basic, distinguishable characteristics in attachment. First is Proximity Maintenance. This is the desire to be close to the people to which we are attached. Second is Safe Haven. This is safety or comfort seeking with the attachment figure when feeling threatened or fearful. Third is Secure Base. Secure Base implies the attachment figure is a place the child can use and return to when exploring the surrounding environment, comforted that there is a place of security that acts as a touchstone, if needed, in which to return. Fourth is Separation Distress. This is the occurrence of anxiety when the attachment figure is not present.

Bowlby associated infant behavior with seeking proximity to an attachment figure (trusted caregiver) in situations of stress. The trusted caregivers establish Proximity Maintenance. Infants then become attached to caregivers who respond to them and are constant in their lives, especially from ages six months to two years, because they create a Safe Haven. As children approach the age of two, the child uses the attachment figures (caregivers familiar to them) as a Secure Base. The infant who is attached has an adaptive response of Separation Distress or Separation Anxiety when the attachment figure departs. This mechanism is an apparent survival mechanism for the child.

Initial criticism of Bowlby’s research came from the psychoanalytic community because of the departure from the predominant theory of the time. Later criticism came out of other disciplines after extensive empirical research surrounding the development of infant/child close relationships. However, the basis concepts associated with the theory have remained and serve as the foundation of theory, as well as the formulation of policy and practice in the arenas of social policy as it relates to children and childcare to enhance the attachments in early childhood.

Mary Salter Ainsworth, an American Developmental Psychologist who lived from 1913 to 1999, focused her work on emotional attachment. Through her research, she developed attachment patterns observed in infants: secure attachment, anxious/avoidant attachment and anxious/resistant attachment. She observed infants who experienced distress when their mother departed and sought comfort upon her return, referring to this as Secure Attachment. Ainsworth observed a lack of distress upon a mother’s departure from her infant and avoidance at her return, called Anxious/Avoidant Attachment. Ainsworth’s third category of observations involved a pattern of proximity to the mother in the initial minutes alone, followed by high levels of distress at mother’s departure, seeking comfort upon her return, followed by rejection at the closeness. She referred to this third category as Anxious/Resistant Attachment.

A fourth category was later theorized, called Disorganized Attachment, theorized by Mary Main and Judith Solomon. Disorganized Attachment resembles the Anxious/Avoidant infants/children, but had significant ambivalence upon reunion with the caretaker, both approaching and avoiding. Bowlby described this as pulling away with anger while seeking to be close. offers online prep for NASW. Unlimited access to practice exams, case studies, simulations, video, audio, and flash cards 24/7.