The best way to understand Attachment Theory is to know where it came from. For that, we look to John Bowlby, a British psychologist, psychiatrist, psychoanalyst, and research developer (Impressive resume!). Bowlby began studying this topic in the 1940s in London during World War II, by looking into the effects of parental deprivation on orphaned, abandoned and hospitalised children. He then compared them to children who lived at home and received continuous attention from their parents. From this study, he found that the children who were deprived of parental care had a lower level of social, emotional, and intellectual development. This included difficulty in forming relationships, processing their own emotions, and general misbehaviour…From here Attachment Theory was born!
Over time, Bowlby argued that the emotional tie that exists between the primary caregiver and child exists to promote survival, as the security and comfort that is offered help with healthy development. As an infant, the child is entirely reliant on their parents for any stress and emotional regulation, so that care is paramount in creating a well-adjusted human being.
Another major player in the world of Attachment Theory is Mary Ainsworth. Ainsworth worked closely with Bowlby and eventually built upon his research by creating ‘The Strange Situation’, which gave birth to the labelling of attachment styles. Attachment Theory states that there are four different attachment styles (Secure, Insecure-Avoidant, Insecure-Ambivalent, Disorganized) that a person can have, and this can define how your internal working model is formed. More on attachment styles here.
The Strange Situation involves 5 steps:
- Parent and infant enter a room and begin playing. The infant gets used to their surroundings.
- Parent sits on a couch while the infant continues to play.
- A stranger enters the room and talks to the parent.
- Parent leaves the room while the infant is playing. Infant may become distressed, and the stranger will comfort the child.
- Parent returns and greets the infant, offering comfort if needed. The stranger leaves.
The whole process is then repeated twice. Check out the video to watch it happen.
The key step for labeling the attachment style of the infant lies in step 5. Ainsworth found that the way the infant responded when the parent returned to the room defined what kind of attachment the infant held. The four attachment styles each offered a different reaction:
- The securely attached child would feel comfortable exploring the room autonomously, and while they may be upset when the parent leaves the room, they were not a challenge by calming down when their parent returned.
- The insecure-avoidantly attached child would continue exploring the room even after the parent has left, and is unlikely to show any signs of distress. They hide their feelings well, so if they show any signs of distress they are likely to return to a neutral state quickly. The child will also be likely to avoid their parent when they return.
- Interestingly, the heart rate of an avoidant child will elevate to a similar level to the other attachment styles, but this is not shown externally.
- The insecure-ambivalently attached child would be clingy with their parent and less likely to explore the room. When the parent leaves they become very distressed and are unlikely to settle upon reunion. The child will swap between wanting to be comforted by the parent and angrily pushing the parent away. Their emotions are highly exaggerated.
- The disorganized attached child would seem fearful when their parent returns and may freeze or tune out the world around them. They can also have a mix between the two insecure styles; potentially crying on separation, but then turning away from the parent when they return.
The creation of these four styles has allowed a stronger understanding of the concepts around Attachment Theory and how the internal working model is formed around a secure base. Ainsworth was also able to look at how the parent chose to soothe their child as an indicator of how the attachment style of the child was formed, as the parent is the one that teaches the child how to regulate their emotions.
From here both Bowlby and Ainsworth continued their studies to hone in on what Attachment Theory is, and what to do with this new awareness. Studies were formed in places like Baltimore and Uganda to continue looking at this early formation of emotion regulation that happens during these key moments of our childhood. Throughout time there has been the development of cultural and therapeutic implications, as well as a look at how this style affects our life span.
While John Bowlby passed away in 1990, Attachment Theory still holds strong and has stood the test of time. The theory is still used during psychoanalytic work and can support patients in building their secure base. As well as this, people that can build a strong awareness of what their attachment style is can support themselves in how they choose to regulate their emotions or respond to triggering situations.
Attachment Theory has also made its way into other modalities, like relationship counseling. The Emotion-Focused Therapy model looks at how our attachment styles affect the way we relate and communicate with other people, with intimate relationships being a HUGE part of this. Throughout this site, you will see how Attachment Theory can affect you in all stages of life, and how you can support your own growth by learning to love your style.