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Attachment Theory

Formulated in the 1950-60s by British psychiatrist John Bowlby, attachment theory is based in psychology, evolution and ethology (study of animal behavior). It asserts that young children need to form a strong early attachment to at least one primary caregiver to develop a normal social and emotional development. 

Strong attachment gives babies a sense of security and a supportive foundation to interact freely with their environment, explore, learn from new experiences and connect with others:

As infants, 6 months-2 years, they seek an attachment figure in stressful situations and become attached to adults who are sensitive, responsive and consistent caregivers. 

As toddlers, they use attachment figures (familiar people) as a secure base to explore from and return to. 

Parental responses develop mental patterns of attachment, and these guide an individual’s feelings, thoughts and expectations in later relationships. 

Separation anxiety or grief following the loss of an attachment figure is considered to be an attached infant’s normal, adaptive response (also see separation anxiety disorder). These behaviors may have evolved because they increase the probability of a child’s survival. 

In the 1960-70s, developmental psychologist Mary Ainsworth introduced the “secure base” concept and theories of infant attachment patterns: secure attachment, avoidant attachment and anxious attachment. A fourth pattern, disorganized attachment, was identified later. 

In the 1980s, attachment theory was extended to adults, including peer relationships at all ages, romantic and sexual attraction and responses to the care needs of infants or the sick and elderly.

Phases and patterns of attachment

Also in the 1960-70s, researchers Rudolph Schaffer and Peggy Emerson analyzed infant attachment relationships. Their longitudinal study indicated attachments were most likely to form with those who responded accurately to the baby’s signals, not the person they spent more time with (referred to as sensitive responsiveness). 

    • Intensely attached infants had mothers who responded quickly to their demands and interacted with their child. 
    • Weakly attached infants had mothers who failed to interact. Without a healthy foundation, babies may grow to be fearful, confused, insecure and, ultimately, become depressed or even suicidal as adolescents

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