Attachment Theory: What It Is, Stages & the Different Attachment Styles

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teenager mother teen

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Attachment theory sounds like a complicated concept, but when you're a parent it can sometimes boil down to a crying, clinging child who does not want to be separated from you.

Put simply, attachment theory explores the lasting psychological and emotional bonds between individuals.

Developed by British psychologist John Bowlby and then expanded by scientist Mary Ainsworth, think of attachment theory as a lasting feeling of connectedness between human beings.

Here, experts offer insights into its core principles, stages and attachment styles. Bowlby emphasized the significance of secure infant-caregiver attachments, proposing distinct stages in attachment formation. Ainsworth's research introduced different attachment styles. Understanding attachment theory can help you navigate relationships and emotions with greater understanding and empathy.

1. What is attachment theory?

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mother and baby

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Attachment theory is explained in a video published by students from McMaster University, in Ontario, Canada. In the video, students explain that the theory of attachment was discovered by John Bowlby, a British psychologist, back in 1969.

Bowlby was trying to comprehend the intense distress experienced by infants who had been separated from their parents. Bowlby believed that behaviors such as crying and searching were adaptive responses to separation from a primary attachment figure who provides support, protection and care.

2. Bowlby attachment theory

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small child crying covering his eyes

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Bowlby's theory of attachment, as outlined in a recent article published by Simply Psychology, highlights the importance of secure attachments between infants and caregivers for healthy psychological development. His theory says that children come into the world pre-programmed to form attachments with others, because this will help them survive.

Bowlby's attachment theory highlights the role of innate behaviors in infants and caregivers, promoting the formation of secure attachments. A secure base provided by a caregiver fosters confidence, trust and emotional stability in infants. However, Bowlby emphasizes a critical period for attachment formation, stressing that delayed mothering can have severe and lasting consequences.

During those critical first 12 months, if a child experiences separation from their primary caregiver without receiving sufficient substitute emotional care, they will suffer the effects of deprivation.

  • Delinquency

  • Reduced intelligence

  • Increased aggression

  • Depression

  • Affectionless psychopathy

3. Ainsworth attachment theory

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mother and infant in carrier

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Mary Ainsworth, an American-Canadian psychologist, is another prominent figure in the field of attachment theory, renowned for her influential study known as the Strange Situation. In an article written by R. Chris Fraley for the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, he discusses how the study aimed to examine different attachment styles exhibited by infants in the presence of their primary caregiver and in unfamiliar situations. Ainsworth observed the behaviors and reactions of infants when faced with brief separations from and reunions with their primary caregivers.

In her work, Ainsworth identified three primary attachment styles:

  • Secure

  • Anxious-resistant

  • Avoidant

4. Stages of attachment

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father with a child

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Understanding the phases of attachment development is crucial for comprehending the progression of emotional bonds between individuals. In a brief video created by the University of Washington, the stages of attachment are defined as follows:

  • Pre-attachment phase: This phase occurs from birth to around 6 weeks. Infants are inherently social and show preference for human faces, but their interactions are not yet focused on a specific caregiver.

  • Attachment-in-the-making phase: This phase picks up around 6 weeks and lasts until the infant is 6 to 8 months of age. Here, infants begin to form a preference for a particular caregiver, seeking proximity to that person and displaying some distress when separated.

  • Clear-cut attachment phase: This phase starts between 6 and 8 months and goes until sometime between 18 and 24 months. Infants actively seek proximity to their primary caregiver, show separation anxiety and rely on the caregiver as a secure base from which to explore the world.

  • Reciprocal relationship phase: This phase begins around 18 to 24 months and continues onwards. Children develop more complex relationships with their caregivers, actively seeking and maintaining closeness, engaging in shared play, and showing greater emotional understanding and communication.

5. Attachment styles

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mother and infant in baby stroller

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An article by the Cleveland Clinic explores the four primary attachment types identified in attachment theory, shedding light on the diverse ways in which individuals form and experience emotional bonds.

The four attachment types discussed in the article are:

  • Secure attachment: Babies became upset when their parent left and were comforted by their return.

  • Anxious attachment: When parents leave, babies became highly distressed and exhibited difficulty in finding comfort upon their return.

  • Avoidant attachment: Babies would show minimal or no reaction when their parent left or returned, exhibiting little response to these separations and reunions.

  • Disorganized attachment: This fourth attachment style was added in 1986 by child development researchers Mary Main and Judith Solomon to classify babies who displayed unpredictable or disorganized reactions to their parent's departures or arrivals, which could include behaviors like hitting their heads on the ground or experiencing a freeze response.

6. Source and more information

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same-sex parents gay

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Source: Francyne Zeltser, PsyD, director, mental health services, Manhattan Psychology Group, New York City

For more information on child health, check out these additional resources:

Newborn Screening: What It Is, What It Covers and Why It’s Important

Aggression in Kids: What Every Parent Needs to Know

Unexplained Vomiting in a Child: A Doctor Offers Guidance

What Is Croup? Its Symptoms and Treatment

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