Attachment Theory

The development of an attachment is a complex process. Through the process, some children develop secure, trusting bonds – while others do not. According to attachment theory, the behavior of caregivers can influence this process positively or detrimentally, depending on their actions and the situation.

What is attachment theory?

The central idea of attachment theory is that humans are born with a biological drive to develop a deep emotional bond with their caregiver – a bond that extends beyond having basic physical needs met.

The security of our early relationships can go on to influence our psychological wellbeing and relationships later in life. Children who do not have close, secure emotional bonds are more likely to go on to experience difficulties in the future.

Stages of attachment in childhood

According to attachment theory, there are four stages of forming an attachment between a child and their caregiver:

  1. Pre-attachment: Newborn infants naturally do things that attract the attention of their caregivers, such as crying. They are soothed and comforted by their caregivers but do not yet show a preference for being soothed by them specifically.
  2. Indiscriminate attachment: From around 6 weeks, infants develop a closer bond with their caregiver, and show a preference for being soothed by them over others. They engage in more behaviors that attract their caregiver’s attention and can be soothed by them more quickly.
  3. Discriminate attachment: From around 7 months, there is a strong and preferential attachment to the child's caregiver. The child may become upset when separated from this primary attachment figure.
  4. Multiple attachments: From around 18 months onwards, the child forms attachments with more than one person. As the child develops language and communication skills they develop an internal sense of security. This means that, for example, they begin to understand that if their caregiver leaves, that they will return. They become aware that their caregiver is supporting them even when they are not physically present.

Attachment styles

Children tend to develop a particular style of attachment to their caregiver. Attachment styles include:

This aspect of attachment theory is grounded in the research of developmental psychologist, Mary Ainsworth. Later developments in attachment theory led to a general consensus that these early attachments can go on to influence relationships in adulthood. [1]

How is attachment theory important to therapy?

It is thought that early attachments can continue to influence us in adulthood, affecting how we:

For example, research shows that an insecure attachment can impact on our later experiences of depression and anxiety, as well as our attitudes and self-esteem. [2] As such, attachment theory is relevant to how mental health professionals provide therapy today.

Therapists might draw on attachment theory to understand a person’s maladaptive coping strategies and any underlying needs and teach more adaptive coping strategies. Some types of therapy are specifically based on the theory, such as: