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What is Attachment Theory

What is Attachment Theory?

The concept of attachment, founded by psychiatrist John Bowlby, refers to the quality of the relationship between a child and their parent or caregiver. Whilst this may sound scientific (and even a bit boring!), this concept is important for parents to understand as it essentially tells us that forming a strong relationship with your child is essential for their healthy development and wellbeing. Exploring this further, research has shown that the degree of attachment and security that parents and carers have with children has a big impact on many long-term developmental outcomes, including:

  • Brain development
  • Resilience
  • Self-esteem
  • Quality of relationships with friends, family, and future romantic partners
  • School readiness, learning, and long-term academic outcomes
  • Presence of absence of behavioural difficulties

Psychologist Mary Ainsworth, through her studies using the ‘Strange Situation’ (Ainsworth, 1970), along with later discoveries by Main and Solomon (1990), discovered that there are 4 attachment patterns:

  1. Secure attachment
    A child who is securely attached believes and trusts that their needs will be met by their caregiver/s. Their caregiver/s are sensitive and quick to respond to their needs, allowing the child to feel secure, independent, and confident to explore their environment.
  2. Ambivalent attachment
    A child who is experiencing ambivalent attachment cannot consistently rely on their needs to be met by their caregiver/s. They experience inconsistent parenting that is sometimes sensitive, yet sometimes neglectful. This leads to the child feeling anxious, insecure, and sometimes angry.
  3. Avoidant attachment
    A child experiencing avoidant attachment with their caregiver/s subconsciously believes that their needs probably won’t be met. Their caregiver/s are often distant and disengaged, resulting in the child feeling unable to safely explore their environment and experiencing a sense of emotional distance.
  4. Disorganised attachment
    A child who is experiencing disorganised attachment feels severely confused, with no strategy to have their needs met by the caregiver/s. They experience parenting that is extreme, frightening, and passive, often from parents who are themselves frightened. These children feel very scared and sad, with low self-esteem. They are passive and often feeling angry. 

When your child has a secure attachment with you, they are able to use you as a secure base from which they can venture out to explore their environment, in turn learning about the world and their place within it. Your child can also use you as a safe haven should they need comfort, protection, or help with calming down when they feel overwhelmed.

There are, of course, differences in how independently and how far children will venture out from their parents. These differences will depend on their age, temperament, and even what kind of day they are having! However, the important thing to know is that the key to fostering and building a secure relationship with your child is supporting their individual need and ability to venture out and explore, as well as their need to return to you, as often as you can.