Skip to content

Attachment theory

In the old days, children were conceived as the small version of adults. Child psychology, one of the most studied branches of psychology, specialized in the infant mind, in the study of the psychological processes of children and, specifically, in discovering how these processes determine their behavior and differ from that of adults. This branch of psychology ranges from prenatal development to adolescence.

Freud  affirmed at the time that all behavior of the adult individual dates back to his childhood ; especially in the first years of life, where the child begins to discover the world in which he lives. Attachment is a fundamental pillar in the development of the personality; The types of relationships that will be formed in the future depend on this. Below we will delve into this process and its stages.

Bowlby attachment theory

Attachment theory was developed by the British psychologist John Bowlby; It focuses on relationships and bonds between people, particularly long-term relationships, which can include relationships between parents and children, between siblings, friends or between loving partners.

The intense, deep and lasting emotional bond that characterizes attachment connects one person to another across time and space. This bond does not have to be reciprocal, as an individual may be attached to another who does not share it.

Bowlby described attachment as an enduring psychological connection between human beings, and stated that the first bonds children have with their caregivers have a tremendous impact that can continue into adulthood.

The author of this theory began to investigate this process after he carried out his work as a child psychiatrist in a Child Guidance Clinic in London in 1930. In various therapies, he dealt with emotionally disturbed children and with their parents, who conveyed certain concerns about the narrow and dependent behavior that their children exhibited at a certain age. These concerns were transferred to the psychoanalyst, who was interested in understanding the separation anxiety and anguish that children experience when separated from their parents or primary caregivers.

One of the earliest theories of child behavior suggested that attachment was simply a behavior learned by the child. It was proposed that this was simply the result of the feeding relationship between the child and his caregiver. Because the caregiver feeds the child and provides the food, the child becomes attached.

In 1952, Bowlby, in collaboration with social worker James Robertson, observed and studied the effects on children under three years of age who had been separated from their mother (primary caregiver). In the 1950s, prolonged hospitalizations and excluded parents were routine, even though it was common knowledge in the community that children had “changed for the worse.”

Bowlby and Robertson found that when fed by other people, the anxiety and distress that children experienced when separated from their parents or primary caregivers still did not stop. On the contrary, they noted that attachment displayed certain specific patterns of behavior and motivation; therefore, Bowlby suggested that attachment was characterized by specific behaviors in children, for example, proximity to the attachment figure when they are upset or feel threatened.

Within attachment theory, they identified three stages that children experience when they are separated from their main caregiver: protest, despair, and detachment.

  1. Protest: occurs when the child expects his mother / caregiver to respond to his cries. When she does not come the child is intensely anguished – for him it is the worst thing in the world -; He is visibly annoyed and searches for her incessantly.
  2. Despair: occurs when the mother / caregiver remains absent. In these moments the child loses hope, thinks that he will not return, becomes withdrawn and quiet.
  3. Detachment: It shows when the child shows more interest in his surroundings and seems happy, which Robertson called a sign of danger. He believed that the child was simply making the best of the situation, but found that when his mother / caregiver returned, the child reacted as if he did not know her, and no longer cried when he left again.

These three stages occur in any young child separated from his mother / caregiver over a period of weeks and sometimes in a matter of days. Bowlby and Robertson were able to witness firsthand the effects of parent-child separation. Although foster and adoptive parents do not witness their children go through these stages, they can imagine and empathize with the early abandonment of their children.

Stages of attachment

For Bowlby, the attachment process is divided into four stages: pre-apprehension, attachment formation, true attachment, and reciprocal relationship formation.


Pre-attachment is understood between birth and 3 months of age. During the first 3 months of life, babies are said to be in the stage of attachment to indiscriminate social sensitivity. They do not yet show any particular attachment to a caregiver. They react indiscriminately to the company of other people and respond the same to any of their caregivers.

The basic needs of the baby, such as hunger and security, drive their receptivity to other humans. At this stage, the baby is interested in anyone; clear preference does not exist for one human over another.

Attachment formation

The second stage of attachment occurs from 3 months and continues until 7 months of age. At this time the baby begins to discriminate social responsiveness and shows preference for one caregiver over another. Direct the greatest emotion, through smiles, laughter and crying towards the closest caregivers. However, they are still friendly with strange caregivers.

True attachment

From 7 months to 11 months of age, babies show a strong attachment to their preferred caregiver. During this stage, babies and young children form specific emotional bonds, most often with their mothers.

While they go through this stage of attachment, they will remain very close to the person with whom the bond has been formed and will be upset and distressed when that person is not around. Then you can easily comfort yourself when the attachment figure returns. In this phase, the baby or child also forms multiple close relationships, especially with the other parent and their family.

You may also be interested in:   Emotional intelligence: concept and categories

Strong attachment has great benefits in the emotional development of the child. Exploratory behavior increases as the attachment figure becomes a secure base; a point of safety where the baby can feel comfortable playing and exploring away from him, but can go quickly to it if he is scared or needs security.

Formation of reciprocal relationships

This is a stage of mutual adjustment and regulation, where relationships are directed to the autonomy of the child. From 18 months the child begins to become more independent and can form different attachments.

In this fourth and final stage children can take the goals of others and consider adjusting their plans according to their objectives. For example, if a 5-year-old is thirsty, he can pour himself a glass of water or wait patiently for the adult to provide the drink, unlike a 2-year-old, who does not yet have a trained emotional makeup. to achieve patience. This stage lasts until adulthood.

Attachment process anxieties

After the emotional attachment is already formed between the caregiver and the baby, fears also appear. Fears related to attachments manifest in two ways: separation anxiety and anxiety about the lack of the attachment figure.

Separation anxiety

Separation anxiety is the stage in which the child experiences anxiety, such as restlessness and mistrust, when separated from the primary caregiver. Separation anxiety usually appears around 8 months of age and peaks between 14 and 18 months of age.

Over time, this type of anxiety becomes less frequent and intense, especially when children begin to better understand their reality and can feel safe in their family environment, trusting that the caregiver will return. In extreme cases, separation anxiety can cause a child to refuse to go to school or other places for fear of separation.

Anxiety about strangers or lack of attachment figure

Attachment figure anxiety is a form of distress that infants and young children feel when exposed to people they do not know. It usually starts slowly and begins to show at 6 to 12 months of age, particularly between 8 and 9 months of age.

This type of anxiety is a sign that the baby is maturing psychologically. It means that you have learned the difference between people you know and people you don’t know. He begins to understand that his caregiver is a being apart from him and there are other people who can play the role of caregiver.

The work model and the attachment figure

With the help of working models, children predict the likely behavior of the attachment figure and plan their own responses. For example: if the attachment figure has recognized the baby’s needs for comfort and protection at the same time , while respecting the baby’s need for exploration, independent of the environment, the child is likely to develop a positive inner work model, and consider to that figure as valuable and trustworthy. On the contrary, if the attachment figure frequently rejects the baby’s demands , the child is likely to build a negative internal working model, and consider the figure as unworthy or incompetent.

People who grow up to be relatively stable and self-sufficient usually have parents who have been supportive when asked, but who also allow and encourage autonomy. For Bowlby, the inheritance of mental health and ill health through the family environment is no less important than genetic inheritance, although the latter is the main cause of some psychopathologies.

Types of attachment

There are various types of attachment, which are based on the way caregivers relate to and respond to the child’s needs.

Secure attachment

Children who experience or have experienced secure attachment are children who feel confident that their attachment caregiver will be there when they are needed. These children are generally more likely to view others as supportive and helpful people, and to be competent and worthy of respect.

Those with a secure attachment interact positively with others and show self-confidence, resilience , participate in complex games, and are more successful in interactions with other children. They show great empathic skills and trust in other people.

Ambivalent attachment

Children with anxious attachment or ambivalent attachment usually lack confidence in themselves and in others, therefore, when faced with strangers, it is common for them to stay close to their main caregivers. They can show exaggerated emotional reactions and maintain distance from their peers, leading to social isolation.

This type of attachment occurs when the caregiver becomes inconsistent in responding to the child’s needs. It occurs, for example, if the mother is inconsistently available to the child or baby, and when she is really available, she worries about other things and does not tune in to this in her responses. These behavior patterns make children unsure about whether their mothers will actually be there when they need them.

Insecure attachment

Children with insecure attachments are generally less effective in handling stressful situations; They tend to lose control easily and are likely to withdraw and resist seeking help from others, preventing them from forming satisfactory relationships with others. They commonly display aggression and antisocial behavior, such as lying and bullying, and tend to distance themselves from others to reduce emotional stress .

Those who have insecure attachment are independent of their attachment figure both physically and emotionally. This type of attachment occurs when the caregiver constantly fails to respond to the child’s needs for protection and security, which does not allow him to later develop the feeling of trust that he needs.

Disorganized attachment

Disorganized attachment makes children unable to develop an organized strategy to cope with separation distress, and they tend to display aggression, disruptive behaviors, and social isolation. They are more likely to view others as threats rather than sources of support, therefore they can switch between social isolation and aggressive defensive behavior.

 | Website

Hello Readers, I am Nikki Bella a Psychology student. I have always been concerned about human behavior and the mental processes that lead us to act and think the way we do. My collaboration as an editor in the psychology area of ​​Well Being Pole has allowed me to investigate further and expand my knowledge in the field of mental health; I have also acquired great knowledge about physical health and well-being, two fundamental bases that are directly related and are part of all mental health.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *