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                                                   What Is Attachment Theory?

The Importance of Early Emotional Bonds

By Kendra Cherry

Attachment theory is focused on the relationships and bonds between people, particularly long-term relationships including those between a parent and child and between romantic partners.

British psychologist John Bowlby was the first attachment theorist, describing attachment as a "lasting psychological connectedness between human beings."

Bowlby was interested in understanding the separation anxiety and distress that children experience when separated from their primary caregivers.

Some of the earliest behavioral theories suggested that attachment was simply a learned behavior. These theories proposed that attachment was merely the result of feeding relationship between the child and the caregiver. Because the caregiver feeds the child and provide nourishment, the child becomes attached these theories suggested.

What Bowlby observed that even feedings did not diminish the anxiety experienced by children when they were separated from their primary caregivers. Instead, he found that attachment was characterized by clear behavioral and motivation patterns. When children are frightened, they will seek proximity from their primary caregiver in order to receive both comfort and care.

What is Attachment?

Attachment is an emotional bond to another person. Bowlby believed that the earliest bonds formed by children with their caregivers have a tremendous impact that continues throughout life. He suggested attachment also serves to keep the infant close to the mother, thus improving the child's chances of survival.

He viewed attachment as a product of evolutionary processes. While the behavioral theories of attachment suggested that attachment was a learned process, Bowlby and others proposed that children are born with an innate drive to form attachments with caregivers.

Throughout history, children who maintained proximity to an attachment figure were more likely to receive comfort and protection, and therefore more likely to survive to adulthood. Through the process of natural selection, a motivational system designed to regulate attachment emerged.

So what determines successful attachment? Behaviorists suggested that it was food that led to the formation of this attachment behavior, but Bowlby and others demonstrated that nurturance and responsiveness were the primary determinants of attachment.

The central theme of attachment theory is that primary caregivers who are available and responsive to an infant's needs allow the child to develop a sense of security.

The infant knows that the caregiver is dependable, which creates a secure base for the child to then explore the world.

Ainsworth's "Strange Situation"

In her 1970's research, psychologistMary Ainsworth expanded greatly upon Bowlby's original work. Her groundbreaking "Strange Situation"study revealed the profound effects of attachment on behavior. In the study, researchers observed children between the ages of 12 and 18 months as they responded to a situation in which they were briefly left alone and then reunited with their mothers.

Based upon the responses the researchers observed, Ainsworth described three major styles of attachment: secure attachment, ambivalent-insecure attachment, and avoidant-insecure attachment. Later, researchers Main and Solomon (1986) added a fourth attachment style called disorganized-insecure attachment based upon their own research. A number of studies since that time have supported Ainsworth's attachment styles and have indicated that attachment styles also have an impact on behaviors later in life.

Maternal Deprivation Studies

Harry Harlow's infamous studies on maternal deprivation and social isolation during the 1950s and 1960s also explored early bonds. In a series of experiments, Harlow demonstrated how such bonds emerge and the powerful impact they have on behavior and functioning. In one version of his experiment, newborn rhesus monkeys were separated from their birth mothers and reared by surrogate mothers. The infant monkeys were placed in cages with two wire monkey mothers. One of the wire monkeys held a bottle from which the infant monkey could obtain nourishment, while the other wire monkey was covered in a soft terry cloth.

While the infant monkeys would go to the wire mother to obtain food, they spend most of their days with the soft cloth mother. When frightened, the baby monkeys would turn to their cloth-covered mother for comfort and security.

Harlow's work also demonstrated that early attachments were the result of receiving comfort and care from a caregiver rather than simply the result of being fed.

The Stages of Attachment

Researchers Rudolph Schaffer and Peggy Emerson analyzed the number of attachment relationships that infants form in a longitudinal study with 60 infants. The infants were observed every four weeks during the first year of life, and then once again at 18 months. Based upon their observations, Schaffer and Emerson outlined four distinct phases of attachment.

  1. Pre-attachment Stage: From birth to three months, infants do not show any particular attachment to a specific caregiver. The infant's signals such as crying and fussing naturally attract the attention of the caregiver, and the baby's positive responses encourage the caregiver to remain close.
  2. Indiscriminate Attachment: From around six weeks of age to seven months, infants begin to show preferences for primary and secondary caregivers. During this phase, infants begin to develop a feeling of trust that the caregiver will respond to their needs. While they will still accept care from other people, they become much better at distinguishing between familiar and unfamiliar people as they approach seven months of age. They also respond more positively to the primary caregiver.
  3. Discriminate Attachment: At this point, from about seven to eleven months of age, infants show a strong attachment and preference for one specific individual. They will protest when separated from the primary attachment figure (separation anxiety), and begin to display anxiety around strangers (stranger anxiety).
  4. Multiple Attachments: After approximately nine months of age, children begin to form strong emotional bonds with other caregivers beyond the primary attachment figure. This often includes the father, older siblings, and grandparents.
While this process may seem straightforward, there are a number of different factors that can influence how and when attachments develop. First is the opportunity for attachment. Children that do not have a primary care figure, such as those raised in orphanages, may fail to develop the sense of trust needed to form an attachment. Second, the quality of care-giving is a vital factor. When caregivers respond quickly and consistently, children learn that they can depend on the people who are responsible for their care, which is the essential foundation for attachment.

Patterns of Attachment

Secure Attachment

Secure attachment is marked by distress when separated from caregivers and are joyful when the caregiver returns. Remember, these children feel secure and able to depend on their adult caregivers. When the adult leaves, the child may be upset but he or she feels assured that the parent or caregiver will return.

When frightened, securely attached children will seek comfort from caregivers. These children know their parent or caregiver will provide comfort and reassurance, so they are comfortable seeking them out in times of need.

Ambivalent Attachment

Ambivalently attached children usually become very distressed when a parent leaves. This attachment style is considered relatively uncommon, affecting an estimated 7-15% of U.S. children. Research suggests that ambivalent attachment is a result of poor maternal availability. These children cannot depend on their mother (or caregiver) to be there when the child is in need.

Avoidant Attachment

Children with an avoidant attachment tend to avoid parents or caregivers. When offered a choice, these children will show no preference between a caregiver and a complete stranger. Research has suggested that this attachment style might be a result of abusive or neglectful caregivers. Children who are punished for relying on a caregiver will learn to avoid seeking help in the future.

Disorganized Attachment

Children with a disorganized attachment often display a confusing mix of behavior and may seem disoriented, dazed, or confused. Children may both avoid or resist the parent. Some researchers believe that the lack of a clear attachment pattern is likely linked to inconsistent behavior from caregivers. In such cases, parents may serve as both a source of comfort and a source of fear, leading to disorganized behavior.

Problems with Attachment

What happens to children who do not form secure attachments? Research suggests that failure to form secure attachments early in life can have a negative impact on behavior in later childhood and throughout the life. Children diagnosed with oppositional-defiant disorder (ODD), conduct disorder (CD) or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) frequently display attachment problems, possibly due to early abuse, neglect or trauma. Clinicians suggest that children adopted after the age of six months have a higher risk of attachment problems.

While attachment styles displayed in adulthood are not necessarily the same as those seen in infancy, research indicates that early attachments can have a serious impact on later relationships. For example, those who are securely attached in childhood tend to have good self-esteem, strong romantic relationships and the ability to self-disclose to others. As adults, they tend to have healthy, happy and lasting relationships. For more information, see this article on attachment styles.

Why Attachment Matters

Researchers have found that attachment patterns established early in life can lead to a number of outcomes. For example, children who are securely attached as infants tend to develop stronger self-esteem and better self-reliance as they grow older. These children also tend to be more independent, perform better in school, have successful social relationships, and experience less depression and anxiety.

Did you enjoy this article? Sign up for the free Psychology Newsletter to get the latest psychology updates and to learn more about diverse topics including social behavior, personality, development, memory, creativity and much more. Subscribe today!


Ainsworth, M. D. S., Blehar, M. C., Waters, E., & Wall, S. (1978). Patterns of attachment: A psychological study of the strange situation. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Ainsworth, M. D. S. (1991). Attachments and other affectional bonds across the life cycle. In C . M. Parkes, J. Stevenson-Hinde, & P. Marris (Eds.), Attachment across the life cycle (pp. 33-51). London: Routledge.

Bowlby, J. (1958). The Nature of the Childs Tie to His Mother. International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 39, 350-371.

Bowlby J. (1969). Attachment. Attachment and loss: Vol. 1. Loss. New York: Basic Books.

Dollard, J. & Miller, N.E. (1950). Personality and psychotherapy. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Harlow, H. (1958) The Nature of Love . American Psychologist, 13, 673-685.

Schaffer, H. R. & Emerson, P. E. (1964). The development of social attachments in infancy. Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development, 29, 94.

How to Cite This Article:

Cherry, K. A. (2006). What is attachment theory? Retrieved from http://psychology.about.com/od/loveandattraction/a/attachment01.htm


Grand Father
There are many severly psychological damaged, mentally ill people and chidren in our society who unfortunately are the products and  direct consequence of unwittingly transferred parental ignorance to their own traumatic experiences. 

Such influential consequences from this state of psychological ignorance, and unintentional neglect by parents themselves is so ingrained into cultural indoctrination that organic cognitive development maybe and in fact is stifled, stunted and in many cases impeded permanently. 

Seriously affected, mentally and physically ill individuals are readily identified and unfortunately to a greater degree avoided by main stream society to be socially isolated due to their physical and intellectual malaise.

Whilst many others carry their unidentified "psychological infliction" into daily life considering their attitudes, beliefs, and practices to be righteous, correct and justified.

Why Forbid When You Can Empower?

If you forbid your children to do anything, the natural instinct is for them to want to do it – and quite possibly to actually do it. At sixteen, I ran away from home because my mother forbid me to date this boy she didn’t like. If she had given me the freedom to make my own choice, I probably would have ended the relationship much sooner than I did.
If you give your kids the space to make their own choices, there is a very good chance that they will set boundaries for themselves.

One of the most powerful parenting tools is asking the right questions that will incite your children to find good and healthy answers that fit for them.
For example, if your child is contemplating what might be considered “risky behavior,” instead of forbidding your child, you might ask him/her:
“What do you think might be some positive and negative outcomes, if you ….?”
By Nanice Ellis
Contributing Writer for Wake Up World.

Even with the highest of intentions, we are still raising our young from old paradigms that don’t work for evolving children.
The fact that teenage depression and suicide are on the rise tells us that something is very wrong.

It is easy to say that depressed kids lack self-esteem —and of course this is true — but we need to ask why?
There is a blatant and glaring reason that an epidemic of depression infiltrates our young. If you are a parent, this might be a difficult topic to embrace because it often makes us feel powerless, but when you understand the real reasons why kids are chronically depressed, you have the power to help your child turn it around.
I was a suicide outreach counselor in New York for seven years.
During this time, I counseled depressed and suicidal adolescents from ages 11 to 19 years old.

They told me things that they dare not tell anyone else. Every single one of these children was stressed out about school, whether they were doing well or not. These same children felt as if they had parents who judged them and with whom they could not confide.

These kids felt overwhelmed and alone – and each one of them was sure that they would fail in life.
It’s not teen heartbreak that makes children suicidal. It is the ongoing stress and pressure of school and parents.
Yes, as parents we want what is best for our children and we want them to grow up to be successful, but maybe our ideas of success are actually killing them. We come from an old paradigm that says, “Do good in school, get into a good college, make a good income doing whatever you need to do in order to survive, and hopefully after retirement, you will have a few good years to enjoy what is left of your life.”
We instill fear in our children by telling them that if they don’t get proper grades, their lives are doomed to failure, but failure to what?

Failure to living a joyless life. Then I say, go ahead and fail!!!

Out of our own fear, we make the idea of success more important than the spirits of our precious children. But, do grades really matter more than the emotional well-being of your child? Do you want a half-dead child with an A average, or a joyful and awake child with profound knowledge that is beyond traditional education?

I’d much rather have a child who knows his worth and knows that he can go out in the world and create anything, than a child who blindly follows along only to experience a mid-life crisis that lasts his whole life. Let’s wake up!
We’ve got it wrong and our parent’s parents got it wrong. Let’s put a halt to it right now, and stop doing what doesn’t work.
I am sharing this, not to blame anyone, but rather to inspire parents and care-givers to embrace a new paradigm that empowers our youth to wake up, step into their power and ultimately live joyful and fulfilling lives.

If we understand why our children are depressed, we have the power to help them awaken from depression, and be who they came here to be.
Although the dynamics can be complex, there are three elements that add up to adolescent depression:
Feelings of unworthiness
Feelings of powerlessness
Not having access to unconditional support of an adult
Feeling unworthy, powerless and alone is the breeding ground for teenage depression.

Wounding the Worth
Everywhere you look, children are relentlessly judged. Schools, religions, cultures and parents all judge children and tell them who they should be and how they should act, and if they fail to meet these expectations or requirements, they are punished, not just by losing privileges or failing in some way, but especially in the withholding of love, approval, and acceptance.

We don’t usually think of it this way, but the by-product of judgment is actually the withholding of love, approval and acceptance. When these emotional needs are withheld by judgmental parents and caretakers, children often believe that they are unworthy. To make matters worse, the human psyche interprets judgment as rejection, and more proof that the one being judged is not worthy – cutting to the soul of a young person who is naturally trying to find himself.

When children don’t feel worthy, they withdraw and go inside – we call it depression but it is actually a survival mechanism where they protect themselves from further rejection that comes in the form of judgment.

Virtually every emotional wound can be traced back to feelings of unworthiness. Feeling unworthy is the core wound of all wounds. The constant judgment that children go through on a daily basis often results in deep emotional wounds that effect the child all the way into adulthood and through his/her whole life.
You may not have much control about what goes on in school, but how you parent at home can make all the difference to the emotional well-being and development of your children.

We certainly don’t mean to wound our children. When we judge our kids, our intentions are often out of love and because we think that we know what’s best, but you cannot mix judgment with love. As soon as you judge, even if it is in the name of caring, love is no longer present. Our parents judged us out of love so we have entangled love and judgment together but it is time to dis-entangle, and free our children from the emotional prison of judgment.

Often we don’t even realize when we are judging. Judgment includes criticizing style, attitude and personality and focusing on what you don’t like about your child, her behavior, or any issues of lack or not being enough. If your child closes up or snaps at you, there is a good chance that she feels judged. Much of what we consider normal adolescent “bad behavior” is really a result of kids feeling judged and disrespected by adults.
Judging your child for not living up to his potential is really just a nice way of saying your child is not living up to your expectations. It is hard to believe but some children would rather die than disappoint a parent.

Even if you don’t verbalize judgment, your children can still feel it in your energy. You cannot hide judgment – it goes out energetically in your field and everyone feels it, even if you think that you are keeping it to yourself.

Making Kids Powerless
No where do we teach children about their intrinsic power as creators. Instead we teach them that they are not powerful and they can’t be trusted.
When we don’t encourage our children to make their own choices, they get the message that they are powerless, and as a result they are cut off from their intrinsic power to later create the lives they desire.

When we don’t trust our kids to make the right choices or even to make the right mistakes, they learn that they cannot trust themselves.
When we force our children to do things against their will, we train them to do what they are told, rather than listen to their own inner being.

What Your Child Does to Himself
With so much stress and pressure from the outside world, to do well in school and to fit in, children take it all on and do to themselves what the world is doing to them. In other words, they worry with chronic persistence which results in tremendous stress. As we are not meant to live in fear every day, too much of this stress can result in physical and mental disease.

The body, however, has a defense mechanism against the chronic stress caused by incessant worry.
That defense mechanism is depression.

Depression also allows a child to shut down the negative input from those around him.

Why Children Lie…
If you punish or judge your children when they tell you a truth that you don’t like, they will ultimately lie to you.
This means that if your child lies to you, it is your fault.
At any age, if you feel as if you will be judged because you have been judged by this person in the past, even if it is your mother or father, you are going to lie in order to protect yourself from judgment – from what feels like rejection, and a sentence of unworthiness.

It is a much better parenting strategy to raise children who feel as if they can talk to you about anything. This means that whatever happens or whatever they do, they can sit down and openly speak with you, without worrying that you will judge them or tell them what to do. And, then you get to be an influential parent – by really really listening, offering love and compassion, and guidance.

You are not going to stop your kids from having sex or doing drugs if they want to, but if you cut off the lines of communication because you judge them, you won’t have any ability to offer wisdom, guidance or support. Your kids will basically be making their own choices without you on their side.

It is inevitable that your children will face some big decisions in their young lives. Would you rather be a parent with whom your children can speak and ask for guidance, or a parent they can’t open up to?

Yes, your children will likely experiment in ways that make you feel uncomfortable but that is part of growing up. You can provide so much more as parent if you are a parent your kids can trust “not to judge.”

Your most important tool as a parent is communication – so, why in the world would you want to stifle it with your judgment?

The only way that you can support your children to make good choices is if you are a good model for self-empowerment and the lines of communication are open. Open communication is priceless.


Or an article about Emotional Self Abuse 
What Lack of Affection Can Do to You
Source: Hasloo Group Production Studio/Shutterstock
NB C.R.Mc. Whilst this article is American based I guess a like proportion of the material & statistics applies to us here in Australia.

Recently I wrote about Juan Mann, the founder of the “Free Hugs” movement who felt so deprived of meaningful human contact that he offered to embrace strangers on the street. Perhaps you can identify with Mann.

How often do you find yourself feeling lonely, craving more affection than you get?

Maybe you wish your spouse or partner were a bit more demonstrative of his or her love.
Maybe you’ve tried without success to get certain people in your life to be more affectionate with you, so you go on wishing for more affection than you receive.

If any of these sound familiar, then you’re experiencing a common problem known as skin hunger, and you're far from alone.

Three out of every four adults agree with the statement, “Americans suffer from skin hunger.”

More Americans / Australians live alone than ever before.
One in four Americans reports not having not a single person to talk to about important issues.
Loneliness among American adults has increased 16 percent in the last decade.

These facts help us understand the nature of skin hunger, which is both an acknowledgement that we don’t get as much affection as we need, and of our drive to get more.

We normally associate hunger with food, of course—but we don’t feel hunger simply because we want food.
We feel hunger because we need food, just as we feel thirsty because we need water, and tired because we need sleep.

Our bodies know what they require to function properly, and research suggests that affection belongs on that list, right behind food, water, and rest.

Just as lack of food, water, and rest have their detrimental effects, so too does the lack of affection.
In a recent study of 509 adults, I examined the construct of skin hunger—and the social, relational, and health deficits with which it is associated.
The results were consistent, and striking.

People with high levels of skin hunger are disadvantaged in multiple ways, compared to those with moderate or low levels.

Specifically, compared to people with less skin hunger, people who feel more affection-deprived: are less happy; more lonely; more likely to experience depression and stress; and, in general, in worse health.
They have less social support and lower relationship satisfaction.

They experience more mood and anxiety disorders, and more secondary immune disorders (those that are acquired rather than inherited genetically).

They are more likely to have alexithymia, a condition that impairs their ability to express and interpret emotion.

Finally, they are more likely to have a preoccupied or fearful avoidant attachment style; they're less likely to form secure attachments with others in their lives.

These findings don’t establish that skin hunger causes all of these negative conditions, only that people who feel highly affection-deprived are more likely than others to experience them.
If you’re one of those people, though, these findings probably come as no surprise.

Affectionate contact is so necessary for a healthy life that we suffer when we don’t get enough.

Fortunately, skin hunger doesn’t have to be a permanent condition.
Each of us has the capacity to get more affection in our lives.
In the meantime, put down your cell phone and share an affectionate moment with someone in person.
For those with skin hunger, human contact—not the technologically mediated variety—is the cure for what ails.

Ultimately through therapy we have exposed that this endless aching need of skin hunger maybe a consequence of very early shock, maybe even premature, emotional separation further exaggerated by broken families and parental abandonment.
Wether this be actual or by transference from unconscious parent emotional self dis-connection, and so in similar manner the behaviour is learnt, adopted and transferred across generations.


Upon this realisation we can heal that wound of starvation, simply release, thank and allow our naturally established "defender of separation" to relax for once and for ever.
You are safe from any separation, "No Worries"!!

Additionally consider  Maslow's Heirarchy Of Essential Needs.

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