Within attachment theory, attachment means an affectional bond or tie between an individual and an
attachment figure (usually a caregiver). Such bonds may be reciprocal between two adults, but between
a child and a caregiver these bonds are based on the child's need for safety, security and protection,
paramount in infancy and childhood. The theory proposes that children attach to carers
instinctively, for the purpose of survival and, ultimately, genetic replication. The biological aim is
survival and the psychological aim is security. Attachment theory is not an exhaustive description of
human relationships, nor is it synonymous with love and affection, although these may indicate that
bonds exist. In child-to-adult relationships, the child's tie is called the "attachment" and the caregiver's
reciprocal equivalent is referred to as the "care-giving bond".
Infants form attachments to any consistent caregiver who is sensitive and responsive in social
interactions with them. The quality of the social engagement is more influential than the amount of time
spent. Although the biological mother is usually the principal attachment figure, the role can be taken by
anyone who consistently behaves in a "mothering" or caregiving way over a period of time. In
attachment theory, this means a set of behaviours that involves engaging in lively social interaction with
the infant and responding readily to signals and approaches. Fathers or any other individuals, are
equally likely to become principal attachment figures if they provide most of the child care and related
Some infants direct attachment behaviour (proximity seeking) toward more than one attachment figure
almost as soon as they start to show discrimination between caregivers; most come to do so during their
second year. These figures are arranged hierarchically, with the principal attachment figure at the
top. The set-goal of the attachment behavioural system is to maintain a bond with an accessible and
available attachment figure. "Alarm" is the term used for activation of the attachment behavioural
system caused by fear of danger. "Anxiety" is the anticipation or fear of being cut off from the
attachment figure. If the figure is unavailable or unresponsive, separation distress occurs. In infants,
physical separation can cause anxiety and anger, followed by sadness and despair. By age three or four,
physical separation is no longer such a threat to the child's bond with the attachment figure. Threats to
security in older children and adults arise from prolonged absence, breakdowns in communication,
emotional unavailability, or signs of rejection or abandonment.
A baby leans at a table staring at a picture book with intense concentration.
Insecure attachment patterns can compromise exploration and the achievement of self-confidence. A
securely attached baby is free to concentrate on her or his environment.
The attachment behavioural system serves to maintain or achieve closer proximity to the attachment
figure. Pre-attachment behaviours occur in the first six months of life. During the first phase (the
first eight weeks), infants smile, babble, and cry to attract the attention of potential caregivers. Although
infants of this age learn to discriminate between caregivers, these behaviours are directed at anyone in the vicinity. During the second phase (two to six months), the infant increasingly discriminates between
familiar and unfamiliar adults, becoming more responsive toward the caregiver; following and clinging
are added to the range of behaviours. Clear-cut attachment develops in the third phase, between the
ages of six months and two years. The infant's behaviour toward the caregiver becomes organised on a
goal-directed basis to achieve the conditions that make it feel secure. By the end of the first year,
the infant is able to display a range of attachment behaviours designed to maintain proximity. These
manifest as protesting the caregiver's departure, greeting the caregiver's return, clinging when
frightened, and following when able. With the development of locomotion, the infant begins to use
the caregiver or caregivers as a safe base from which to explore. Infant exploration is greater when
the caregiver is present because the infant's attachment system is relaxed and it is free to explore. If the
caregiver is inaccessible or unresponsive, attachment behaviour is more strongly exhibited. Anxiety,
fear, illness, and fatigue will cause a child to increase attachment behaviours. After the second year,
as the child begins to see the caregiver as an independent person, a more complex and goal-corrected
partnership is formed. Children begin to notice others' goals and feelings and plan their actions
accordingly. For example, whereas babies cry because of pain, two-year-olds cry to summon their
caregiver, and if that does not work, cry louder, shout, or follow.
Common attachment behaviours and emotions, displayed in most social primates including humans, are
adaptive. The long-term evolution of these species has involved selection for social behaviors that make
individual or group survival more likely. The commonly observed attachment behaviour of toddlers
staying near familiar people would have had safety advantages in the environment of early adaptation,
and has similar advantages today. Bowlby saw the environment of early adaptation as similar to current
hunter-gatherer societies. There is a survival advantage in the capacity to sense possibly dangerous
conditions such as unfamiliarity, being alone, or rapid approach. According to Bowlby, proximity-seeking
to the attachment figure in the face of threat is the "set-goal" of the attachment behavioural
The attachment system is very robust and young humans form attachments easily, even in far less than
ideal circumstances. In spite of this robustness, significant separation from a familiar caregiver—or
frequent changes of caregiver that prevent the development of attachment—may result in
psychopathology at some point in later life. Infants in their first months do not discriminate
regarding from whom they will accept care, biological parent, young, old, or otherwise. The particular
patterns of caregiving arrangements vary greatly across human cultures, and the infant attachment
system has the flexibility to adapt to all these patterns. Preferences for particular individuals, and
behaviours which solicit specifically their attention and care, are developed over a considerable period
of time. When an infant is upset by separation from their caregiver, this indicates that the bond no
longer depends on the presence of the caregiver, but is of an enduring nature.
A young father lies on his back on a quilt on the floor. He holds his baby daughter up above him with his
arms straight and his hands round her ribcage. The baby has her arms and legs stretched out and arches
her back smiling directly at the camera. Early experiences with caregivers gradually give rise to a system of thoughts, memories, beliefs,
expectations, emotions, and behaviours about the self and others.
Bowlby's original sensitivity period of between six months and two to three years has been modified to
a less "all or nothing" approach. There is a sensitive period during which it is highly desirable that
selective attachments develop, but the time frame is broader and the effect less fixed and irreversible
than first proposed. With further research, authors discussing attachment theory have come to
appreciate that social development is affected by later as well as earlier relationships. Early steps in
attachment take place most easily if the infant has one caregiver, or the occasional care of a small
number of other people. According to Bowlby, almost from the first many children have more than
one figure toward whom they direct attachment behaviour. These figures are not treated alike; there is
a strong bias for a child to direct attachment behaviour mainly toward one particular person. Bowlby
used the term "monotropy" to describe this bias. Researchers and theorists have abandoned this
concept insofar as it may be taken to mean that the relationship with the special figure differs
qualitatively from that of other figures. Rather, current thinking postulates definite hierarchies of
Early experiences with caregivers gradually give rise to a system of thoughts, memories, beliefs,
expectations, emotions, and behaviours about the self and others. This system, called the "internal
working model of social relationships", continues to develop with time and experience. Internal
models regulate, interpret, and predict attachment-related behaviour in the self and the attachment
figure. As they develop in line with environmental and developmental changes, they incorporate the
capacity to reflect and communicate about past and future attachment relationships. They enable the
child to handle new types of social interactions; knowing, for example, that an infant should be treated
differently from an older child, or that interactions with teachers and parents share characteristics. This
internal working model continues to develop through adulthood, helping cope with friendships,
marriage, and parenthood, all of which involve different behaviours and feelings. The
development of attachment is a transactional process. Specific attachment behaviours begin with
predictable, apparently innate, behaviours in infancy. They change with age in ways that are determined
partly by experiences and partly by situational factors. As attachment behaviours change with age,
they do so in ways shaped by relationships. A child's behaviour when reunited with a caregiver is
determined not only by how the caregiver has treated the child before, but on the history of effects the
child has had on the caregiver.
Changes in attachment during childhood and adolescence
Age, cognitive growth, and continued social experience advance the development and complexity of the
internal working model. Attachment-related behaviours lose some characteristics typical of the infant-
toddler period and take on age-related tendencies. The preschool period involves the use of negotiation and bargaining. For example, four-year-olds are not distressed by separation if they and their
caregiver have already negotiated a shared plan for the separation and reunion.
Three children aged about six years are in a group on the ground, a boy and girl kneeling and another
boy seated cross-legged. The two kneeling children hold marbles. There are other marbles in a bag on
the ground. They appear to be negotiating over the marbles. The third child is watching.
Peers become important in middle childhood and have an influence distinct from that of parents.
Ideally, these social skills become incorporated into the internal working model to be used with other
children and later with adult peers. As children move into the school years at about six years old, most
develop a goal-corrected partnership with parents, in which each partner is willing to compromise in
order to maintain a gratifying relationship. By middle childhood, the goal of the attachment
behavioural system has changed from proximity to the attachment figure to availability. Generally, a
child is content with longer separations, provided contact—or the possibility of physically reuniting, if
needed—is available. Attachment behaviours such as clinging and following decline and self-reliance
increases. By middle childhood (ages 7–11), there may be a shift toward mutual coregulation of
secure-base contact in which caregiver and child negotiate methods of maintaining communication and
supervision as the child moves toward a greater degree of independence.
In early childhood, parental figures remain the centre of a child's social world, even if they spend
substantial periods of time in alternative care. This gradually lessens, particularly during the child's
entrance into formal schooling. The attachment models of young children are typically assessed in
relation to particular figures, such as parents or other caregivers. There appear to be limitations in their
thinking that restrict their ability to integrate relationship experiences into a single general model.
Children usually begin to develop a single general model of attachment relationships during
adolescence, although this may occur in middle childhood.
Relationships with peers have an influence on the child that is distinct from that of parent-child
relationships, though the latter can influence the peer relationships children form. Although peers
become important in middle childhood, the evidence suggests peers do not become attachment figures,
though children may direct attachment behaviours at peers if parental figures are unavailable.
Attachments to peers tend to emerge in adolescence, although parents continue to be attachment
figures. With adolescents, the role of the parental figures is to be available when needed while the
adolescent makes excursions into the outside world.
See also: Attachment in children and Attachment measures Much of attachment theory was informed by Mary Ainsworth's innovative methodology and
observational studies, particularly those undertaken in Scotland and Uganda. Ainsworth's work
expanded the theory's concepts and enabled empirical testing of its tenets. Using Bowlby's early
formulation, she conducted observational research on infant-parent pairs (or dyads) during the child's
first year, combining extensive home visits with the study of behaviours in particular situations. This
early research was published in 1967 in a book entitled Infancy in Uganda. Ainsworth identified three
attachment styles, or patterns, that a child may have with attachment figures: secure, anxious-avoidant
(insecure) and anxious-ambivalent or resistant (insecure). She devised a procedure known as the
Strange Situation Protocol as the laboratory portion of her larger study, to assess separation and
reunion behaviour. This is a standardised research tool used to assess attachment patterns in infants
and toddlers. By creating stresses designed to activate attachment behaviour, the procedure reveals
how very young children use their caregiver as a source of security. Carer and child are placed in an
unfamiliar playroom while a researcher records specific behaviours, observing through a one-way
mirror. In eight different episodes, the child experiences separation from/reunion with the carer and the
presence of an unfamiliar stranger.
Ainsworth's work in the United States attracted many scholars into the field, inspiring research and
challenging the dominance of behaviourism. Further research by Mary Main and colleagues at the
University of California, Berkeley identified a fourth attachment pattern, called disorganized/disoriented
attachment. The name reflects these children's lack of a coherent coping strategy.
The type of attachment developed by infants depends on the quality of care they have received.
Each of the attachment patterns is associated with certain characteristic patterns of behaviour, as
described in the following table:
Child and caregiver behaviour patterns before the age of 18 months
pattern Child Caregiver
Secure Uses caregiver as a secure base for exploration. Protests caregiver's departure and seeks
proximity and is comforted on return, returning to exploration. May be comforted by the stranger but
shows clear preference for the caregiver. Responds appropriately, promptly and consistently to
needs. Caregiver has successfully formed a secure parental attachment bond to the child.
AnxiousClingy, unable to cope with absences of the caregiver.Seeks constant reassurances.
Excessively protective of the child, and unable to allow risk-taking, and steps towards
Avoidant Little affective sharing in play. Little or no distress on departure, little or no visible
response to return, ignoring or turning away with no effort to maintain contact if picked up. Treats the
stranger similarly to the caregiver. The child feels that there is no attachment; the child is "rebellious" and has a lower self-image and self-esteem. Little or no response to distressed child. Discourages
crying and encourages independence.
Ambivalent/Resistant Unable to use caregiver as a secure base, seeking proximity before separation
occurs. Distressed on separation with ambivalence, anger, reluctance to warm to caregiver and return to
play on return. Preoccupied with caregiver's availability, seeking contact but resisting angrily when it is
achieved. Not easily calmed by stranger. In this relationship, the child always feels anxious because the
caregiver's availability is never consistent. Inconsistent between appropriate and neglectful
responses. Generally will only respond after increased attachment behavior from the infant.
Disorganized Stereotypies on return such as freezing or rocking. Lack of coherent attachment strategy
shown by contradictory, disoriented behaviours such as approaching but with the back turned.
Frightened or frightening behaviour, intrusiveness, withdrawal, negativity, role confusion,
affective communication errors and maltreatment. Very often associated with many forms of abuse
towards the child.
The presence of an attachment is distinct from its quality. Infants form attachments if there is someone
to interact with, even if mistreated. Individual differences in the relationships reflect the history of care,
as infants begin to predict the behaviour of caregivers through repeated interactions. The focus is
the organisation (pattern) rather than quantity of attachment behaviours. Insecure attachment patterns
are non-optimal as they can compromise exploration, self-confidence and mastery of the environment.
However, insecure patterns are also adaptive, as they are suitable responses to caregiver
unresponsiveness. For example, in the avoidant pattern, minimising expressions of attachment even in
conditions of mild threat may forestall alienating caregivers who are already rejecting, thus leaving open
the possibility of responsiveness should a more serious threat arise.
Around 65% of children in the general population may be classified as having a secure pattern of
attachment, with the remaining 35% being divided among the insecure classifications. Recent
research has sought to ascertain the extent to which a parent's attachment classification is predictive of
their children's classification. Parents' perceptions of their own childhood attachments were found to
predict their children's classifications 75% of the time.
Over the short term, the stability of attachment classifications is high, but becomes less so over the long
term. It appears that stability of classification is linked to stability in caregiving conditions. Social
stressors or negative life events—such as illness, death, abuse or divorce—are associated with instability
of attachment patterns from infancy to early adulthood, particularly from secure to insecure.
Conversely, these difficulties sometimes reflect particular upheavals in people's lives, which may
change. Sometimes, parents' responses change as the child develops, changing classification from
insecure to secure. Fundamental changes can and do take place after the critical early period.
Physically abused and neglected children are less likely to develop secure attachments, and their
insecure classifications tend to persist through the pre-school years. Neglect alone is associated with
insecure attachment organisations, and rates of disorganized attachment are markedly elevated in
maltreated infants. This situation is complicated by difficulties in assessing attachment classification in older age groups. The
Strange Situation procedure is for ages 12 to 18 months only; adapted versions exist for pre-school
children. Techniques have been developed to allow verbal ascertainment of the child's state of mind
with respect to attachment. An example is the "stem story", in which a child is given the beginning of a
story that raises attachment issues and asked to complete it. For older children, adolescents and adults,
semi-structured interviews are used in which the manner of relaying content may be as significant as the
content itself. However, there are no substantially validated measures of attachment for middle
childhood or early adolescence (approximately 7 to 13 years of age).
Some authors have questioned the idea that a taxonomy of categories representing a qualitative
difference in attachment relationships can be developed. Examination of data from 1,139 15-month-olds
showed that variation in attachment patterns was continuous rather than grouped. This criticism
introduces important questions for attachment typologies and the mechanisms behind apparent types.
However, it has relatively little relevance for attachment theory itself, which "neither requires nor
predicts discrete patterns of attachment".
Significance of attachment patterns
There is an extensive body of research demonstrating a significant association between attachment
organisations and children's functioning across multiple domains. Early insecure attachment does
not necessarily predict difficulties, but it is a liability for the child, particularly if similar parental