Attachment: A basic part of who we are


The idea of attachment emerged in the 1930s and 1940s when British psychotherapist John Bowlby began to study the behavior of young children who were separated from their parents.

He observed children in two situations: little children who were hospitalized for extended periods and little children who were sent away temporarily by their families from Spain to England, for protection during the Spanish Civil War. At the time, hospital stays were much longer than they are today and parents were generally excluded, so children who were ill or undergoing surgeries might not see their families for several weeks.

What Bowlby observed over and over during these stressful separations was a characteristic progression in the behavior of the little children:

1. A Protest phase, in which children try to regain Mother by crying, calling out and asking for her
2. A Despair Phase, in which children loose hope, often becoming apathetic
3. A Detachment phase, in which children seem to recover and engage with toys and people, but are cool or indifferent to their mother when the two are re-united.
Bowlby suggested that children become attached to their mothers and regard them as a secure base, from which they can venture into the world, safe in knowing that they can return for comfort and protection when needed. When this security disappears, children become traumatized, but eventually find courage to interact with people and things on their own. The trauma resolves into a sense of loss and mistrust. Bowlby suggested that this leads to rejection or indifference for the person whom they can no longer trust.

Ideas about why children become attached

Numerous therapists and developmentalists offered explanations for how children become attached in the first place.

Freud proposed it was oral gratification, in which an infant becomes attached to the breast and then extends this to the mother. One obvious challenge for this view is that children can become attached to someone who is not the person feeding them.

Erikson suggested that, while feeding may be involved, the mother’s general responsiveness to her infants needs is more important and creates a basis for resolving what he called the first conflict of development, coming to trust or mistrust others.

Harlow famously demonstrated that comfort is more important than nourishment, when he placed infant monkeys in a setting where they where fed by a larger wire monkey with a nipple and bottle and also had access to a soft cloth covered wire monkey. When the infant monkeys were startled or frightened, they ran to the cloth “mother” and clung to her. Comfort was deemed the crucial factor in attachment.

This is a clip of original footage from the famous Harlow experiment.

The Quality of Children’s Attachments to their Mothers (or other primary caregiver)

At 12 months children are usually attached

By the time they are a year old, almost all children are attached to their primary caregiver. This means they have a particular connection to one special person and uses him or her as a base, someone they can return to when needed and someone who makes them feel more confident about exploring the world. Once they are attached to one person, children often become attached to one or more other people who are important in daily life.

What varies among children is the quality of their attachment.

Most children (about 60 – 65% of children in the USA) seem to be securely attached and comfortable in their relationships, while others seem much less secure. These insecurities take various forms. Some show ambivalence, wanting to be near the person they are attached to, but also showing anger or resistance. Others are avoidant, showing little concern if mother leaves and ignoring their mother after the two have been separated. A few children (perhaps 5% or less), show very disorganized patterns of attachment, often the result of abuse. You can read a full description of these patterns in the article on the development of attachment during infancy, part 2.

Adult Attachments

Work on Attachment began with studies of children and for many years focussed almost exclusively on the relationship between young children and their mothers or other important caregivers. More recently, we have extended ideas about attachment into the whole lifespan.

One realization that lead to this is that older children, those in high school, college and even adulthood, often maintain a feeling of attachment to their parents. If you have a child at University, you may be happily touched by how your emerging adult may call for advice or comfort, longs for you if they become ill, wistfully thinks of coming home for a minor holiday, or wants to share joys and successes. As an adult yourself, perhaps you’ve been glad to call a parent for advice or just to connect and share. Those are examples of attachment.

Increasingly we realize attachment isn’t just between parent and child.

Partners are also very close attachment objects. Most people experience secure relationships as empowering. In a very real sense, a partner can act as a secure base from which we can confidently engage in the greater world, feeling a sense that connection and support are always there for us. At its best, we may feel that we like the reflection of ourself we see in the eyes of our partner, while at the same time feeling confident in our own sense of self. It is appreciating the love beamed at us, and also feeling a strong sense of self esteem and self confidence. One of the gifts of a great relationship is that partners provide a base and support for one another. Yet, as with children, not all adult partnership are secure. Sometimes there is ambivalence or caution or clinging. These are all indications of insecure attachment patterns that are remarkably parallel to the kinds of patterns seen in children.
  A good way to think about styles of attachment is to see them as the way people adapt to important relationships. Attachment comes from a deep need to be connected to special people and to draw strength from that connection. The quality of attachment turns largely on the experiences a person has in close relationships.

Whether you are the parent of a young child or a teenager, you may also want to read the article on infant attachment, since it gives a more complete description of the main patterns of attachment and how they are assessed. (The link is above)

An upcoming article in adult development will describe adult attachment styles in fuller detail.