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A Brief Description of Attachment Theory

The Nanny Doctor provides consulting services for families and nannies from an Attachment Theory perspective. Stated simply, attachment is the emotional bond to another person. Psychologist John Bowlby was the first Attachment theorist. Bowlby believed that the earliest bonds formed by children with their caregivers have a tremendous impact that continues throughout life. According to Bowlby attachment also serves to keep the infant close to its mother, thus improving the chances for survival.
The central theme of attachment theory is that mothers who are available and responsive to their infant’s needs establish 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.

Characteristics of Attachment

  • Safe Haven: When the child feels threatened or afraid, s/he can return to the caregiver for comfort and soothing.
  • Secure Base: The caregiver provides a secure and dependable base for the child to explore the world.
  • Proximity Maintenance: The child strives to stay near the caregiver, thus keeping the child safe.
  • Separation Distress: When separated from the caregiver, the child will become upset and distressed.

Attachment theory has led to a new understanding of child development. Children develop different styles of attachment based on experiences and interactions with their primary caregivers. Four different attachment styles have been identified in children: secure, anxious-ambivalent, anxious-avoidant, and disorganized. Attachment Theory has become the dominant theory used today in the study of infant and toddler behavior and in the fields of infant mental health, treatment of children, and related fields. Many evidence-based treatment approaches are based on attachment theory Mary Ainsworth was a leader in applying Bowlby's theory to research.

These days we recognize that the attachment can be formed on many levels and with many different caregivers, the primary or main caregiver is not necessarily the mother and in this busy day and age more and more children have babysitters and nannies. Much of early Attachment Theory was written by John Bowlby. Mary Ainsworth conducted research based on Bowlby’s theory. Her research found that infants fall into one of three attachment styles:

Characteristics of Secure Attachment

Securely attached children exhibit minimal distress when separated from caregivers. Remember, these children feel secure and able to depend on their adult caregivers. When the adult leaves, the child 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.

Characteristics of 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.

Characteristics of 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.

Further research by Mary Main and colleagues (University of California, Berkeley) has identified a small number of children who present stereotypes on the mother's return, such as freezing for several seconds or rocking. This appears to indicate the child's lack of coherent coping strategy, and the child would be classified as disorganized. Children who are classified as disorganized are also given a classification as secure, ambivalent or avoidant based on their overall reunion 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 problems with attachment.
While attachment styles displayed in adulthood aren’t necessarily the same as those seen in infancy, research suggests 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.
Other recent research has followed children into the school environment, where securely attached children generally relate well to peers, avoidantly attached children tend to victimize peers and ambivalently attached children may be victimized by peers and be coy.

Early studies focused on attachment between children and caregivers. Attachment theory was later extended to adult romantic relationships by Cindy Hazen and Phillip Shaver

Hazan and Shaver extended attachment theory to adult romantic relationships in 1987. It was originally characterized by three dimensions: secure, anxious/ambivalent and avoidant. Later research showed that attachment is best thought of as two different dimensions: anxiety and avoidance. These dimensions are often drawn as an X and Y axis. In this model secure individuals are low in both anxiety and avoidance. Thus, attachment can also be broken down into four categories: secure, anxious-ambivalent (preoccupied), avoidant (dismissive), and fearful-avoidant. However, people's attachment varies continuously so most researchers do not currently think in terms of categories.

Attachment research into romantic relationships has led to a wide variety of findings. Mario Mikulincer has shown through a wide variety of studies that attachment influences how well people are able to cope with stress in their life. Nancy Collins and colleagues have shown that attachment influences many kinds of care-giving behavior. Jeff Simpson and Steve Rholes have conducted a number of studies showing that attachment influences how people parent their newborn children and how well they are able to cope with the stress of having a newborn child.



Lindsay Heller, Psy.D.
Licensed Clinical Psychologist
9171 Wilshire Blvd. Suite 600
Beverly Hills, California 90210

Phone: 310.384.9300
Fax: 310.273.1010

Copyright 2009 Dr Lindsay Heller, Psy.D. Beverly Hills California - Call 310.384.9300
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