What Is Attachment?



Attachment is a popular word. We talk about children who have “attachment issues” – but what does this actually mean?


John Bowlby, created attachment theory in the 1960s. After studying infants and their mothers he found it useful to categorise infants’ relationships with their mothers into one of three types of attachment styles:


The first is “secure attachment” which means that the infant has had “good enough” nurturing from the mother or primary care giver so that they develop into a child who has sufficient self-confidence or sense of self.


The other 2 types of attachment styles occur when the infant has not received adequate care and love. These are “insecure” attachment styles.



  1. Avoidant attached. The mother has found it hard to bond with her baby. This could be for a variety of reasons eg post natal depression or a lack of a positive experience of parenting herself. After some time of not having their emotional needs met, the baby gives up expecting an attuned response and begins to soothe itself whilst lowering his/her expectations of being understood by the mother. This infant avoids intimacy with the mother because they haven’t received enough feelings of warmth and love in the first place. If this continues the child looks after themselves emotionally and has difficulties with intimacy and relationships in later life.
  1. Ambivalent attached. The mother is not able to give consistent love and care to her baby. Mum can be too interfering or over anxious or just ill-timed in her attention with her baby. There is inconsistency in the love and care baby receives. This can lead to feelings of closeness and then separation for baby which is unsettling and can develop into a pattern in later life with other relationships.

An interesting experiment called the Strange Situation was devised by Mary Ainsworth in the 1980s and shows infants’ different reactions to mum leaving them for 3 minutes. It’s not an easy watch but clearly shows different types of attachment styles with different children.


In 1990 Main and Solomon added another insecure attachment style:


  • 3. Disorganised attached. This is when the baby or parent experiences an unsafe or traumatic situation eg abuse or loss. The baby does not know what to expect and lives in a state of anxiety and fear not knowing what type of response they will receive. This can lead to fragmented feelings of self worth in the individual and more severe difficulties in relationships in adulthood.


Why Are Attachment Styles Useful To Know?

Knowing our attachment style helps us become more self-aware and self-reflective Then we can work through relationship conflicts.

Once we know which is our attachment style we can be aware of how we behave in relationships with others and why we sometimes act as we do. We are then able to confront these behaviours when they are unhelpful and gradually retrain our brains to respond differently in the future.


Creating A Secure base In Later Life

The therapeutic relationship also offers a secure attachment. An adult who experiences their therapist as a safe person to talk with, will in time feel confident in sharing their intimate thoughts and feelings. This may be the first time they have been able to do that with someone.

As the therapeutic relationship deepens the patient will benefit hugely because they feel nurtured and therefore more free to be themselves with the therapist. This relationship can replicate a primary relationship and can compensate for the insecure initial relationship the client may have experienced. Over time the patient is able to transpose learning from the therapeutic relationship into other relationships in their life and begins to feel more confident and live a fuller freer life.




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