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Attachment Theory

What is Attachment?

Before looking at an attachment theory definition, we need to understand what "attachment" means:

Attachment is an instinctive, biological drive, present from birth, which compels the infant to seek an emotional bond with their primary caregiver. Attachment is a survival instinct necessary for safety and social development.

Attachment theory - displaying 4 attachment styles

The History of Attachment Theory

Attachment theory by Bowlby

Attachment theory was first developed by John Bowlby following his observations of orphaned and emotionally distressed children between the 1930s and 1950s.

He found that infants had an instinctive drive to seek closeness to their caregiver for comfort and safety, and that infants became distressed when separated from their primary caregiver.

Bowlby believed attachment behaviour to be a survival-driven phenomenon, with an evolutionary basis.

Bowlby coined the term “secure base” (Bowlby, 1988) to describe the symbolic position of the attachment figure as a place of security. The presence of a secure base allows the child to experience the safety to explore, confident that the caregiver will continue to meet their basic security and safety needs.

Bowlby posited that the early emotional bond between caregiver (usually mother) and child was crucial for normal social and emotional development in the child.

Internal Working Systems

Bowlby’s theory of internal working systems describes the ways in which the child develops an internal view of themselves and their expectations of how others are likely to respond to them, which informs their social behaviour.

Bowlby theorised that a child’s interactive social experiences impact on their internal working system (Holmes, 1993). As the name suggests, Bowlby believed that an internal working system is not fixed, and can evolve with new experiences.

Attachment Theory - Ainsworth's Contributions

A student of John Bowlby, Mary Ainsworth took attachment theory in a new direction by studying the behaviour of the caregiver, and its impact on infant attachment.

Famously, Ainsworth conducted the “Strange Situation” experiments, in which infants’ behaviour and responses are observed in a new environment, when the caregiver is present, when a stranger arrives, when their caregiver leaves, as well as the infants’ response to their attachment figures on their return.

Ainsworth’s observations showed infant attachment to be more nuanced than Bowlby had first suggested. Following on from the Strange Situation study, Ainsworth developed a model of three attachment styles:

  • Secure Attachment – The majority of the children observed in Ainsworth’s studies were found to be securely attached to their caregiver. This group of children felt confident exploring their environment in the presence of their caregiver, and were quickly comforted by them when upset. Ainsworth concluded that children with a secure attachment style experienced a caregiver who is consistently sensitive and responsive to their needs.
  • Insecure Avoidant Attachment – Insecure avoidant children were not comforted by the presence of their caregiver and were observed to be independent of their caregiver both at a physical and emotional level, not seeking the comfort of their caregiver at times of distress. Ainsworth theorised that this group of infants is likely to experience an unavailable caregiver who is rejecting of their emotional needs.
  • Insecure Ambivalent Attachment – Infants displaying signs of insecure ambivalent attachment showed signs of dependent behaviour, such as a reluctance to explore their environment independently of their caregiver, however they were less likely to be comforted by their attachment figure’s attempts to soothe them. Ainsworth posited that infants displaying insecure ambivalent attachment experienced inconsistent responses to their emotional cues and could not rely on their caregivers to respond sensitively and appropriately to their needs.

Later, Main and Solomon observed a fourth attachment style – disorganised attachment – to describe infants who seem confused, hazy or anxious in the presence of their attachment figures, displaying disoriented behaviours Main and Solomon suggest is likely to be the result of the infant experiencing their caregiver as frightened or frightening (Main and Solomon, 1990).

Attachment Through our Lives

Our attachment to our primary carer begins to develop in the womb, and our attachment styles, influenced by our experiences, continue to evolve throughout our lives.

Traumatic experiences, relationships and therapy can all impact on our attachment styles and our internal working models in different ways.

Attachment styles often differ even between people who have had similar life experiences. The complexity and diversity of our patterns of attachment mean that addressing our attachment in therapy is likely to be a long-term and individual process.


This article was written for Counselling Tutor by Erin Stevens


Bowlby, J. (1988). A secure base: Parent-child attachment and healthy human development. New York: Basic Books.

Holmes, J. (1993). John Bowlby and attachment theory. London New York: Routledge.

Main, M. and Solomon, J. (1990) in: Greenberg, M., Cicchetti, D. & Cummings, E. Attachment in the preschool years : theory, research, and intervention. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

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