The truth about Attachment Theory

The truth about attachment theory is that it’s widely misinterpreted, and often misunderstood.

I’m not claiming to be an expert by any means, but I do have a reasonably solid professional background in this area, as well as having taught developmental psychology at A level (in a qualified sort of way, not just in a rocking up and deciding to impart some wisdom, Jack-Black-in-School-of-Rock sort of way). I recently attended a course where they touched on attachment (fairly inaccurately), which got me thinking that although this is a fairly ‘hot topic’ as far as parenting is concerned, a lot of people don’t really understand the bare bones of it.

So, here’s my interpretation of attachment theory.

In the 1960s, the general belief about attachment was that it was an all-or-nothing process, but current thinking (backed up by a lot of research) supports the idea that it’s much more complicated than that. A child will almost certainly form an attachment to their primary caregiver, virtually regardless of whether they actually meet their needs or not; the type and quality of attachment that is formed however, can vary.

Attachment – in psychological terms – refers to the relationship that a child has with a caregiver, or significant adult. (The relationship that an adult has with a child is a separate thing and is often refered to in psychological terms as ‘bonding’.) Attachment describes a very basic relationship, where a vulnerable individual relies completely on another person to get their needs met (and in order to survive), and the expectations they have of that person actually being able to meet their needs.

Just to make a point here – we’re not talking about love. Attachment and love are two utterly separate things. It is possible, and in fact fairly common, to have a poor quality attachment with a significant adult and to love them enormously at the same time.

You might have heard people talking about different attachment styles, but in order to gain a proper understanding of their relevance I think it’s worth exploring how the idea was formed.

In the late 60s and early 70s a psychologist called Mary Ainsworth was doing a lot of work on attachment. She is most famous for a study known as the Strange Situation experiment. It’s important to note that this is an observational study – Ainsworth wasn’t trying to create particular behaviours, she was merely observing what she saw. She didn’t ‘invent’ attachment styles, she just gave a name to particular groups of behaviours that children were already exhibiting.

If you’re interested in the details of the study click here for an overview. Basically, Ainsworth observed children and their mother together, sometimes altering the environment slightly by having a stranger enter the room, or having the mother leave for a couple of minutes during the observation. She noticed quite distinct patterns of behaviour in the children as these changes occurred, and initially grouped these in to three categories, or styles of attachment (although a fourth was added after later experiments).

The most common type of attachment by far was a secure attachment. These children tended to use their mother as a secure base to explore the new environment, were wary of the stranger, but friendly enough when their mother was there to back them up. They were distressed when the mother left, and happy when she came back. When upset, they were easily consolable by their mothers.

Around 30% of the children in the initial study didn’t display the type of behaviour described above. These children were described as having an insecure attachment, and could be further split in to two groups; avoidant and ambivalent. Children who were classed as avoidant tended not to orient around their mothers at all, and were equally as happy being comforted by the stranger as their mother. They weren’t that bothered when their mother left the room, or that interested when she returned. Children who were classed as ambivalent tended to be varyingly clingy with their mothers, but not wanting to actually engage in anything with them. They were less likely to explore their surroundings, were fearful of the stranger, and much more likely to cry.

Ainsworth suggested that these attachment behaviours were influenced by the day-to-day behaviour of the primary carer, in this case the mother. Children whose mothers consistently responded to their needs were likely to develop a secure attachment; those whose mothers were generally hit-and-miss, or completely unresponsive, developed insecure attachments. (Be aware I’m just talking about mothers here because that was who Ainsworth studied. More on this later…) Ainsworth later found a fourth attachment style, which she called ‘disorganized’, to describe the behaviour of children who didn’t seem to have one consistent style of behaviour.

I want to reinforce here that 70% of the children in the initial study were categorized as having a secure attachment, so when we’re talking about consistently meeting needs, we’re talking in a realistic sense, recognising that no-one’s perfect – children certainly don’t need us to be in order to develop a healthy attachment.

So that’s the background, but here’s some things I’d like to pull out from all this and have a chew over.

It is perfectly possible to have a different type of attachment to different people in your life. An attachment refers to a specific relationship that one child has with one caregiver, and you shouldn’t assume that this child will always form this type of attachment. For example, when mulling all this over prior to teaching my A level class, I concluded that I had a secure attachment to my mum as a child, but an insecure one to my dad.

However, there is also evidence to show that we are likely to form attachments with other people based on the patterns we learnt in early childhood. Therefore, you can extrapolate that as I had an insecure attachment to my dad, I’m likely to seek out adult relationships with men which replicate that pattern. For me this turned out to be completely true – until I realised I was doing it! (From personal experience I can say it doesn’t always have to be that way, but it took a pretty big emotional committment to make the change.)

It is completely useless to describe a child as having ‘an insecure attachment style’ – they don’t have a ‘style’, they are behaving in a particular way because of how they expect adults to behave, based on their past experiences. However, it *is* useful to understand what those behaviour patterns suggest about their previous level of care, so that you can then work out what are the areas in which they are likely to need the most support. If I’m working with a child who is displaying avoidant-type behaviours, then I can make an educated guess that they aren’t used to having their needs met consistently, and are not going to want to get close to anyone in case they are let down. In this case, this knowledge prepares me for the fact that it may take a long time and a lot of consistency from me to persuade that child that our relationship can be different. Children are remarkably resilient, and will develop many ways of coping with whatever life throws at them – unfortunately their coping strategies are not always useful to them if they are then taken in to an environment that is supportive and nurturing. (But perhaps that’s another blog post…!)

In conclusion, attachment is a fascinating subject for anyone interested in relationships, parenting, or working with vulnerable children. However it’s really important to remember that we are all individuals, and although we can learn a lot through research and studying behaviour, when it comes down to it, the most important thing you can do is learn from the individual who you are trying to connect with.

This is a pet subject of mine, so I don’t expect this will be the last blog post I’ll ever write about it – any comments, suggestions, or requests please do let me know!

Cat x