Child Development Mental Health Psychology

How Children Learn to Love and be Loved

Attachment theory is a psychological, evolutionary and ethological theory concerning relationships between humans.  Attachment can be characterised as an invisible bond formed in relationships. Attachment Theory introduces a theory as to why we react to people the way we do; why others behave to you the way they do; they way children react to certain people in their lives.  Historically, the observation of the way children behaved with parents and carers was known as dependancy levels however, Bowlby consciously used the term ‘attachment’ and moved away from the term dependency.

Four styles of attachment have been identified in adults: secure, anxious-preoccupied, dismissive-avoidant and fearful-avoidant. These roughly correspond to infant classifications: secure, insecure-ambivalent, insecure-avoidant and disorganized/disoriented.

It is widely accepted that high-quality early childhood education and care (ECEC) supports positive developmental outcomes for children.  Research suggests these attachment relationships are developed through a combination of both quality of ECEC and infant/toddler-educator interactions (Australian Association for Infant Mental Health (AAIMH), 2013) and consequently, there is an increased focus on the infant/toddler-educator relationship and an attention to the quality of infant/toddler settings.   The first year of life is considered a critical period for attachment development and infant/ toddlers require a secure base in ECEC, in addition to home, to develop secure attachments (Lee, 2016).

Attachment theory has influenced research, policy and practice over the last six decades, offering a framework for understanding risk and protective factors in early childhood. Despite the increasing literature highlighting the importance of attachment relationships, attachment theory has been primarily considered from a medical health and psychological perspective.  More training on this topic is needed inthe education department, as teachers, especially early childhood teachers, can have a profound affect on a child’s self esteem.

Attachment theory is the joint work of John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth (Ainsworth & Bowlby, 1991 ).  The ideas now guiding attachment theory have a long developmental history.

  • Stages of attachment development
    Bowlby (1969) proposed there were four stages of attachment development that a child will encounter in the first three years of life. Ainsworth, who worked closely with Bowlby, took his proposed phases of attachment development in the early years and assigned them with specific titles. Three of the phases occur within thefirst year of life, with the fourth phase occurring towards the end of the third year of life or beginning of the fourth year (Ainsworth, Blehar, Waters, & Wall, 1979/2014).
    The phases were:
  • Pre-attachment.
  • Attachment in the making.
  • Clear-cut attachment.
  • Goal-corrected partnership.
    How a child experiences these phases of attachment development were thought by Bowlby to influence their self-worth.

Adult Romantic Relationships


Although Bowlby was primarily focused on understanding the nature of the infant-caregiver relationship, he believed that attachment characterized human experience from “the cradle to the grave.” It was not until the mid-1980’s, however, that researchers began to take seriously the possibility that attachment processes may play out in adulthood. Hazan and Shaver (1987) were two of the first researchers to explore Bowlby’s ideas in the context of romantic relationships. According to Hazan and Shaver, the emotional bond that develops between adult romantic partners is partly a function of the same motivational system–the attachment behavioral system–that gives rise to the emotional bond between infants and their caregivers. Hazan and Shaver noted that the relationship between infants and caregivers and the relationship between adult romantic partners share the following features:

  • both feel safe when the other is nearby and responsive
  • both engage in close, intimate, bodily contact
  • both feel insecure when the other is inaccessible
  • both share discoveries with one another
  • both play with one another’s facial features and exhibit a mutual fascination and preoccupation with one another
  • both engage in “baby talk”

On the basis of these parallels, Hazan and Shaver argued that adult romantic relationships, like infant-caregiver relationships, are attachments, and that romantic love is a property of the attachment behavioral system, as well as the motivational systems that give rise to caregiving and sexuality.

Three Implications of Adult Attachment Theory

The idea that romantic relationships may be attachment relationships has had a profound influence on modern research on close relationships. There are at least three critical implications of this idea. First, if adult romantic relationships are attachment relationships, then we should observe the same kinds of individual differences in adult relationships that Ainsworth observed in infant-caregiver relationships. We may expect some adults, for example, to be secure in their relationships–to feel confident that their partners will be there for them when needed, and open to depending on others and having others depend on them. We should expect other adults, in contrast, to be insecure in their relationships. For example, some insecure adults may be anxious-resistant: they worry that others may not love them completely, and be easily frustrated or angered when their attachment needs go unmet. Others may be avoidant: they may appear not to care too much about close relationships, and may prefer not to be too dependent upon other people or to have others be too dependent upon them.

Second, if adult romantic relationships are attachment relationships, then the way adult relationships “work” should be similar to the way infant-caregiver relationships work. In other words, the same kinds of factors that facilitate exploration in children (i.e., having a responsive caregiver) should facilitate exploration among adults (i.e., having a responsive partner). The kinds of things that make an attachment figure “desirable” for infants (i.e., responsiveness, availability) are the kinds of factors adults should find desirable in romantic partners. In short, individual differences in attachment should influence relational and personal functioning in adulthood in the same way they do in childhood.

Third, whether an adult is secure or insecure in his or her adult relationships may be a partial reflection of his or her experiences with his or her primary caregivers. Bowlby believed that the mental representations or working models (i.e., expectations, beliefs, “rules” or “scripts” for behaving and thinking) that a child holds regarding relationships are a function of his or her caregiving experiences. For example, a secure child tends to believe that others will be there for him or her because previous experiences have led him or her to this conclusion. Once a child has developed such expectations, he or she will tend to seek out relational experiences that are consistent with those expectations and perceive others in a way that is colored by those beliefs. According to Bowlby, this kind of process should promote continuity in attachment patterns over the life course, although it is possible that a person’s attachment pattern will change if his or her relational experiences are inconsistent with his or her expectations. In short, if we assume that adult relationships are attachment relationships, it is possible that children who are secure as children will grow up to be secure in their romantic relationships. Or, relatedly, that people who are secure as adults in their relationships with their parents will be more likely to forge secure relationships with new partners.

In the sections below I briefly address these three implications in light of early and contemporary research on adult attachment.

Do We Observe the Same Kinds of Attachment Patterns Among Adults that We Observe Among Children?

The earliest research on adult attachment involved studying the association between individual differences in adult attachment and the way people think about their relationships and their memories for what their relationships with their parents are like. Hazan and Shaver (1987) developed a simple questionnaire to measure these individual differences. (These individual differences are often referred to as attachment styles, attachment patterns, attachment orientations, or differences in the organization of the attachment system.) In short, Hazan and Shaver asked research subjects to read the three paragraphs listed below, and indicate which paragraph best characterized the way they think, feel, and behave in close relationships:

A. I am somewhat uncomfortable being close to others; I find it difficult to trust them completely, difficult to allow myself to depend on them. I am nervous when anyone gets too close, and often, others want me to be more intimate than I feel comfortable being.

B. I find it relatively easy to get close to others and am comfortable depending on them and having them depend on me. I don’t worry about being abandoned or about someone getting too close to me.

C. I find that others are reluctant to get as close as I would like. I often worry that my partner doesn’t really love me or won’t want to stay with me. I want to get very close to my partner, and this sometimes scares people away.

Based on this three-category measure, Hazan and Shaver found that the distribution of categories was similar to that observed in infancy. In other words, about 60% of adults classified themselves as secure (paragraph B), about 20% described themselves as avoidant (paragraph A), and about 20% described themselves as anxious-resistant (paragraph C).



















  Lee, Y. (2016). Relationship-based developmentally supportive approach to infant childcare practice. Early Childhood Development and Care, 186(5), 734749. doi:10.1080/03004430.2015.1057579

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