Understanding Bowlby’s Theory of Attachment: A Comprehensive Guide

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July 22, 2022
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The psychological theory of attachment was first described by John Bowlby, a psychoanalyst who researched the effects of separation between infants and their parents.

Bowlby hypothesized that the extreme behaviors infants engage in to avoid separation from a parent or when reconnecting with a physically separated parent—like crying, screaming, and clinging—were evolutionary mechanisms. Bowlby thought these behaviors had possibly been reinforced through natural selection and enhanced the child’s chances of survival.

These attachment behaviours are instinctive responses to the perceived threat of losing the survival advantages that accompany being cared for and attended to by the primary caregiver(s). Since the infants who engaged in these behaviours were more likely to survive, the instincts were naturally selected and reinforced over generations.

These behaviours make up what Bowlby termed an “attachment behavioural system”, the system that guides us in our patterns and habits of forming and maintaining relationships.


According to Bowlby, the child’s attachment to the mother must not be understood in terms of helplessness and dependency. The sphere of attachment is original. Being attached to someone or something is something other than dependent thereupon. This is evident in the observation of children. In fact, during the first months of life, the newborn radically depends on the mother for self-preservation. Still, we cannot yet talk about attachment to the mother or attachment behaviour during this period. The child does not make a clear distinction between acquaintances and strangers. Bowlby (buy his books from Amazon) stipulates that it is only later, at about six months, that the child demonstrates behaviours that indicate he is interested in the proximity of the mother and that he reacts to the separation with anxiety.

Freud & Klein's Legacy

Freud on attachment

Sigmund Freud’s assumption that children’s interest in the presence of the mother is only based on their biological dependency on her lacks any empirical proof. On the contrary, we may find similar attachment behaviour in the higher primates, even if they do not have as long a period of dependency on the mother as humans do. Surprisingly, Freud (read Sigmund Freud’s Theory of Psychosexual Development) remained oblivious to this dimension of human nature. This omission can be owed to his view on the duality of instinct. For Freud, there are only two primary instincts, the instinct of self-preservation and the sexual instinct, all behaviours and tendencies that, according to Bowlby, belong to the attachment domain. Loss, then, can be reduced to either one of these two instincts or to a combination. This only demonstrates the limitations of Freud’s dualistic view of instincts.

Attachment in the work of Klein

At first sight, Melanie Klein’s theory seems to escape from Freud’s problems with attachment. Klein, after all, rejects the thought of a narcissistic primal situation in which instincts are exclusively satisfied by one’s own body. Like Freud, Klein regards the child’s attachment to the mother as a secondary instinct based on the vital needs and the anxiety of helplessness. The ego and an archaic object relation with the breast and later the mother are already present from the onset. And yet, we cannot understand this archaic object relation as a form of attachment. According to Klein (buy her books from Amazon), the object relations of children originate in the satisfaction of their vital needs and, first and most notably, in the anxiety about their frustration. The frustrations of the essential needs confront the early ego with its helplessness and powerless anger that it cannot contain or control.

Erik Erikson and Attachment

Erik Erikson’s research trajectory parallels Bowlby and Ainsworth’s but comes from a different perspective.

Erikson’s work was based on Freud’s original personality theories and drew from his idea of the ego. However, Erikson placed more importance on context from culture and society than on Freud’s focus on the conflict between the id and the superego.

In addition, his stages of development (go to Erik Erikson’s Theory of Psychosocial Development) are based on how children socialize and how it affects their sense of self rather than on sexual development.

Although it does not map completely onto attachment theory, Erikson’s findings are related to the attachment styles and behaviours Bowlby and Ainsworth identified.

Schaffer and Emerson's Stages of Attachment

Researchers Rudolph Schaffer and Peggy Emerson analyzed the number of attachment relationships that infants form in a longitudinal study with 60 infants. The infants were observed every four weeks during the first year of life and then once again at 18 months. Based on their observations, Schaffer and Emerson outlined four distinct phases of attachment:

From birth to three months, infants do not show any particular attachment to a specific caregiver. The infant’s signals, such as crying and fussing, naturally attract the attention of the caregiver and the baby’s positive responses encourage the caregiver to remain close.

From around six weeks of age to seven months, infants begin to show preferences for primary and secondary caregivers. During this phase, infants begin to develop a feeling of trust that the caregiver will respond to their needs. While they will still accept care from other people, they become better at distinguishing between familiar and unfamiliar people as they approach seven months of age. They also respond more positively to the primary caregiver.

At this point, from about seven to eleven months of age, infants show a strong attachment and preference for one specific individual. They will protest when separated from the primary attachment figure (separation anxiety), and begin to display anxiety around strangers (stranger anxiety).

After approximately nine months of age, children begin to form strong emotional bonds with other caregivers beyond the primary attachment figure. This often includes the father, older siblings, and grandparents.

Bowlby's Characteristics of Attachment

Bowlby believed that there are four distinguishing characteristics of attachment:

  1. Proximity Maintenance – The desire to be near the people we are attached to.
  2. Safe Haven – Returning to the attachment figure for comfort and safety in the face of a fear or threat.
  3. Secure Base – The attachment figure acts as a secure base from which the child can explore the surrounding environment.
  4. Separation Distress – Anxiety and stress that occurs in the absence of the attachment figure.

Bowlby also made three critical propositions about attachment theory.

First, he suggested that when children are raised with confidence that their primary caregiver will be available, they are less likely to experience fear than those raised without such conviction.

Secondly, he believed this confidence is forged during a critical development period, infancy, childhood, and adolescence. The expectations formed during that period tend to remain relatively unchanged for the rest of the person’s life.1

Finally, he suggested that these expectations that are formed are directly tied to experience. In other words, children develop expectations that their caregivers will be responsive to their needs because, in their experience, their caregivers have been responsive.

Ainsworth's Strange Situation Assessment

During the 1970s, psychologist Mary Ainsworth expanded upon Bowlby’s groundbreaking work in her now-famous “Strange Situation” study. The study involved observing children between the ages of 12 to 18 months responding to a situation in which they were briefly left alone and reunited with their mother.

Ainsworth’s Strange Situation Assessment followed this primary sequence:

  1. Parent and child are alone in a room
  2. The child explores the space with parental supervision
  3. A stranger enters the room, talks to the parent, and approaches the child
  4. The parent quietly leaves the room
  5. The parent returns and comforts the child

Based on these observations, Ainsworth (buy her books from Amazon) concluded that there were three significant attachment styles: secure attachment, ambivalent-insecure attachment, and avoidant-insecure attachment.

Researchers Main and Solomon added a fourth attachment style known as disorganized-insecure attachment. Numerous studies have supported Ainsworth’s conclusions, and additional research has revealed that these early attachment styles can help predict behaviours later in life.

Patterns of Attachment

Secure attachment is marked by distress when separated from caregivers and joy when the caregiver returns. Remember, these children feel secure and able to depend on their adult caregivers. When the adult leaves, the child may be upset but he or she 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.

Ambivalently attached children usually become very distressed when a parent leaves. This attachment style is considered relatively uncommon, affecting an estimated 7 percent to 15 percent of U.S. children. Ambivalent attachment may be a result of poor parental availability. These children cannot depend on their mother (or caregiver) to be there when the child is in need.

Parents of children with an avoidant attachment tend to be emotionally unavailable or unresponsive to them a good deal of the time. They disregard or ignore their children’s needs, and can be especially rejecting when their child is hurt or sick. These parents also discourage crying and encourage premature independence in their children.

In response, the avoidant attached child learns early in life to suppress the natural desire to seek out a parent for comfort when frightened, distressed, or in pain. Attachment researcher Jude Cassidy describes how these children cope: “During many frustrating and painful interactions with rejecting attachment figures, they have learned that acknowledging and displaying distress leads to rejection or punishment.” By not crying or outwardly expressing their feelings, they are often able to partially gratify at least one of their attachment needs, that of remaining physically close to a parent.

Children identified as having an avoidant attachment with a parent tend to disconnect from their bodily needs. Some of these children learn to rely heavily on self-soothing, self-nurturing behaviors. They develop a pseudo-independent orientation to life and maintain the illusion that they can take complete care of themselves. As a result, they have little desire or motivation to seek out other people for help or support.

Children with a disorganized attachment often display a confusing mix of behavior and may seem disoriented, dazed, or confused. Children may both avoid or resist the parent. Some researchers believe that the lack of a clear attachment pattern is likely linked to inconsistent behavior from caregivers. In such cases, parents may serve as both a source of comfort and a source of fear, leading to disorganized behavior.

Contemporary Criticism of Bowlby's Attachment Theory

Some modern psychologists consider that despite its shallow suppositions, the theory took root in a post–World War II America, in part because it appealed to fears about wives going to work. The notion that what a mother does during the first few years of life psychologically makes or breaks a child caught on because it tells people what they want to hear.

“In retrospect, his suggestion that what happens in the first year of life influences in a significant way how you’ll be for the rest of your life is an unreasonable idea,” says psychologist Dr. Jerome Kagan, a Professor Emeritus at Harvard University, and a leading critic of the attachment theory. “The social class in which a child is reared is today in many nations the best predictor of depression, anxiety, addiction, crime, and occupations. It’s better than any set of genes or observation of a child.”

And yet, half a century later, people still subscribe to attachment theory despite ample evidence that social class, temperament, and culture are much more accurate predictors of future outcomes. But Kagan is certain that within 10 to 15 years, attachment theory will be a historical footnote.

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