Overview of Attachment in Childhood

An example of attachment between a parent and child
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According to psychologist Mary Ainsworth, attachment "may be defined as an affectional tie that one person or animal forms between himself and another specific one – a tie that binds them together in space and endures over time."

Attachment is not just a connection between two people; it is a bond that involves a desire for regular contact with that person and the experience of distress during separation from that person. This plays a particularly important role during childhood as it causes children and their caregivers to seek proximity. By staying close to caregivers, children are able to ensure that they are cared for and safe.

Let's take a closer look at some of the reasons why and how attachments form and the impact they have throughout life.  

Why Do We Form Attachments?

Psychologist John Bowlby is generally thought of as the father of ​attachment theory. He defined attachment as a "lasting psychological connectedness between human beings." Childhood, he suggested, played a critical role in the formation of attachments and early experiences could have an impact on the relationships people form later in life. Attachments tend to be enduring, meaning they may last a very long time.

The earliest attachments we form are with parents and other caregivers, which is perhaps why Bowlby believed that attachment had a strong evolutionary component. These early attachments with caregivers serve to keep an infant safe and secure, thus ensuring the child's survival. Attachments motivate children to stay close to their parents, which allows the parent to provide protection, security, and care. This helps ensure that the child has all of the things he or she needs to survive.

Bowlby suggested that there were four critical characteristics of attachment.

  • First is proximity maintenance, or the desire to be near those with which we share an attachment. We enjoy the company of those we are attached to, so we strive to be near them whenever possible.
  • Attachments also create a safe haven, or the need to return to attachment figures for care and comfort. During times of distress, fear, or uncertainty, we may seek out the people we are attached to for care and comfort.
  • Next, attachment figures also offer a secure base for exploration. This is particularly important during childhood. This secure base allows kids to explore the world while knowing they can still return to the safety of the attachment figure.
  • Finally, kids experience separation distress when parted from an attachment figure. For example, kids tend to become upset when parents have to leave them in the care of others.

Why Is Attachment Important?

Attachment serves a number of important purposes. First, it helps keep infants and children close to their caregivers so that they can receive protection, which in turn helps boost their chances of survival. This important emotional bond also provides children with a secure base from which they can then safely explore their environment.

Researchers including Ainsworth, Bowlby, Main, and Solomon also suggest that how a child is attached to his or her caregivers can have a major influence both during childhood and later in life. They have identified a number of different attachment styles to describe the affectional bond children have with their parents or caregivers.

The failure to form a secure attachment with a caregiver has been linked to a number of problems including conduct disorder and oppositional-defiant disorder. Researchers also suggest that the type of attachment displayed early in life can have a lasting effect on later adult relationships.

Psychologist Harry Harlow conducted a number of controversial experiments on social isolation in rhesus monkeys which demonstrated the devastating effects of disrupting early attachments. In one variation of the experiment, infant monkeys were separated from their mothers and placed them with surrogate mothers. One mother was simply a wire armature that held a bottle, while the other mother was covered with a soft terry-cloth material. Harlow found that the infant monkeys would receive food from the wire mother, but preferred to spend most of their time with the soft mother. 

When compared to monkeys that had been reared by their birth mothers, the monkeys raised by surrogate mothers were timider and suffered from social and emotional problems. Harlow also found that there was a critical period during which normal attachments could be formed. If the monkeys were not allowed to form attachments during that window of time, the emotional damage they experienced could never be reversed. 

While controversial and cruel, Harlow's research helped demonstrate the utmost importance of developing secure and healthy attachments early in life. Such attachments play a vital role in future development.

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Article Sources
  • Ainsworth, M. D. S. The development of infant-mother attachment. In B. Cardwell & H. Ricciuti (Eds.), Review of child development research, Vol. 3. Chicago: University of Chicago Press; 1973.
  • Bowlby J. Attachment. Attachment and loss: Vol. 1: Loss. New York: Basic Books; 1969.
  • Harlow, H. F. & Zimmermann, R. R. The development of affective responsiveness in infant monkeys. Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society. 1958; 102: 501 -509.