What is attachment?
Attachment is a child's bond with an adult, usually their parent, that enables the child to feel safe, secure and relaxed. From the security of this attachment the child feels confident to explore the world knowing that they can trust their parent to meet their needs and rescue them from danger.
Attachment Theory - a brief history
It is a theory that was put forward by John Bowlby after many years of work with children with emotional and behavioural difficulties. He had noticed that many of his patients had been separated from their mothers when very young and wondered whether this was significant. Support for his ideas came from studies on children in hospital who, at the time, were separated from their mothers. A film documenting the distress this caused to young children was released in 1948 by James and Joyce Robinson. The film entitled 'A two year old goes to hospital' ultimately led to changes in hospital practice. Work by Harlow in 1958 with monkeys removed from their mothers also revealed the long term impact that separation had on the monkey's ability to regulate their emotions and how well they got on with their peers. Earlier work by Konrad Lorentz in the 1930's had also shown a critical period when newly hatched goslings will form attachments with their parent, or anything resembling a parent including humans, in a process he described as imprinting. Bowlby brought these ideas together to form a theory: that humans also have a critical period in their infancy when they need to form attachments; and that when there are difficulties in forming a secure attachment there can be significant consequences for the child.
Criticisms of Attachment Theory
It is worth mentioning that research is not united in support of attachment theory. It has its supporters but also many critics. This article does not explore these but I have summarised a few relevant points:
Early insecure attachment does not always mean that the child will remain insecurely attached. There are other phases in childhood and early adolescence which are also significant times for forming secure attachments.
The theory can appear to blame parents as having failed in some way when they have children with behavioural difficulties. Many factors contribute to childhood behavioural conditions and parenting capacity is only one of many possible risks.
The theory does not adequately explain differences in outcomes for insecurely attached individuals raised in similar conditions such as siblings. Thus the importance of attachment over other factors may be over stated by the theory.