Attachment Theory in Early Childhood: Importance and Effects

What Is Attachment Theory

Disclosure: This is a post to summarize many scientific and psychological aspects about attachment, depending on my own readings and understanding of the subject. I am not a psychologist and this post is for informational purposes. If you need advice, please consult a mental health professional.

attached mother and baby cuddling


The main 2 scientists who formulated the attachment theory was John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth. The latter tested the theory and later on, many others added to and developed the concept of attachment in developmental psychology. I will try here to simplify those concepts. It is important to say that in his opinion, this is a normal phenomenon that serves  important purposes: a) survival! And b) to enable the person to deal with difficult emotions.


 Definition of attachment:

It is the theory that infants need to create an emotional bond to a “caregiver”. This ability to form a healthy attachment given the infant a sense of security and emotional stability. This is essential for future development, growth. It is also important to allow the child to deal with negative emotions in the future. Mary Ainsworth described “attachment behavior” that happens when you separate the infant from the mom (signs like crying, clinging, following, etc), most of which happens in all babies meaning it is instinctive, i.e. they are programmed to do it.

The theory itself has developed over time, it is a broad idea that you can understand from different angles so we will try to look at some ways to understand what it means in practice. There is usually more than one caregiver but the baby will form the strongest attachment to usually one caregiver.


What is separation anxiety?

Bowlby noticed that infants are separated from the “caregiver” they go through 3 stages: first, they protest, cry and scream.  He maintained that this is a normal reaction which is important to draw attention to the vulnerable infant and for their survival, you can see that this is not only in humans, there were studies in Rhesus monkeys and other animals as well.

The second stage is despair: the infant stops crying and becomes silent. If the caregiver is not back after sometime, the infant moves on to the third stage: detachment. The infant goes back to their normal life without the mother.

The importance of attachment theory: Without a healthy attachment, Bowlby suggested that the child will spend  time looking for ways to cope or find stability.

Attachment develops in the first year and a half. As the baby becomes a toddler, they have an idea about how much they can depend on the “caregiver” to feel secure and so are able to control or “regulate” their emotions based on which attachment pattern they have developed.


Types or patterns of attachment:

From studies that observed infants and parents, Bowlby and Ainsworth noticed 3 main types of attachment that can be formed, a fourth attachment style was added later:

Ainsworth and her team performed an interesting study called “The Strange Situation” experiment, which has been replicated many times. They observed a baby with the mother or caregiver in a room with some toys. Then the mother leaves the room and the child is on their own for a while. The mother later returns and comforts the child. I won’t go into full details as they varied it as well (a stranger could come instead of the mother for example). You can see the Strange Situation test in this video:

Based on this test, Four types of attachment were identified:

  1. Secure attachment: In the experiment, as the mom leaves, these children would cry like all others but they tended to settle down quicker. When the mother returned, they would go to her and cuddle and they can play together, etc. These were considers signs of secure attachment. The idea is that these children are able to trust that the mother will be coming back and provide security. They also see them selves as worthy of respect. They are resilient and able to trust others.The following 3 are the insecure attachment styles.

  2. Anxious-resistant attachment: A group of children were observed to stay distressed as they are reunited with the mother. They even show anger and could hit the mom when she returns!. They also tend lack confidence and be isolated and not mix with others.

  3. Anxious-avoidant attachment: the scientists noticed something strange with a group of the children. They were not visibly distressed when they observed them. However, their heart rate readings went up just like other ones who became distressed. Children in this group are distressed but have learned not to show it. When the mother returned, those babies could act indifferent or “reject” the mother, in other words, they “detach” themselves and do not run or cling to the mother. This group are unable to deal with difficult emotions and are believe to become aggressive or show antisocial behavior.

  4. Disorganized: This type usually develops in cases of severe abuse or neglect. These children cannot form a coping strategy with their emotions and tend to alternate between being isolative and being aggressive and disruptive.

A word of caution:


Please note: These are observations over long periods by experienced teams of mental health professionals (infant mental health is now a branch of psychology). Just because your child once threw a tantrum or acted weird does not mean he has an insecure attachment. The types mentioned above are “patterns” that develop over time and begin to form after the first year into a particular type. If you are not sure or think your child has a problem, or if you need parenting advice, please seek professional help and do not try to apply any “diagnostic” rules or tests on yourself, your children or people you know. 
My intention in writing this post is to give you some information about this important concept as it is now mentioned a lot in the media. I have seen people sometimes feel extreme guilt after reading something in a magazine because they thought they are “doing something wrong”. You should not feel bad about yourself or your parenting style, or make major decisions based on an internet post. I’m going to repeat myself again: if in doubt or worried: ask a professional.

a mother kissing her baby
Photo by Vince Fleming on Unsplash

Adult attachment theory and styles 

Now, there has been many interpretation and theories on how these childhood attachment patterns correspond to adult behavior or “attachment theory in adults”. Some of this is actually easy to notice as you can see above. It is helpful at this point, as many mental health professionals suggest,  to think of attachment as a "stress management system" that is activated when we are fearful or under stress and we are looking for protection or security. These patterns then affect the adult persons future relationships (including romantic ones) and also parenting and their responses to their children. It is generally thought that about 40% of adults have an insecure attachment. There is evidence from studies that childhood adversity and insecure attachment are linked together and that there is also a link to chronic illness: both mental and physical.

Generally, it is believed that adults who had a secure attachment are better able to form relationships. Other types of “insecure” attachment might struggle with trusting others, disruptive behavior, aggression and also develop mental health disorders and children or adolescents. There are now even some questionnaires that people can answer to know more about their own attachment patterns as adults.
The implications of attachment theory are numerous. It has developed over time and obviously shaped many other psychological theories and many psychological therapies depend on concepts derived from attachment theory. It is now also being taught and used in different fields such as education, social work, etc. One of the important areas which are impacted by this is parenting: the attachment style of the mother or father can affect the way they respond to the child and his distress.

How to promote positive attachment?

  • Observe the cues:learn how your child is trying to communicate and notice changes in their behavior.

  • Respond: your child will benefit from knowing that you will respond to his behavior in a certain way and that you will be there to comfort him. This does not have to be a dramatic response in a few milliseconds but at least some communication with the child to acknowledge their stress.

  • Play with your child. Not only to enhance their skills and promote learning but it will also strengthen your relationship.

  • Socialize: by spending time with the child within the family environment or a local community such as play groups and so on, the child gets to learn from you about appropriate behavior in social situations.

  • Reading and talking: Reading to your child is an art in itself! It is all about sharing an emotional experience and a great chance to introduce basic learning skills.
    Please let me know your thoughts on this or if you have any ideas or suggestions to add. 


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