Attachment is an emotional bond to another person and is described as a “bond or tie between an individual and an attachment figure (Prior & Glaser, 2006, p. 15).”  In its simplest explanation, attachment theory involves mothers being available and responsive to their infants’ needs, resulting in establishing a sense of security for the child.  An attachment is thus formed.

Psychologist John Bowlby was the first to articulate attachment theory.  Mary Ainsworth and others later followed his work.  Attachment theory centers on the bond that an infant develops with his/her caregiver.  It is seen as proximity-seeking to the attachment figure when the child feels threatened.  Bowlby originally formulated his theory as a start-stop system (Prior & Glaser, 2006).  When a child experiences comfort the system is relaxed.  Attachment behavior is activated when discomfort occurs.  There four stages of attachment development.

  • Phase 1 – Orientation and signals without discrimination of figure (Bowlby)
  • Initial pre-attachment (Ainsworth)
  • Phase 2 – Orientation and signals directed towards one (or more) discriminated figure(s) (Bowlby)
  • Attachment-in-the-making (Ainsworth)
  • Phase 3 – Maintenance of proximity to a discriminated figure by means of locomotion as well as signals (Bowlby)
  • Clear-cut attachment (Ainsworth)
  • Phase 4 – Formation of goal-corrected partnership (Bowlby and Ainsworth) (Prior & Glaser, 2006, p. 19).

Phase one occurs from birth to 8 weeks of age in which the infants develops behaviors designed to attract the attention of caregivers.  Phase two occurs from 8 weeks until 6 months where the infant begins to be able to discriminate familiar and unfamiliar adults.  Phase three occurs between 6 and 7 months of age and potentially beyond one year.  With the child now able to move from place to place the infant begins to explore while recognizing his caregiver as his base to explore.  During the final phase the child begins to see his/her mother figure as an independent figure from him/herself (Prior & Glaser, 2006).

Through her research Mary Ainsworth described three characteristics of attachment; secure attachment, ambivalent attachment, and avoidant attachment.  Secure attachment occurs when a child that is in distress receive the comfort sought from their caregivers.  Ambivalent attachment occurs when the child becomes distressed whenever the caregiver leaves.  While this is seen as uncommon, it is thought to be a result of poor maternal availability.  The child with avoidant attachment avoids the caregivers when given the choice between the caregiver and a stranger.  This is thought to be the result of abusive or neglectful behavior of the caregivers.

Fundamental in the concept of attachment theory is the idea that a basic need being developed and nurtured is one of trust.  Understanding attachment theory helps therapists deal with clients problems at very basic and core levels – the need to be able to trust others and feel loved.  From my perspective resolving issues of inability of clients to trust is rooted in the understanding of how this basic need was met or not.  Using attachment development theory opens the understanding of what clients need and why they are unable to find it as an adult.

Erik Erikson identified eight stages of development that begin at birth and end at death.  These stages trust autonomy, initiative, industry, identity, intimacy, generativity, and integrity hinge on the ability of an individual to adapt and grow.  Erikson believed that individuals seek to develop a positive sense of identity developing over a lifetime.  If the earliest stage of development is trust, then it can be seen that if attachment does not happen, then trust is compromised and the ability to grow and develop through the other stages is also compromised.  Understanding attachment development theory helps guide individuals through healthy development.  Therapists discovering attachment problems of clients provides the scaffold to build theoretical plan in helping clients learn to trust and then experience autonomy, initiative, industry, identity, intimacy, generativity, and integrity in their life.

Our ability to attach appropriately as infants creates the scope with which we view our world.  The bond that is formed in the mother-child relationship creates the internal working models of both self and others (Reinert & Edwards, 2009).  These experiences influence the quality of one’s relationships throughout a lifetime.   “Attachment research has supported the notion that the childhood experience of various forms of mistreatment in childhood affects later attachment relationships (Bacon & Richardson, 2001. Reinert & Edwards, 2009, p. 26).”  I firmly believe that the neglect, abuse or adversities of our past do not have to define who we are today.  While there may be a proclivity towards a certain attachment style, people are not defined by that style.  People can grow and change.