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Attachment Theory In Child-Parent Relationship

John Bowlby was one of the most important contributors to attachment theory. He defined attachment as ‘a lasting psychological connectedness between human beings.’ In simple words, attachment can be defined as a deep and long-lasting bond between two people that provides comfort and security, especially during unfamiliar situations.

attachment theory in child parent relationship

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Attachment theory, as the name suggests, is about relationships and attachments formed between people, particularly the bond between a primary caregiver (probably a mother) and a child. Attachment theory also sheds light on adult romantic relationships.


Bowlby developed the attachment theory after getting inspired by his own experience and work with emotionally disturbed children. He was a psychiatrist at a child guidance clinic in London, and thus, came in contact with many emotionally disturbed children.

He noticed their issues, which led him to investigate the role of mothers in the child’s overall development. He could observe that children experienced separation anxiety and pain upon being separated from their primary caregiver.

He wanted to know more, leading towards this theory. He saw how early separation from the mother led to future consequences in children. This gave rise to the formation of attachment theory. Bowlby also gave evolutionary insights into the theory. Infants need care and safety for surviving.

Thus, according to Bowlby, attachment is adaptive and enhances survival among infants. It has been demonstrated that attachment with primary caregivers provided security and comfort to children and thus, they have been more likely to survive their adult years.

Behavioural theorists came from an opposite point of view, stating that attachment was a learned response, it was not some innate response, as evolutionary theory believed.

Premises Of Attachment Theory

Bowlby gave three premises about attachment theory.

  1. Firstly, he stated that when a child is assured that the primary caregiver will be there for them, he or she is less likely to experience fear than the child who is not assured of the same.
  2. Secondly, this assurance is formed during essential periods of life, infancy, childhood and adolescence. The assurance and expectations formed during this time are relatively consistent throughout life.
  3. Thirdly, this assurance is built on experience. A child would expect the caregiver to be there for them if the caregiver has been there for them before.

Strange Situation Study

Mary Ainsworth was another significant contributor to the field of attachment styles. She conducted a study on attachment styles, popularly known as the Strange Situation study. This study included observing children aged between 12-18 months who were left alone for some time and then reunited with their primary caregiver (mother).

The experiment followed this order. Firstly, a primary caregiver and child were left alone in a room and the child was allowed to explore the room with the caregiver present. Then, a stranger entered the room, interacted with the primary caregiver and approached the child. The primary caregiver leaves the room and comes back after some time and comforts the child.

Based on how the child reacts to the return of the caregiver, Ainsworth gave 3 distinct attachment styles, namely, secure attachment, ambivalent-insecure attachment, and avoidant-insecure attachment. A large amount of research has been conducted on these styles and it seems to support the validity of these styles. These styles have also been found to predict future behaviours.

Secure Attachment Style

It refers to the tendency of forming loving, secure and caring relationships with others. In the Ainsworth study, secure attachment looks like children getting upset as soon as the primary caregiver leaves the room and being happy when the primary caregiver comes back.

During unfamiliar or threatening situations, these children look for their caregiver for comfort. When the caregiver offers comfort to a securely attached child, they accept it more readily and greet them back with similar energy. A securely attached adult can trust others, give and receive love, and can be intimate and vulnerable with others.

He or she can willingly engage in intimacy and is less likely to feel anxious when their partner needs space. They can rely on others without completely depending on them.

For example, Samuel had a childhood full of stories of his mother and him going to his parent-teacher meeting together and how his mother was always there for him in times of uncertainty. This led to him being a secure adult and having long-lasting, fulfilling bonds. He was able to trust others and be reliable to others.

Ambivalent Attachment Style

It refers to being cautious of strangers and unwilling to get close to people. This style can be formed due to inconsistencies in receiving love and security from a primary caregiver during childhood. In the Ainsworth study, the ambivalent style looks like children getting deeply distressed when a parent leaves the room and not displaying appropriate comfort when the parent comes back and attempts to comfort them.

In some cases, the child passively refuses the comfort or could be hostile in rejecting the caregiver. Adults with ambivalent attachment styles can be described as clingy or very dependent in relationships. They are often fearful of getting attached to others and if they do, they constantly feel that their partner does not feel the same for them.

The relationship is likely to feel distant to them. They are likely to consistently worry about the relationship and can be extremely sad if the relationship ends.

For example, Helena did not have the most stable childhood. Her parents were working tough jobs and couldn’t be there for her a lot of times. She is currently dating and seems unsatisfied. She constantly texts her boyfriend and pouts until he replies. She often feels abandoned if he replies late.

Avoidant Attachment Style

It refers to avoiding intimacy and vulnerability with others. This style can be formed due to parents or caregivers being emotionally unresponsive or absent for most of the critical periods in the child’s life. In the Ainsworth study, the avoidant style looks like children rejecting comfort from parents and not asking or seeking help or security from parents. They do not have any particular preference for parents over strangers.

This behaviour could have been caused by parental unavailability during times of distress for the child. A primary caregiver who discourages the expression of feelings could be encouraging an avoidant attachment style. As adults, people with avoidant attachment style seem independent and engage in self-soothing techniques during times of stress instead of seeking help or comfort from others.

They are likely to have difficulty in opening up about their feelings and often use excuses to avoid being vulnerable. They are likely to put less emotional effort into relationships and are less distraught when a relationship ends.

For example, Jason had a childhood wherein his father disregarded expressing emotions. He was taught that life has no time for emotions and they shouldn’t be expressed openly. Jason has frequent romantic relationships that end as soon as the other person expresses that they need more effort or a deeper bond with him. He fears intimacy and wants to leave the situation immediately.

Disorganized Attachment Style

It refers to an unclear attachment style. It could be a combination of avoidance and resistance towards the parent. This could have been caused by caregivers who have been both fearful as well as reassuring to the child. In the Ainsworth study, the disorganized style could look like children displaying confusing behaviour when the caregiver is present. The child could display distress when the caregiver leaves the room but could be indifferent to the parent when they come back and attempt to comfort them.

The child could also prefer the stranger and not the parent in some cases. In other cases, the child seems uncomfortable in the presence of the caregiver and is confused as to move towards or away from the caregiver. As the child feels two conflicting feelings (scared and reassured) because of the caregiver, he or she could be displaying conflicted or confused behaviour.

In some cases, children take on the role of the caregiver of the parent which leads to developing this particular attachment style. In adults, this attachment style could look like being inconsistent in their behaviour and actions and not willingly trusting others.

For example, Tim had an unstable childhood. In his adulthood, he engages in inconsistent behaviour in his relationships. He sometimes initiates intimacy and sometimes distances himself from the other person.

Impacts Of An Insecure Attachment Style

An Insecure attachment style is associated with emotional disturbances in adulthood, maladjustment and behaviour problems. Research has focused on the impacts of insecure attachment style in children and adults, which sometimes lead to disorders such as ADHD, Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD), PTSD, complex trauma, conduct disorder and more.

Apart from these impacts, insecure attachment styles also affect the quality of relationships and
the overall personality of an individual. Securely attached individuals can trust and rely on others, be confident about themselves and have fulfilling relationships.

On the other hand, insecurely attached individuals have a fear of being vulnerable, cannot feel at ease in relationships and are more likely to have unsatisfactory relationships.

The impacts of these attachment styles show up in other areas of life as well. Insecurely attached individuals tend to have low self-esteem and could be dependent on others for their sense of self-worth.

Securely attached individuals, on the other hand, are more emotionally independent and confident. They tend to do academically well, as well. Social relationships and events seem to go better for them, and they tend to have more stable mental health.

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