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by Mike Fisher



Attachment theory arose particularly from the work of John Bowlby and has been developed by Mary Ainsworth’s attempt to classify insecure attachment behaviour. Many other researchers and writers have subsequently added to our understanding of our need for attachment and the effects of disrupted attachment. Attachment theory attempts to describe a baby’s or child’s need for connectedness with its mother or caregiver.


Attachment involves a number of elements:



The provision of these elements not only enables a child to feel safe and secure but also ensure healthy functioning of its body and mind, the strengthening of its immune system and the development of its brain.


Attachment needs of the child is principally monotrophic extending possibly to a small group of specific individuals. With bonded attachment, attachment feeling will be experienced by the mother or caregiver.


Mary Ainsworth developed an experimental procedure to measure the level of security experienced by children, resulting from a series of two or three minute separations from these parents. This led to the essential classification of the five types of attachment response:


  1. Secure Attachment in which children show some distress at separation. On reunion they greet their parent positively, seek some comfort, contact or friendly acknowledgement but soon return to contented play. Secure babies show high levels of eye contact, vocalisation and mutuality when relating with their parents. The child is confident that the caregiver will be available and helpful in adverse or frightening situations.
  2. Insecure Avoidant Attachment in which children show few signs of distress at separation. When the parent returns, these children ignore or avoid her. They do not seek out physical contact. They are watchful of the parent and remain generally wary. Their play is inhibited. Such children show little discrimination regarding with whom they interact. They demonstrate no particular preference for either parents or strangers.
  3. Insecure Ambivalent or Resistant Attachment, in which children are highly distressed at separation and very difficult to calm down upon reunion. They seek contact but do not settle when they receive it. When reunited, they resist attempts to pacify them and continue to cry, fuss, squirm, and thrash about. However, they will run back to the parent if he or she walks away. Ambivalent children both demand parental attention and angrily resist it at the same time. Such ambivalent behaviour – displays of need and anger, dependency and resistance – is the key characteristic of this type of insecurity. When the mother reappears ambivalent children are reluctant to return to play. They can be nervous of novel situations and people.
  4. Insecure and Disorganised Attachment. Children in this category show elements of both avoidant and ambivalent kinds of attachment behaviour. Upon reunion with parents they show confusion and disorganisation. They appear to lack a defensive strategy to protect them against feelings of anxiety. Sometimes these children will just freeze throughout the separation and reunion. On other occasions they may make mechanical contact but behave throughout the reunion without much show of feeling or emotion. Although the children tolerate being held they tend to gaze away. In the child’s eye, their parents are experienced as either frightening or frightened and therefore not available as a source of safety or comfort. This compounds the child’s anxiety. The infant is left with an “irresolvable conflict” to approach the attachment figure who is also the cause of the anxiety.
  1. Non-attachment. This term is reserved for children who have had no opportunity to form affectional bonds with other people. This is most likely to be observed in children who have been raised in institutions from early infancy. These children typically experience many anonymous serial caregivers who may be emotionally unavailable or unresponsive. Non-attached children are profoundly developmentally impaired and have problems with social relationships, dealing with other people only on the basis of their own needs. Non-attached children experience difficulties in controlling their impulses and feelings of aggression.


Our attachment experience and response as a child will extensively affect how we relate and behave in our adult life.


Categories are taken from “Attachment Theory for Social Work Practice” by David Howe 1995.



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