Attachment Theory: Principles, Periods And Patterns

The  theory of Bowlby’s attachment is a psychological model that initially focused on describing the development of relations between children and their primary caregivers during the early stages of his life. Later, however, her conclusions have become generalized and today are considered applicable to all human relationships, including those of a couple.

John Bowlby, the originator of the theory, was a psychoanalyst who believed that the mental health of people in adulthood had to do with their most important experiences during childhood. At the same time, his ideas were highly influenced by ethology, in such a way that this researcher believed that the need to form a close bond with a caregiver was innate.

During his research, Bowlby discovered that all children developed a primary attachment bond with one of their caregivers, usually with their mother. However, the nature of it could vary greatly depending on how your relationship with this caregiver was; and depending on what type of attachment was created, the child would end up showing very different characteristics over time.

Today, Bowlby’s attachment theory is considered one of the most important discoveries within the entire field of psychology. The findings of this researcher are used to explain both the origin of many mental illnesses, as well as the way in which people react in different situations related to our intimate relationships.

Principles of the theory

In Bowlby’s theory, the concept of attachment refers to an instinct that leads people to seek closeness to their reference figure at the moment when they perceive some type of threat or danger in their environment. In this way, the child anticipates a certain reaction on the part of his caregiver and tries to use him to feel safe and protected.

According to the research carried out by Bowlby and by other psychologists who expanded his theory, the tendency to form an attachment bond is something innate both in our species and in other close ones. On a developmental level, children needed the support of an adult to protect them from danger and allow them to explore safely, or else they would not be able to survive.

On the other hand, depending on the response of the attachment figure and whether it is available most of the time or not, the child will generate a series of responses on a regular basis. While some of them promote the child’s independence and exploration, others are harmful.

At first it was believed that attachment theory was only applicable to the behaviors of people during their childhood; But later it was discovered that the type of attachment generated at this time was of great importance throughout the individual’s life. Thus, today this theory is used to explain all kinds of situations and experiences present in adulthood.

Throughout the history of psychology, a multitude of investigations have been carried out on Bowlby’s attachment theory, both with children and adults and with animals of other species. All of them have helped us better understand how this very special bond develops between children and their caregivers, and what its effects are throughout a person’s life.

Development periods

Although Bowlby did not initially delve too deeply into the way in which attachment relationships are created, later researchers continued his work and made many discoveries related to this aspect. The most important in this regard were Rudolph Schaffer and Peggy Emerson.

Schaffer and Emerson analyzed the nature and number of attachment relationships that children form at different times in their development in a longitudinal study, using 60 participants. The children were observed once every four weeks for the first year of their life, and once more when they were one and a half years old.

Based on the observations made throughout this study, Schaffer and Emerson described four different periods in the development of attachment: the pre-attachment stage, the indiscriminate attachment stage, the discriminated attachment stage, and the multiple attachment stage. Next we will see what each of them consists of.

1- Pre-attachment period

From the moment of their birth until about a month and a half of life, children do not show any specific signs of having developed a close relationship with an adult, either with their primary caregiver or with anyone else. In this way, children do not cry when an adult stops paying attention to them, nor do they show positive reactions to their care.

However, at this time children already carry out behaviors designed to attract the attention of adults, such as crying or moving. These ways of acting are innate and are designed to empower caregivers to protect them and meet their needs.

2- indiscriminate attachment

From six weeks of age, and approximately until seven months of age, children begin to show specific reactions to different attachment figures, both primary and secondary. However, they still accept the care and attention of strangers, and often respond positively to all adults who interact with them.

For example, children in this phase cry when an adult stops paying attention to them, and they smile very easily both at familiar people and strangers, without showing any type of fear in front of the latter.

The more advanced the stage of indiscriminate attachment, the greater the ability of the child to distinguish between known and unknown persons, and to discriminate in favor of his main attachment figure. Even so, before seven months, babies still show a very marked social tendency that is not present in the next phase.

3- Attachment discriminated

Between seven and eleven months of age, children begin to show strong signs of preference for one of their primary caregivers. Generally the person chosen is the mother, but in certain cases it may be the father, another more distant relative, or any other person who has had close contact with them.

From this moment until a few months later, children show signs that they are not comfortable with the attention of strangers and people they do not know. Additionally, they will also have stress reactions when their primary attachment figure drifts away, which is known as separation anxiety.

4- Multiple attachments

Once they leave the discriminated attachment phase, which usually occurs around 11 months of age, children begin to be able to develop strong emotional bonds with other primary caregivers in addition to their primary attachment figure.

From this moment on, the attention of strangers becomes more and more tolerable, until it ends up normalizing over several years. However, the relationship with the main attachment figure remains special for a long time, sometimes throughout the person’s life.

Attachment patterns

Originally, Bowlby’s attachment theory described three possible types of relationship between the child and his main reference figure. However, over time a fourth possibility was discovered, thus expanding the theory to take the form most used today.

The four types of attachment that exist are as follows: secure, ambivalent, avoidant, and disorganized. In this section we will briefly see what each of them consists of.

Secure attachment

Secure attachment is characterized by the stress the child feels when his caregiver leaves and the joy he feels when he returns. The little one feels safe and believes that he can depend on his reference figure. Even when he is abandoned by his caretaker, he fully trusts that he will eventually return.

Also, securely attached children have no problem showing themselves vulnerable in front of their parents and asking for help or support when they feel upset.

Ambivalent attachment

Children with ambivalent attachments do not trust to take care of their reference figure when they need it, but at the same time they feel very upset when they do not receive their attention.

It is believed that this style of relationship may occur due to the low availability of parents in times of need for the baby. About 10% of children show this trend.

Avoidant attachment

In avoidant attachment, the child tends to avoid his parents and caregivers and do not show a clear preference for them in front of a stranger. This style of attachment occurs when the baby is punished when he is vulnerable or asks for help, which is the result of the presence of abusive or careless caregivers.

Disorganized attachment

Disorganized attachment was the only one not described in Bowlby’s original theory, because it is the least frequent of all. Children who present it show a pattern of erratic behavior, which can vary between avoidant and ambivalent depending on the moment. This attachment style is generally considered to produce the most negative consequences in a person’s life.


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