Attachment Research in Children

Attachment behaviours are characterised instead by recognising their purpose. They are, therefore, any organised, systematic conduct that is prompted by the appearance of a prospective threat or stressor and aims to obtain predictable closeness to a chosen carer. This implies that any conduct can fulfil the primary objective of providing comfort and security for children, and some may be highly unique to a specific child.

Attachment Meaning

Attachment, in broad terms, refers to the tendency of newborns and early children, mainly but not primarily, to rely on a parent figure for comfort and support when they are scared, worried, or unwell. It is assumed to be a type of biobehavioural adaption sculpted by natural selection pressures to maximise survival and, ultimately, reproduction. Many mammalian species, notably higher primates, share the essential characteristics of attachment. John Bowlby, who formulated an evolutionary theory of attachment, and Mary Ainsworth, who pioneered its research in naturalistic circumstances, owe a lot to the science of attachment.

Types of Attachment

Attachment behaviours are classified into three categories −

  • signalling or distant communication (e.g., calling, weeping);

  • proximity seeking (e.g., crawling, walking, reaching); and

  • touch maintenance (e.g., clutching). Monitoring the location and availability of an attachment figure is often referred to as attachment behaviour.

Attachment is characterised by heterotypic continuity, which means that while its underlying functional organisation remains consistent throughout time, the individual child actions employed to seek comfort or security alter dramatically in complexity and sophistication as children age.

Normative Attachment Patterns

Mary Ainsworth's Strange Situation Procedure is the most often used technique for studying attachment behaviour. It is used with infants aged 11 to 18 months and consists of a meeting with a stranger and 2-3 minute separations from a parent in an unfamiliar setting. The Ainsworth coding system assesses four aspects of attachment behaviour, scored on a seven-point scale. It also enables raters to make categorical choices on the style or classification of attachment behaviour displayed by confident children.

There are two sorts of attachments: 'secure' (Type B) attachments and three types of 'insecure' attachments: Type A (Avoidant), Type C (Resistant), and Type D (Disorganised).

These categories have been a significant subject of study, with studies revealing that most new-borns in low-risk situations (about 65%) are defined as secure; around 15% as Avoidant; 10% as Resistant; and 15% as Disorganised. This second group has received the most significant therapeutic attention since it appears to be most closely associated with more severe types of inadequate parental care and an increased risk of psychopathology.

The frequency of the various insecure subcategories varies significantly between cultures. Various related measures for measuring attachment in older children have been created.

Causes of Variation in Attachment

Initially, Ainsworth suggested that the degree to which the parent was receptive and responsive to the child's attachment signals was a significant driver of attachment security. An excellent database of longitudinal investigations has since validated this idea. Furthermore, randomised controlled studies of therapeutic interventions that promote sensitive parenting have been demonstrated to increase the chance of secure attachment, indicating a causal relationship.

Many writers, however, have emphasised that the impact sizes in correlational research or clinical trials are small and that other variables - either distinct parts of parenting or different sorts of causal influence entirely - are likely to play a role. While sensitive care is considered the most crucial proximal determinant of attachment security, several more distal or contextual factors, such as parental depression, social support, marital quality, and poverty, appear to be consistently associated with security and insecurity. Importantly, data suggests that genetic variables only impact attachment development in newborns and preschoolers.

Attachment Disorders

Attachment disorders have been discovered in children who have experienced either the lack of a constant carer, severe mistreatment, or a significant disturbance in the continuity of care, such as children raised in institutional or foster care. Many children reared in such conditions exhibit widespread patterns of disordered social relatedness, known as reactive attachment disorders (RAD).

The current diagnostic systems identify two forms of RAD: the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders IV, Fourth Edition - Text Revision (DSM-IV-TR) and the ICD-10 International Classification of Mental and Behavioural Disorders in Children and Adolescents (ICD-10). The inhibited/withdrawn type is distinguished by excessive disengagement, a lack of a chosen attachment figure, a widespread propensity not to seek comfort from others when troubled, and a lack of social response or reciprocity.

On the other hand, the disinhibited type is characterised by indiscriminate attachment behaviour and friendliness, as well as a lack of wariness of strangers (e.g., strolling off with strangers). Attachment disorders and associated behaviour can be assessed using a variety of approaches, including standardised questionnaires, interviews, and observation schemes.

It is essential to notice that RADs differ significantly from the normative attachment patterns discussed in the preceding section, both in terms of the behaviours that identify them and the circumstances that appear to give birth to them. Existing data implies that normative attachment patterns involve differences in attachment organisation related to parenting style or quality in children who have developed one or more selective attachment ties. Disinhibited attachment disorder, on the other hand, most likely depicts the inability to create a selective attachment relationship in the first place. The picture is murkier with inhibited-type attachment disorder, although it can arise when a kid forms certain selected attachment relationships that are then severely disrupted.

Consequences of Variations in Attachment

Early attachment connections significantly impact present and subsequent relationships, well-being, and psychological health. Longitudinal research reveals that securely connected children may outgrow their insecure counterparts in emotional control and understanding, social cognition, social competence, and emotional/behavioural disorders. While not all findings have been repeated consistently, recent meta-analyses have discovered strong links between peer interactions and externalising difficulties. Regarding the latter, data suggests that disorganised children are the most vulnerable of the insecure categories.

The judgement is still out on whether the effects of early attachment on later development are a direct result of early experience or if they result from continuities through time in various intermediate processes (inside the individual and in their environment). Significant data shows that some of the consequences of insecurity fall into this second category.

For example, longitudinal relationships between attachment and outcome are connected with continuity in the quality of treatment. On the other hand, some data imply that early experience can have unique and long-term impacts, notably severe early deprivation and its effect on disinhibited attachment disorder and its attendant symptoms.


Understanding the early relational underpinnings of adjustment and maladjustment is crucial in attachment research. The discipline has also focused on monitoring and assessing attachment and the sometimes subtle interactional processes in parent-child interactions. Critically, this has resulted in the developing of several highly effective therapy strategies for enhancing the security of attachment bonds in childhood.

The long-term efficacy of such therapies in lowering the risk of psychopathology and boosting resilience has yet to be demonstrated entirely. This is a required field for future clinical study.

Updated on: 09-May-2023


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