What is attachment?

Attachment theory in psychology originates with the work of John Bowlby (1958). Bowlby defined attachment as:

“A deep and enduring emotional bond that connects one person to another across time and space”

(Ainsworth and Bowlby, 1969)

This evolutionary theory of attachment (e.g., Bowlby, Ainsworth, Harlow, Lorenz) suggests that attachment is a primal need and is adaptive in that it enhances the infant’s chances of survival. As infants and small children cannot care for their own basic needs they are born biologically pre-programmed to form attachments with others. They elicit innate caregiving responses from adults by engaging in ‘social releaser’ behaviors such as crying, smiling and seeking proximity to the attachment figure when they are upset or threatened (Bowlby, 1969). In this way the child uses the primary caregiver as a secure base from which to explore and, when necessary, as a haven of safety and a source of comfort (Waters & Cummings, 2000). The determinant of attachment is not food or entertainment, but safety, care, protection and responsiveness and there are networks of neurons in the brain dedicated to establishing it. The hormone, oxytocin facilitates this process. 

Beginning at approximately six months of age, infants come to anticipate specific caregivers’ responses to their distress and shape their own behaviours accordingly. Once established, attachment becomes the driver of subsequent social, emotional, and cognitive development. The early experience of the infant stimulates growth of neural pathways that establish enduring patterns of response to many people, life events, and situations. According to Bowlby early attachment relationships act as prototypes for future social relationships where an internal working model or mental representation of the relationship with the primary caregiver(s) becomes a template for future relationships and allows individuals to predict, control and manipulate their environment. This mental representation of the caregiver also establishes the infant's first coping system as it can be used as a comforting mental presence in difficult situations and enables them to separate from the caregiver and begin to explore the world around them without distress. This creates the foundations for the child's independent survival; affects personality development and influences the ability to form stable relationships throughout life.

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Why is it important?

Children develop attachment relationships even with the most neglectful and abusive caregiver. Therefore, it is the quality of the attachment between the child and the carer that is crucial. 

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What next?

The aim of ARC is to facilitate and collaborate with individuals, groups or institutions wishing to pursue an attachment aware and trauma informed approach to their work in education.

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Become a member

By joining The ARC you will become part of a growing community of schools, settings and many more who are all committed to developing best practice by sharing their learning about attachment and trauma.