Summary of Attachment Theory

This was written in the 1980’s so does not pretend to be an up to date summary but it does summarise what was known at that time.

The controlled observation of one year old children has shown that three broad patterns of attachment behaviour can be identified – (although there appears to be a fourth highly disrupted pattern amongst the most severely disturbed children which may in due course prove important for probation work but this has as yet not been sufficiently clearly identified.

The majority of children demonstrated behaviours which are characterised as secure attachment behaviour.

A small group of children showed a more anxious pattern of behaviour. For example, in the absence of the caregiver, these children were unable to play, were greatly distressed, and were unsettled and difficult to comfort on their caregiver’s return. These are described as ‘anxious-resistant’.

A slightly larger group showed ‘anxious-avoidant’ behaviours. In the caregiver’s absence, they were not overtly distressed, and were preoccupied with their toys, but they turned away from the caregiver and did not welcome comforting on the caregiver’s return. Follow up research saw a continuation of these behaviour patterns later in children’s development.

These patterns in children have been related to patterns of behaviour in mothers or ‘caregivers’ (to use the more precise terminology given that research has also looked at paternal caregiving.) Crucially, the children’s behaviour is related to the responses of the caregivers to the children and this link holds true along four scales of behaviour:

  • Accepting – rejecting
  • Accessibility of the caregiver – inaccessibility of the caregiver
  • Sensitivity to the child’s signals – insensitivity to the child’s signals
  • Cooperative caregiving – interfering caregiving

Equally crucially, if the caregiver’s responses to the children change along these dimensions, improvement or deterioration in the children’s attachment behaviours occurs. Furthermore, patterns observed in one year old children’s behaviour with caregivers, are apparent as repeated patterns in wider relationships amongst six year old children.

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