Introduction to Attachment Theory

During my time at the children’s centre, I attended a ‘Play with Language’ session in which I observed a two and a half year old boy who was so attached to his mother that he ran up to her and threw his arms around her when she wanted to leave the room for just one minute. 

This links into attachment theory – a form of behaviour that results in a person attaining or retaining proximity to some other differentiated and preferred individual, who is usually conceived as stronger or wiser (Bowlby, 1979).    This is important because there is a strong causal relationship between an individual’s experiences with his or her parents and the child’s later capacity to make affectionate bonds. 


A Short Introduction to Attachment and Attachment Disorder
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Attachment Theory According to Bowlby

According to Bowlby, both the behaviours and responses in the attachment process are instinctive in child and carer, and are fundamental to forming a secure attachment and positive internal working model (Munns, 2000). This internal working model helps them to have an understanding of themselves and others (Sroufe & Waters, 1977).

A Secure Base (Routledge Classics)
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The Four Types of Attachment

This links into the four types of child and caregiver attachments that stem from Mary Ainsworth’s strange situation test, in which the caregiver leaves the room for a number of 3 minute episodes.  The test observes the child’s reaction when the caregiver returns, establishing whether the attachment is secure, avoidant, ambivalent or disorganised (Wilson et al., 2008: 142).  The majority (65%) of attachments observed are suggested by Ainsworth to be secure, in which the caregiver remains accessible and available to the child, and meets their emotional needs. Therefore the child is distressed when the care giver leaves the room.

In a suggested 20% of observations an avoidant relationship is observed, in which the caregiver finds it difficult to respond to the child, and appears indifferent.  In this relationship, the child actively ignores or avoids the parents and simply turns away on being reunited by the caregiver.  In a suggested 10% of cases there is an ambivalent relationship in which the care giver is inconsistent, insensitive and fails to respond accurately to the child.   The anxious-ambivalent child is frightened to go off and explore the world, because he or she is uncertain whether the carer will be there when needed (Beckett & Taylor, 2010: 54).  The fourth type of insecure attachment is a disorganised or disoriented attachment in which the caregiver shows little or no sensitivity to the child’s needs.  The parent is unpredictable, rejecting and frightening, representing themselves as helpless in protecting the child.  In observation of these relationships, the child shows a dazed reaction on reunion, including the stoppage of movement, confusion, fear and strong avoidance (Wilson et al. 2008).

Criticisms of Attachment Theory

A main criticism of attachment theory according to Bowlby is that it is maternally embedded.  Attributing behaviour to maternal deprivation fails to acknowledge the impact of other factors such as the lack of basic needs, stimulation, and the role of others (Walker and Crawford, 2010). Burmann even goes as far as stating that, ‘Bowlby’s ideas about care imposed impossible demands on the conscientious mother’ (Burman, 2008: 131).  However, we must remember that the theory of Bowlby should be historically and contextually located, and was formulated in a British post war context in which it was the norm for fathers to work and mothers to bring up their children.

Parish argues that Bowlby fails to consider that children can make attachment relationships to people other than their mother (Parish, 2010).   I disagree with Parish, because Bowlby does state that as well as the importance of the parent respecting the child’s attachment bonds, it is also essential to respect the child’s desire to gradually form relationships with peers and other adults (Bowlby, 1979).  

Applying Attachment Theory to Social Work Practice

During my placement, Bowlby and Ainsworth were practically relevant to my observations at the children’s centre. I identified that the children at the session had secure attachments with their parents.  However, if they had demonstrated insecure attachments, it may have been beneficial to share with the parent the arousal-relaxation cycle (Fahlberg, 1994).  This is essential theory for the role of the Parent Support Adviser, because any discontinuities in parenting or threats not to love or to abandon a child can result in that child growing up to live in constant anxiety as an adult.

Social Work Practice (BASW Practical Social Work)
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