What Is Attachment?

Attachment is the emotional bond that typically forms between infant and caregiver, and it is the means by which the helpless infant gets primary needs met. It then becomes an engine of subsequent social, emotional, and cognitive development. The early social experience of the infant stimulates growth of the brain and can have an enduring influence on the ability to form stable relationships with others.

The genius of attachment is that it provides the infant's first coping system; it sets up in the infant's developing mind a mental representation of the caregiver, one that can be summoned up as a comforting mental presence in difficult moments. Attachment allows an infant to separate from the caregiver without distress and begin to explore the world around her.

The primary goal of attachment is to ensure survival of a helpless infant, but it does much more than that. It literally establishes neural pathways that organize later behavior in many domains. And it provides the foundation for self-regulation. Neuroscientists believe that attachment is such a primal need that there are networks of neurons in the brain dedicated to setting it in motion in the first place and a hormoneoxytocin—to foster the process.

What Is My Attachment Style?

Attachment develops through everyday interactions as a caregiver attends to an infant's needs. The bond between infant and caregiver is usually so well established before the end of the first year of life that it is possible to test the nature and quality of the bond at that time.

As a result of their work with many child-caregiver pairs, researchers have identified four basic patterns of attachment. In their studies, researchers briefly separate young children from their caregiver and observe their behavior before and after they are reunited with the caregiver.

  • Children with a secure attachment may be distressed upon separation but warmly welcome the caregiver back through eye contact and hug-seeking.
  • Anxious-resistant attachment describes a child who is frightened by separation and continues to display anxious behavior once the caregiver returns.
  • Avoidant attachment denotes a child who reacts fairly calmly to a parent’s separation and does not embrace their return.
  • Disorganized attachment is manifest in odd or ambivalent behavior toward a caregiver upon return—approaching then turning away from or even hitting the caregiver—and may be the result of childhood trauma.

Some psychologists consider attachment characteristics to be dimensional: Rather than fitting a discrete type, a person may rate high, low, or somewhere in between on continuums of attachment-related anxiety or avoidance.

What About Attachment in Adulthood?

Researchers have explored attachment processes and "attachment styles" in the context of adult relationships, including romantic ones. There seems to be some association between attachment characteristics early in life and those in adulthood, but the correlation is far from perfect.

While many adults feel secure in their relationships, others tend to experience marked anxiety about them—or prefer to avoid getting close to and depending on others. Studies of persons with borderline personality disorder, which is characterized by a longing for intimacy and a hypersensitivity to rejection, have shown a high prevalence and severity of insecure attachment.

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