Introduction to Attachment

Attachment theory is a concept in developmental psychology that concerns the importance of "attachment" in regards to personal development. Defining attachment as an emotional bond to another person, the theory makes the claim that the ability for an individual to form an emotional and physical "attachment" to another person gives the sense of stability and security necessary to take risks, branch out, grow and develop.

When babies are born into the world they are dependent upon adults for their very survival.  More often than not, this adult is their mother, but can be also be another caregiver.  Having a primary caregiver that perceives, make sense of and responds to the child, they develop a sense of safety.  Through sharing and coordination of nonverbal signs and interactions such as eye contact, facial expressions, tone of voice, touch, timing and intensity of response the carer aligns their internal state with that of the child and gives them a sense of well-being.  When these experiences of care are predictable and repeated the child develops what is called a ‘secure base’.  That is, they feel safe in knowing that their needs, physical and emotional, will be meet.  This internal model of security – or healthy attachment – lays the foundation and enables the child to develop well, learn about themselves and explore the world around them.

Why is understanding attachment important?

Our experiences in the first dozen or so years of our lives, the experiences we have with our parents and other people who care for us, have a powerful impact on the people we become.  Furthermore, relationships, in particular attachment relationships, are crucial to brain development and neural functioning throughout the lifecycle.  The power of attachment relationships is to create healthy and adaptive functions in our lives, functions that emerge from integration in our brains. 

The brain becomes literally constructed by interactions with others… Our neural machinery…is, by evolution, designed to be altered by relationship experiences. Dan Seigel 2003

Attachment helps us understand and explain how:

  • Human relationships develop from pre-birth onwards throughout their life span
  • Resilience in children is built through the support of an attachment figure and the sense of belonging that comes with it
  • Early patterns of belonging, security and attachment echo throughout our lives and play a major role in how we manage relationships in the future

It also highlights the importance of the parent/carer-child relationships during infancy in shaping their:

  • Interaction with other children and have empathy for others
  • Sense of security about exploring the world
  • Resilience to stress
  • Ability to regulate their emotions and be flexible
  • Capacity to have a coherent story that makes sense of their lives and understand themselves
  • Ability to create meaningful interpersonal relationships in the future
Further Resources