RISE – Attachment Theory

John Bowlby and Margaret Mahler

Attachment theory refers to the dynamic between mother and baby where the physical attachment to mother is perpetuated through an emotional attachment which is built through interactions with one another. This is most evident when a mother smiles at her baby and the baby smiles back. Through this type of interaction, the baby experiences positive feelings and increased levels of trust. This allows for the baby’s good enough sense of self to emerge and the ability to differentiate themselves from their mother.  The mother’s physically holding of the baby (i.e. getting needs met) translates into the child feeling emotionally held and able to begin to play/explore in the outside world.

Infants become attached to individuals who are sensitive and responsive in social interactions with them, and who remain as consistent caregivers for some months during the period from about six months to two years of age (this is known as sensitive responsiveness). When the infant begins to crawl and walk they begin to use attachment figures (familiar people) as a secure base to explore from and return to.

Mothers’/primary caregivers’ responses lead to the development of patterns of attachment. These lead to internal working models which will guide the individual’s perceptions, emotions, thoughts and expectations in later relationships.

A baby who experiences secure attachment learns to trust that the world is a predictable and safe place. During the attachment phase, if the infant experiences warm, close and consistent care, the infant becomes ‘securely attached’ and begins to use the caregiver as a safe base from which to explore. Between 30 and 36 months securely attached children should be able to tolerate longer periods of separation with minimal stress.

If the caregivers are inconsistent, various, absent, or neglectful then the child’s attachment is likely to be ‘insecure.’ Subsequently, the infant is often more clingy at 30-36 months, reluctant to move away from the attachment figure and explore his environment. Insecure attachment styles can be characterized as anxious, avoidant, ambivalent/resistant, or disorganized.

Consistent neglect and lack of loving care causes the infant stress and the production of the stress hormone, cortisol. Prolonged and uncontrolled exposure to cortisol can lead to permanent changes in the brain. This can lead to physical, mental and emotional difficulties in childhood and on into later life.