What is attachment

Attachment and Attachment Theories

The Importance of Attachment and Attachment Theories in Child Development

It was not until the 20th century that child psychologists and educators recognized the important connection between a secure bond between caregiver and child and their later personal development. A secure bond, the experts found in numerous studies and experiments, enables children to move independently and confidently in their environment, to learn social behavior and later to enter into stable relationships with other people themselves.



The basis for a secure bond with the caregiver is laid in the child's first year of life. Many attachment processes are genetic. This means that a child first shows by crying and screaming that he is not feeling well and that his needs must be met in order for him to feel well again. The parents act intuitively, speak calmly to the baby, stroke and comfort it, satisfy its hunger and change its diaper. In this way, the child learns that he can rely on his caregivers, develops trust in them and gradually also in himself. If he feels safe and secure, the child begins to explore his environment and make important learning experiences .

These findings are particularly important when children under three years of age are not only cared for by their mother or father, but also by a day care person or in a crèche.


Attachment research pioneers: John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth

John Bowlby (1907-1990), child psychoanalyst and psychoanalyst, was the first to focus his research on family relationships and their influence on child development. The Briton proved that the behavior between infants and caregivers is mutually dependent. The bond created in this way provides the secure basis that a child needs in order to develop in accordance with their age and to develop their personality.

Mary Ainsworth (1913-1999) was able to prove that bonds are not always equally stable. The analysis of numerous studies showed that there are qualitatively different types of attachment that can be demonstrated on the basis of the child's behavior, which is shown when there are brief separations between child and caregiver.

Today it is undisputed that adolescents who were unable to establish a secure bond with their parents as babies and toddlers are more likely to become delinquent, suffer from depression or other psychological problems and find it more difficult for them to form bonds themselves and maintain functioning relationships with other people.


Attachment and exploration behavior

Crying, screaming, clinging: these behaviors babies use intuitively to meet their needs. Then the parents react just as intuitively, because the sight of an infant triggers the need in you to protect this small, initially still helpless being through its “child pattern”. These positive interactions strengthen the bond and create a relationship of trust. Securely attached children can cope better with stressful situations, are better able to solve problems and experience their environment as exciting and challenging. In addition, it is easier for these children to make social contacts. They explore their surroundings with curiosity and enthusiasm because they know that they can always come back to their "safe base" when they need consolation. The joy of exploration therefore presupposes that the child feels safe.

If the caregiver is not available, this separation is initially difficult for small children to cope with. The deprivation is made easier, however, if someone who is also known and trusted is nearby, e.g. the father.


Bonding and the joy of exploration are mutually dependent



1. The child feels safe:


low binding behavior -----> high enthusiasm for exploration



2. Child feels uncomfortable, anxious, stressed:


high bonding behavior -----> hardly any enthusiasm for exploration



Types of attachment and their meaning

In her experiments, Mary Ainsworth was able to show that there are four different types of attachment. The experiments were carried out with children between 12 and 18 months and their mothers. The child and mother were taken into a room with toys that were interesting for the children. There both were initially alone, the mother was reading a book. Then someone who was new to the child came in and made contact with the child. Then the mother left the room for a moment, the stranger was alone with the child.

Shortly afterwards the mother returned, but left the room again - this time together with the stranger. So the child was briefly all alone in the room before the mother entered the room again. The whole time the child was filmed.

The analysis of this experiment showed that there are four types of attachment in young children.


1. Bond type A: the insecure avoidant bond

Children who show this attachment behavior cannot be restricted in their exploration - not even when the caregiver leaves the room. What initially suggests a stable personality in the child is, however, to be assessed rather negatively. The child does not show his needs, he has probably learned that his parents do not or only insufficiently respond to his expressions of needs. In further development, this experience may lead to the child being unable to cope with frustration and negative emotions and not developing a positive self-image.


2. Type B binding: secure binding

Securely bound children respond to the abandonment with a protest. You cry and scream and don't let the stranger calm you down. If the mother returns and comforts her, however, she can quickly relax again and devote herself to the toys.


Children who can be assigned to bond type B have found that their expressions of needs are taken seriously. They have confidence in themselves and their environment, are usually good at communicating and making contacts.


3. Attachment type C: the insecure-ambivalent attachment

Children with insecurity and ambivalence show little enthusiasm for exploration even in the presence of their mother. They appear insecure and fearful, cling to the caregiver and do not allow themselves to be distracted.

The reason for this behavior could be that there were contradicting reactions to their expressions of needs.


4. Bond type D: the insecurely disorganized bond

Children who show this form of attachment behavior react contradictory and idiosyncratic to the separation. They show aggressiveness towards the mother, pause in their movements or cramp.

The reason for this behavior is usually a serious attachment disorder, triggered by a trauma to the child or elementary distress of the parents.


Impact of attachment research on child development

The findings from attachment research are elementary when it comes to the development of toddlers under the age of three, whereby the quality of early childhood attachment processes can have an impact on a person's entire life:


  • The bond between parent and child is strengthened in the first year of life. From the third month of life, the child fixes on its primary caregivers, from the 6th month it begins to "stranger".
  • Securely attached children show a great joy in exploration, are self-confident and have a high level of social and emotional competence.
  • It is important that parents react reliably to their child's expressions of needs.
  • If children under three years of age are to be looked after in the crèche or by a childminder, the child must be sensitively prepared for this situation. This requires individually designed acclimatization times; the mother should first spend a lot of time with the child in the new environment so that it feels safe there. Only then should (short) separation phases take place.



Author: Verena Fischer,
State-certified educator with Kneipp health training for children
Last update: January 2021
Date created: May 2016
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