Learning More About Attachment Theory

Attachment theory is something that’s been studied by researchers for more than 60 years, meaningfully influencing everything from court procedures to the use of orphanages to encourage better results for children.

From that theory, attachment disorders have emerged, some outlining styles of behaviour with others describing specific disorders.

The theory has also influenced the way we view parenting and motherhood, including the headline-grabbing attachment parenting method proposed by Dr. William Sears.

Attachment Theory

At the end of World War II, the newly-created United Nations decided to study the needs of children who were orphaned or otherwise separated from their families (within their native country). In 1951, a doctor named John Bowlby released his report on the mental health aspects, called Maternal Care and Mental Health (part one and part two).

“What is believed to be essential for mental health is that the infant and young child should experience a warm, intimate, and continuous relationship with his mother (or mother-substitute), in which both find satisfaction and enjoyment,” Bowlby wrote.

While research at the time suggested that deprivation for at least three months (and probably more than six during) the first few years of life had the greatest consequences, the specifics weren’t certain.

Still, Bowlby felt evidence was strong that “the prolonged deprivation of the young child of maternal care may have grave and far-reaching effects on his character and so on the whole of his future life.”

From that report, Bowlby went on to develop attachment theory, which was further researched by others, notably Mary Ainsworth.

Ainsworth defined three styles of attachment in children under 18 months:

  • Secure attachment, considered the most healthy, is relatively balanced. For example, children may be comfortable doing activities independently but will look for a caregiver when frightened and show positive behaviour when their caregiver returns.
  • Avoidant attachment is in many ways the opposite of secure attachment; children aren’t comforted by the presence of a caregiver, and may actually avoid them. The respond almost equally to parents and total strangers.
  • Ambivalent attachment leads to confused reactions. A child may be wary of strangers and become distressed when their caregiver leaves, but they aren’t comforted when the caregiver returns. As they get older, they may be described as clingy or over-dependent.

Identified more recently, some children show disorganized attachment, which means they don’t show one of the clearer styles outlined above. They may seem dazed or apprehensive about the presence of a caregiver. Older children may even take on the role of caregiver with their peers or parents.

Attachment Disorder

Around the world, it is estimated that 65 percent of children develop secure attachment, while the remaining 35 percent develop one of the remaining three forms.

While these forms of attachment are not clinical disorders, they are often included under attachment disorder, an umbrella term that doesn’t have one precise definition.

According to Wikipedia, attachment disorder is “a broad term intended to describe disorders of mood, behavior, and social relationships arising from a failure to form normal attachments to primary care giving figures in early childhood, resulting in problematic social expectations and behaviors.”

Reactive attachment disorder (RAD) is a clinical disorder that, while included as a type attachment disorder, has its own description in the clinical reference book, the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM).

RAD is a serious condition where infants or children are unable to form any kind of healthy relationship or to react appropriately to social situations. While uncommon even when these risk factors are present, it typically occurs when a child is severely neglected, abused or orphaned; researchers believe this prolonged deprivation impacts the brain’s development.

While therapy can have an impact, RAD is considered to be a lifelong condition.

Attachment Parenting

While rooted in attachment theory, attachment parenting is a newer and sometimes controversial method of parenting.

Developed by Dr. William Sears, a pediatrician who wrote The Baby Book with his wife, Martha, attachment parenting is essentially about “forming and nurturing strong connections between parents and their children,” according to the organization Attachment Parenting International (API).

“Attachment Parenting challenges us as parents to treat our children with kindness, respect and dignity, and to model in our interactions with them the way we’d like them to interact with others,” API explains on their website.

Attachment parenting is based on eight pillars:

  • Prepare for pregnancy, birth, and parenting both physically and emotionally through research and education about the process and your options as a parent.
  • Feed with love and respect, breast-feeding or “bottle nursing” until at least the age of one, and modeling healthy eating behaviours once solid foods are introduced.
  • Respond with sensitivity to behaviours and tantrums, rather than punishing them.
  • Use nurturing touch, using skin-to-skin contact often and avoiding baby carriers like strollers or swings.
  • Ensure safe sleep, physically and emotionally through co-sleeping (in close proximity) or safe bed-sharing.
  • Provide consistent and loving care, with a parent or another caregiver.
  • Practice positive discipline, using techniques like prevention, distraction, or substitution in place of physical discipline.
  • Strive for balance in your personal and family life where everyone’s needs, including the child’s, are met.

Its practical application has made attachment parenting controversial, particularly after a recent Time Magazine cover showing a three-year-old breast-feeding with his mother, accompanied by the question: Are you mom enough?

In the story behind the photo, Time writer FeiFei Sun observes that in practice, “its three main tenets are extended breast-feeding, co-sleeping and “baby wearing,” in which infants are physically attached to their parents by slings.”

Other Time articles question whether Dr. Sears misinterprets some of the studies he cites in support of his method (with two researchers saying their work was taken out of context), and even whether this method, which some feel makes mothers feel inadequate, is based on Dr. Sears’ own childhood issues.

Regardless, even the much-discussed cover-mom, Jamie Lynne Grumet, feels the controversy is irrelevant if attachment parenting works for you. “I think if [attachment parenting] is working for a family, that’s what should matter. If it’s too hard on the parents, it’s in vain if there’s an emptiness about how they’re living their life,” she told Time in her interview.