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The Attachment System Throughout the Life Course: Review and Criticisms of Attachment Theory

Erin J. Lee
Rochester Institute of Technology

Attachment theory is one of the most studied aspects of psychology today. Bowlby and Ainsworth's attachment models are common references in attachment theory research. The attachment model explains infant behavior towards their attachment figure, during separation and reunion times. It is believed that attachment behaviors formed in infancy will help shape the attachment relationships people have as adults. Some psychologists, such as Harris and Field, disagree with this idea. Harris believes that too much emphasis on how a child "turns out" should not be placed on the parents. Harris disagrees with the nurture assumption as well. Peers have a lot of influence on a child's personality, just as the child's environment does. Field also criticizes the attachment model because believes there are many limitations to it.

Review of Attachment Theory

There are different views on attachment theory. The first and most well known view on attachment theory is that of J. Bowlby, who is known as the father of attachment theory. He believed that attachment begins at infancy and continues throughout life and there are several innate behavioral control systems that are needed for survival and procreation. The attachment and exploration systems are central in his attachment theory (Elliot & Reis, 2003). An infant will first establish a strong attachment with its primary caregiver, who will be the infant's base of exploration. It is an infant's innate behavior to want to explore new things, but when a child reaches away to explore and becomes in danger or scared, the primary caregiver will be its secure protection base.

Bowlby established the foundation for Ainsworth's attachment theory. Like Bowlby, Ainsworth also believed in the control systems but went a step further with the Strange Situation, which splits attachment up into three types: secure, avoidant, and resistant. The secure type is when an infant seeks protection or comfort from their mother and receives care consistently. The mother is usually rated as loving and affectionate. The avoidant type is when the infant tends to pull away from their mother or ignore her. The mother is usually rated as rejecting of the child's attachment behavior. The resistant type is when the infant tends to stay close to their mother. The mother is usually rated as being inconsistent in their care (Fraley & Spieker, 2003). The Strange Situation is has become standard practice in psychology today.

Infants Form Attachments With Parents

Attachment begins in infancy and lasts throughout a lifetime. A newborn baby immediately needs someone to take care of them. This person may be a parent, a sibling, or a nanny, but whoever it is, there will be a bond formed between them. Bowlby and Ainsworth both believed that this primary caregiver is the one that will most shape the child's personality and character. The primary caregiver is usually the mother and strong bonds are formed within minutes of giving birth. It is important for the new parents and baby to be alone together right after the birth to establish a strong bond. If there are too many individuals in the room right after birth, the natural process of attachment can be disrupted and this can have long-term effects on the relationship between the child and parents (Klaus, Kennell, & Klaus, 1995).

The mother automatically has some kind of bond to the child because she carried it for 9 months, but early contact is important in forming strong bonds between them. A study by Klaus and his associates, shows that children whose mothers are given an extra five hours of contact a day for the first three days of life have significantly higher IQ scores. These children score higher on language and comprehension tests by age five, than children whose mothers are not given extra time. These mothers show more soothing behavior towards their infants, made more eye contact with the child and had more physical contact (as quoted in Trowell, 1982). Another study by O'Connor and his associates involved 301 low-income mothers. For the first two days of life, the control mothers had only thirty minutes of contact with their infant every four hours for feeding, while the other mothers had an extra six hours per day with their infants. Follow-ups showed that the significantly more control children had been admitted to the hospital for things such as abuse and neglect (as quoted in Trowell, 1982).

The mother and infant have an automatic bond, but the father must establish a bond after the child is born. It is very important for the father to be involved in the delivery of the child and to be available to the infant in case the mother cannot hold the child right away due to other circumstances. Studies have shown that fathers who have early contact with their child have a stronger attachment with them in the months following the birth. Strong attachment between father and child is shown through physical contact and while holding the child, they face each other (Klaus, Kennell, & Klaus, 1995). Interactions between mother/child and father/child are also quite different. When the mother-infant interactions are observed, the mother is seen as nurturing and affectionate towards the infant, whereas father-infant interactions deal more with affiliation and play (Geiger, 1996). Fathers have a more physical relationship with the child while the mother's relationship is more verbal. It has been shown that the fathers play interactions are more exciting and pleasurable to children than play interactions with the mother (Geiger, 1996).

It has been said that parent-child bonds are the most important in forming the child's personality. Babies are programmed at birth to be interested in the social world around them. It is assumed that they learn much about the world through their caregivers and therefore their caregivers must have much influence on their personality and their sense of others.

Adolescents Form Attachments With Peers

As a child reaches adolescence, they tend to depart away from the attachment relationships with any parental type figure. Attachment bonds between parents and adolescents are "treated by many adolescents more like ties that restrain than like ties that anchor and secure, and a key task of adolescence is to develop autonomy so as no longer to need to rely (as much) on parents' support when making one's way through the world" (Allen & Land, 1999, p. 319). During adolescence, a new way of approaching attachment is formed. This new form of attachment is predictive of attachment behavior in future behavior, such as with their own kids or in marital relationships. It has to be remembered though, that the relationship between parents and child does not become less important during adolescence, the adolescent just becomes less dependent on the parents. Adolescents are trying to reach autonomy during these years, but they understand that their parents are still there to support them when needed. This goes hand in hand with infants and the exploratory system. Adolescents are exploring the ideas of being independent, but when independency becomes too overwhelming, they can turn to their parents, the secure base, for help. Adolescents who exhibit autonomy seeking behavior usually have a positive relationship with their parents, indicating that they feel comfortable exploring because they know their parents will be there for them (Weiss, 1982).

A way of seeking independence from the parents is to rely more on peers as attachment figures. These strong relationships form because adolescents share the same mind set at that age – they are trying to break away from their parents, so it is easy to rely on each other. This transfer of reliance from parents to peers is an important process in the adolescent's life because it is usually a struggle at first, but it encourages their adult attachment styles to develop fully (Weiss, 1982). Eventually, adolescents will form long-term relationships with their peers that may be of the romantic kind, which may become full attachment relationships. Attachment relationships that turn romantic are possible life long relationships. These relationships are formed not only because of the need for attachment, but also for the need of species survival. Romantic relationships are pushed forward by the need to procreate and the want to have the prior parent-child relationship, but this time as the parent.

Not everyone has such an easy time transforming their attachment behaviors from their parents to their peers. For families with insecure adolescents, there may be many difficulties in balancing autonomy and attachment needs. These adolescents have little confidence that their attachment relationships will last when there are disagreements or problems, so they tend to avoid the problems altogether. Secure adolescents will face the problem and try to resolve it immediately. Avoidance by insecure adolescents can cause future problems within attachment relationships and can lead to depression and other problems. Adolescent depression has also been related to maternal attachment insecurity. There is moodiness, tension, and emotional instability. At this point in time both the parents and child need to be sensitive to the fact that their relationship is changing, and this is impacting the attachment system dramatically. At this point, the adolescent needs their parents the most, even though the adolescent is trying to become independent from the parents.

In conclusion, friendship attachments are important during adolescence because they are sources of emotional security and support, contexts for growth in social competence, and prototypes for later relationships (Seiffge-Krenke, 1993).

Children's Attachment Has Important Consequences

Parents have important effects on their child's attachment system. Studies have been conducted with children to try and measure whether or not the child is secure in their relationship with their parents. In a study by George and Solomon, children project themselves into a story. The child is given a storyline centered on the idea that their mother and father had to go away for the night and they were left with a baby sitter. They are given mommy and daddy dolls to use to show their feelings when the parents leave and to show their feelings when the parents return. Secure children express fears about their parents leaving them, but they are resolved when the parents return home. Avoidant children do not allow their fears and anxieties to show. They act as if everything is okay and they feel secure. Ambivalent-dependent children tell stories about what they do when their parents are away. Distressing and bad times are ignored while joyful, good times are exaggerated. These children seem to have difficulty expressing more than one emotional perspective at a time. Finally, disorganized-controlling children introduce fear into the story but cannot resolve it. The parents remain physically and emotionally unavailable to the child, and the story ends with no resolution (Howe, Brandon, Hinings, & Schofield, 1999).

Insecure attachment systems have been linked to psychiatric disorders, to which a child is especially susceptible after the loss of an attachment figure. Children with insecure attachment patterns "develop the inability to form secure attachments and react in a hostile, rejecting manner with their environment" (Pickover, 2002). Severe attachment disorders cause the child to get close to an attachment figure, and then pull away before they can be rejected or they deem themselves unworthy in the eyes of the attachment figure. Children with secure attachment patterns are capable of forming new attachment relationships while maintaining their current relationship with their parents. Insecure children focus all of the attention on achieving a better relationship with their parents, therefore making it difficult to form new attachment relationships (Pickover, 2002).

Criticisms of Attachment Theory

Nature Versus Nurture: The Nurture Assumption

One of the main critics of Bowlby's attachment theory is J. R. Harris. People assume that kind, honest, and respectful parents will have kind, honest, and respectful children and parents that are rude, liars, and disrespectful will have children that are the same way. This may not be the case according to Harris. Harris (1998) believes that parents do not shape their child's personality or character. A child's peers have more influence on them than their parents. For example, take children whose parents were immigrants. A child can continue to speak their parent's native language at home, but can also learn their new language and speak it without an accent, while the parents accent remains. Children learn these things from their peers because they want to fit in (Harris, 1998).

Nature is the genetics that parents pass down to their child, and nurture is the way the parents bring the child up. It is a common belief in psychology that "nature gives parents a baby: the end result depends on how they nurture it. Good nurturing can make up for many of nature's mistakes: lack of nurturing can trash nature's best effort" (Harris, 1998, p. 2). Harris (1998) disagrees with this statement because she does not believe that nurture should be labeled as a synonym for environment, which it is in many psychology textbooks and papers. Using these two words interchangeably leads us to assume that what influences a child's development, along with genes, is parental up bringing. Harris calls this the nurture assumption. She disproves this assumption by showing that what children learn in the home may be irrelevant in the outside world. For example, identical twins separated at birth and brought up in separate homes are more likely to have the same habits, hobbies, and styles than identical twins raised in the same household. This shows the power of nature but not of nurture.

If a child is brought up in a crime-ridden area, they will be susceptible to committing these same kinds of crimes. This is because of the high rate of peer pressure and the want to fit in to the group. Even if the parents try to bring up their children the best way possible, chances are that if they associate with delinquents, they will become one. But if you take a child headed down the wrong path and move him to new environment such as a small suburban town, chances are he will get himself on the right track, because he is trying to fit in with a new peer group (Harris, 1998).

Most everyday people like to believe that their parents shape their character so that when something in their life goes wrong, they can blame it on their parents. Parents should not be to blame. Up until a couple hundred years ago, people lived in groups that extended far beyond the nuclear family. So children were influenced by a number of people, not just their parents. People also need to realize that a lot of personality traits come from their genes, not their parents nurturing, as this can be seen in the separated twin studies (Harris, 1998).

Children will not use everything that they learned from their parents. In some social settings, these lessons may not be correct or embarrassing to use. Children learn how to behave, for the most part, from other people in their social group. Adults do the same; they act more like the people in their social groups rather than their parents.

Children from the same parents reared in the same home are no more alike than if they were raised in separate homes. Even if parents try to raise two children the same way, they will still behave differently from each other (Harris, 1998).

The nurture assumption leads parents to believe that if they mess up somehow in raising their child, they will mess up their child's life. Parents are sometimes held responsible if their child commits an illegal act. Take a headline such as "Fifteen year old John Doe is accused of killing his neighbor." People are likely to start saying things such as "where are this child's parents?" or "how could somebody raise such a violent child?" when, according to Harris (1998), parents may have no control over their child when it comes to something like this. They can raise their child in the most loving home, yet he can still become a violent person.

Limitations of the Bowlby-Ainsworth Attachment Theory

The main idea of Bowlby's attachment theory can be summed up by the following, "...observation of how a very young child behaves towards his mother, both in her presence and especially in her absence, can contribute greatly to our understanding of personality development. When removed from the mother by strangers, young children respond usually with great intensity; and after reunion with her, anxiety or else unusual detachment" (Bowlby, 1969, p. 3). This idea, however, has several limitations.

The first limitation is "model attachment is based on behaviors that occur during momentary separations (stressful situations) rather than during nonstressful situations. A broader understanding of attachment requires observation of how the mother and infant interact and what they provide for each other during natural, nonstressful situations" (Field, 1996, p. 543). How children and mothers interact together and not stressed shows more of how the attachment model works than how the child acts when the mother leaves and then returns. Behaviors directed towards the attachment figure during departing and reunion times cannot be the only factors used when defining attachment.

Another problem with the attachment model is that "the list of attachment behaviors is limited to those that occur with the primary attachment figure, typically the mother. However, other attachments are not necessarily characterized by those same behaviors" (Field, 1996, p. 544). Children have attachments to other people other than their mothers, but they do not show this attachment the same way. For example, children may cry or follow their mother when they are getting ready to leave them, but for a sibling or peer they may just become fussy or unable to sleep. Also, the attachment model behavior list only includes blatant behaviors, but there may be physiological changes during separations and reunions.

The last limitations to the attachment model is that the mother is viewed as the primary attachment figure, when in fact, a father or sibling can have the same type of attachment with the infant at the same time. This relates to adults having more than one primary attachment, such as to their spouse and child. This leads to the last limitation in the attachment model that "attachment is confined to the infancy and early childhood period, ending, as noted by Bowlby, during puberty. It does not consider attachments that occur during adolescence (the first love), during adulthood (spouses and lovers), and during later life (the strong attachments noted between friends in retirement)" (Field, 1996, p. 545).

After considering these limitations, Field (1996) came up with her own attachment model as described here:

A parsimonious model of attachment would need to accommodate multiple attachments to a variety of figures at different stages of life. We have used a more psychobiological approach in formulating a model that focuses on the relationship between two individuals and what they share and what might then be missing when they are separated. In this model (Field 1985), attachment is viewed as a relationship that develops between two or more organisms as they become attuned to each other, each providing the other meaningful arousal modulation, which occurs in separation, invariably results in behavioral and physiological disorganization (Field, 1996, p. 545).


I have reviewed the basic ideas of attachment theory and criticisms of attachment theory. Agreeing with Harris (1998), I believe that parents should not be totally held responsible for the way their child develops. They should be held responsible to a point, because after all, they did give them their genes and they do have some influence. But children rely more on their social group in the shaping of their personality and this must be remembered. Also, Field (1996) has brought out some good points when discussing the limitations of attachment theory. The mother is not always the primary attachment figure, so it cannot be assumed that she always will be.

Peer Commentary

Attachment Theory: Should We Blame Our Parents, or Do Our Peers Contribute More Than We Think?

Rebecca A. Krukar
Rochester Institute of Technology

People base a lot of what they do on the attachment system without even realizing it. Everyday someone gets blamed for a child becoming a psychopath, antisocial, etc. I agree that parents have to deal with the fact that they have something to do with the child's personality and how they react to relationships. Harris (1998) said that peers have more to do with a child's personality than parents do. Like Lee, I too agree with that, but only to a certain extent. The parents have sort of an obligation to the child to show who is a "good" person and who is a "bad" person. From that the child should be able to tell the two apart if the parent shows consistent behavior with the child. If the attachment bond between parent and child is good, then the child should follow along in the path of the parent and choose the "correct" peer with whom to be friends.

From the point of choosing friends, weight is put onto children and their peers. If the peers are "good" friends, then they will respect a child's decisions and opinions. If the peers are "bad" friends, then they will place a lot of disrespect on the child and therefore the avoidant and resistant personalities will come forth. At that point, the secure personality may get pushed back and a child's self-esteem becomes low. If this continues to happen, then the child's self-esteem will become consistently lower than when when he or she bonded with the parents.

If the infant did not interact with the parent, mainly the mother, within the first 24 hours after birth, then there is going to be a hard point where the mother and the child do not attach correctly. If the mother had postpartum syndrome or there was some other circumstance--for instance, a medical problem--then at that point it is the father's job to attach with the child so that they can form a solid bond, and when the mother is "back to normal," she too can start forming the bond with the child.

This works great in two-parent homes. When the child has only one parent, and that parent (for instance, the mother) has postpartum syndrome, the parents could very well blame the baby for being born and not want to attach to the baby. Still, before the child is released from the hospital with the mother, staff analyze the mother's behavior with the child and try to get the mother to bond with the child. If the mother and child do not bond, then the hospital staff will bring in a psychologist to talk with the mother and see if there are any major problems. At that point, depending on the situation, they may release both mother and child or keep them longer for further evaluation.

I believe that attachment theory is based more on nurture just because children are guided and directed by their parents for a great percentage of their lives. Only at a time when children are ready to let go and make friends will nature take over, because they are going on their own instincts, thoughts, and what their peers think and feel.

Peer Commentary

Parental Marital Relationship and Separtation Affect a Child's Future Attachment

Elizabeth E. Stock
Rochester Institute of Technology

The section of Lee's paper on how parents were involved in the attachment process was where I ran into a problem. The paper described how the attention paid to the child affected the child. What happens to the attachment of a child, however, if the parent dies or divorces? I felt that a parent is very involved in the development of the type of attachment that the child will have now and in the future.

What about the type of marital relationship the parents have? How does that affect the attachment of the children? The security of the child's attachment to parents may in turn be determined by the quality of the marital relationship. Parents' marital conflict is expected to influence children's and adolescents' attachment security to the mother by reducing the responsiveness and effectiveness of her parenting (Markiewicz, Doyle, & Brendgen, 2001). In addition, strained marital relationships can lead to increased father marginalization in the family and distancing from their children and thus reduce his physical and emotional availability (Markiewicz et al., 2001).

When dealing with parental loss, one logical connection with psychoanalytic theory is that disruption of parent-child bonds or dysfunctional relationships would lead to future impairments in the individual's capacity to develop relationships (Furukawa, Yokouchhi, Hirai, Kitamura, & Takahashi, 1999). I felt that if this topic were covered a bit more in the paper, then the author would have a more rounded view of the consequences of the parents' role in the attachment theory.

The criticisms in the paper represented an appropriate counterpoint to attachment theory. I too agree with Harris' (1998) point that genes play a significant role in the way a child will develop. But I also believe that environment and the way a child is treated will also shape the child.

Peer Commentary

Attachment Formation: A Freudian Spin-Off?

Kelly S. Wolf
Rochester Institute of Technology

As Ainsworth and Bowlby pointed out, all infants develop some form of attachment to their primary caregiver. This attachment is formed because infants are small, fragile, and clueless as to how to take care of themselves. Basically, the world is a scary place to an infant, and the infant needs an adult figure on whom to rely. This adult figure is the primary caregiver, and the infant will attach to this caregiver in a number of ways. Bowlby's theory stated that attachment began at infancy and continued throughout life. Bowlby also believed that there were many innate behavioral control systems needed for survival. Ainsworth added to this theory and developed the strange situation, which divided attachment up into three categories: secure, avoidant, and resistant.

A shortcoming in this paper was the insufficient evidence provided by the author. Bowlby and Ainsworth were the two most prominent theorists discussed in this paper, yet the origins of their theories were not discussed. The reasons theorists begin to theorize about a particular issue are vital to understanding their theories. When one has knowledge regarding the origins of a theory, one gains a deeper view on the theory, as well as the ability to broaden one's view on the topic.

Bowlby developed the theory of attachment because one of his goals was to preserve some of Freud's insights about relationships and early experiences by casting them in a more scientifically defensible framework. Freud said that infant behavior was organized around managing ever-growing instinctual drives. At high levels, the drives can be harmful, and therefore the mother is vital as an object through which the drives can be reduced.

Bowlby realized that these ideas were questionable at best, and changed some of the ideas and structures of Freud's theory around to come up with his own theory. Bowlby replaced the idea that the infants were dependent with the idea that infants were competent and interested in their environment. Bowlby also replaced the drive-reduction theory with a theory based on control. With the control theory in place, Bowlby discovered more rational ideas behind infant behavior. Bowlby discovered that infant behavior was actually logical and purposeful. Bowlby then hypothesized the goal of the control system to be proximity of an infant to the primary caregiver.

Also applicable and vital to Bowlby's theory of attachment are ideas suggested in the evolutionary theories. Animal behavior is a major parallel to human behavior with regard to how humans go about hunting, courting, and rearing their children. The quality and quantity of care varies from one caregiver to another. Due to these individual differences in care, differences in development and secure control systems are inevitable. Bowlby stated that this simple fact would affect how infants utilize the primary caregiver in their lives. Thus, the whole attachment theory developed from Freudian ideas.

Ainsworth was also a pioneer in attachment theory, but, in this paper, she was made to seem almost as if she were a colleague of Bowlby's instead of a woman who theorized on her own. Ainsworth was an observer, and thus her theories manifested from her interest in observing. She spent a lot of time observing actual mothers with their children, documenting their behaviors and interactions. Ainsworth believed that attachment was a relationship with a partner that played out over the years. She developed the strange situation as a way of classifying the three different kinds of attachments she observed infants performing with their mothers/primary caregivers. The secure attachment denoted that the infant sought and received protection, the avoidant attachment denoted that the infant pulled away from the mother, and the resistant attachment denoted that the infant always stayed close to their mother.

These two "histories" of attachment theory, I believe, are integral and vital to understanding how and why attachment theories developed and why they are important. Without the author's having touched on the history and events leading up to the final theory, the theory is not so profound and meaningful as it ought to be.

Author Response

Attachment Theory: More Details Needed?

Erin J. Lee
Rochester Institute of Technology

The commentaries by Krukar, Stock, and Wolf all had valid points and criticisms about my paper on attachment theory. Krukar did an excellent job summarizing the paper and also shed some light on attachment and the post-partum, something that I did not discuss in my paper. Krukar supported nurture rather than nature as the basis for attachment theory, which is common in psychology. I also believe that nurture is important to an extent, and then nature takes over.

Stock brought up a very good point when she asked "what happens to the attachment of the child, however, if the parent dies or divorces?" I briefly covered what happens to attachment when the mother and child are separated right after birth but did not cover these other separations. I have read articles that agree with Stock's information on how the marital relationship affects the attachment styles of the child. If the father is not happy in the marriage, then he is more likely to separate himself from the mother and family by doing things outside the home. This often puts a great deal of stress on the mother. When this happens, she will usually either put up the facade that she is happy and everything is ok, or she will become unhappy and depressed. Usually, when the mother is just putting up a front, the child can pick up that it is all just an act. When the father is absent and the mother is depressed, it often causes problems with the child. The child is more likely to be unhappy and depressed because there is no one in the home to override the mother’s influence. I agree with Stock that more coverage of the separation and attachment topic would have been useful in this paper.

Wolf's main criticism of the paper was that it did not go into the origins of Bowlby's and Ainsworth's attachment theories. I did not go into them in this paper because I did not want to focus so much on just the attachment theories but more on the criticisms of them. Wolf stated that by not going into detail about the origin of these theories, "the theory is not so profound and meaningful as it ought to be." I disagree with this statement. Yes, maybe discussing the origins would have made for a more thorough paper, but I think that by reading this paper a person can see how attachment theory is an important topic in psychology and how it is exemplified in everyday life. Wolf did a nice job of summarizing the origins of Bowlby's and Ainsworth's theories in her commentary. She commented on how Ainsworth was made to seem as if she were a colleague of Bowlby's rather than a woman who theorized on her own. Although she did come up with her own theories, at one point she was indeed a colleague of Bowlby's. They published two articles together. Some of her ideas were based on Bowlby's research and ideas.

I sincerely appreciate the criticisms and suggestions of the peer commentators. Although my paper has its weaknesses in some areas, I think it is a relatively strong paper on an important topic in psychology.


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