Attachment Theory – in a nutshell!

Published Categorized as behaviour management, friendship skills

Attachment theory has been around for a while now but I think it’s still useful for those who work with children who have not develop secure attachment. It is estimated that 65% of people have developed secure attachment, 20% have avoidant attachment and the remaining are probably split approximately equally between ambivalent and disorganised attachment. That’s a lot of the population without secure attachment. So, what is attachment theory (if you don’t know). Well here it is in a nutshell (like I like things to be!)……

Every child is born with hard-wired instinct for survival. Obviously this makes a lot of sense in evolutionary terms. Therefore, whatever circumstance, family set-up, family behaviours etc. a child is born into, they will adapt (and subsequently develop the hard-wiring) that will optimise their chances of survival. Getting a parent’s attention is a crucial part of this survival (as a baby is totally reliant upon their carer/s) so disorders to do with poor attachment are due to a child receiving, little, inconsistent and/or frightening attention from their parent/s or carers. Strategies for getting attention from parents with poor ability to meet a child’s needs will therefore be ‘warped’ and will result in extreme, unusual and/or difficult behaviours. For these children, their behaviours often mean they get negative attention – but this is still better for them, of course, than no attention at all.

The four main styles of attachment are:

Secure (the ‘healthy’ one). When the parent of a young child with secure attachment leaves the room, the child exhibits some concern and then is pleased when the parent returns.

Avoidant – this happens when parents have not responded to their child when s/he is distressed and in need of attention. This child will not notice when the parent leaves the room, would give any stranger in the room the same attention as his or her parent and not really respond significantly when the parent returned.

Ambivalent – caused by a parent mostly not responding – but occasionally responding appropriately – to the child’s distress. This child will be stressed when the parent leaves the room but also give the parent a hard time when he or she returns – ‘how could you leave me?’ A child like this tries numerous strategies to get attention (to try and hit on the one that gets a response) and therefore this child’s behaviour is all over the place.

Disorganised – caused by abuse/bullying/fear/emotional chaos from parent, and therefore the behaviour of the child is really inconsistent, confused and all over the place. The behaviour from these children I would describe as full of fear, hyper vigilant and ‘easily triggered.’

This piece of theory does not offer any solutions for behaviour management in itself but I do think it does two important jobs:

  1. It can boost care, understanding and compassion for children who have poor attachment as you can start to shift your mindset away from just seeing (wilful) behaviour and starting to see trauma responses.
  2. It can promote the understanding of the need for primary carers of babies to self-regulate and be a consistent presence for their child. (Here lies a can of worms as if a parent has not developed secure attachment themselves, it can be hard for them to provide such security for their own children without support).


Note: A great piece of news that I recently read about was that we get another significant opportunity to re-wire our brains for attachment in the teenage years. This makes sense and there is some significant re-wiring going on then.

To consider your attachment style, it’s quite good to ask yourself:

What do you do to draw people in who you like?


What you do to push people away when you don’t like them?

Mostly when you ask people this the answers for pushing people away is to ignore them. How British! But the answers for drawing people in can be quite different e.g.
– humour
– intense interest in the other
– show off (cleverness, capabilities etc)I think this might be counter-productive!)
– be nurturing and compliant
– be humble and compliant
– and some people sometimes do not know how they draw people in

As our attachment history affects how we behave in all relationships and how we answer these questions highlights our own hard-wiring from our own early childhood.