John Bowlby Attachment Theory Stages

Theory of attachment cover

Attachment is one of the strongest emotions of humans and animals, it is described as a deep and affectionate bond that is formed between two people that is long-lasting which results in pleasure and comfort for both. People also get attached to objects as well, however, this theory only focuses on attachment between people.

Attachment Theory

Mother child bonding

A mother bonding with her child playfully.

According to John Bowlby, children make special bonds with their caregivers and the way their initial childhood is shaped has an everlasting effect on their mentality and overall relationship forming habits.

In 1930, while working with juvenile children, psychologist John Bowlby realized that these children had trouble forming trustworthy relationships with others and once he looked at their family histories he quickly understood why it was so. He saw all of these children faced disturbances during their early stages of life and concluded that healthy and positive bonds during those times are essential for the proper emotional growth of a child. He also mentioned that this may be the result of evolution, as infants who stayed in close proximity to the adults survived.

Also, in 1970 psychologist Mary Ainsworth expanded on Bowlby’s work, stating “strange situations” and added 3 major styles of attachment, and later in 1986 researchers Main and Solomen added a fourth style of attachment. These are four types of attachment patterns that are the result of different bonding.

  • Secure Attachment: Here the infant is strongly attached to the caregiver and feels secure around them. Also, these children grow to become more trusting and are generally successful in life.
  • Resistant Attachment: This is the result of an insecure attachment. In this type of situation, the child becomes angry towards the caregiver because of a lack of attention. When caregivers respond with love and care, they don’t react abruptly and sort of start resisting their own feelings.
  • Avoidance Attachment: In this type of insecure attachment, the child will deliberately avoid the caregiver. Children with this type of attachment pattern grow up with difficulties forming relationships and as an adult create a negative image of themselves.
  • Disorganized Attachment: This results from neglect and abuse towards the child and the child starts to see the caregiver as a source of fear and negative feelings. They grow up to have self-loathing issues and tend to avoid social interactions altogether.

Phases of Attachment

Caregiver bonding

A child admiring their favorite caregiver.

John Bowlby presented the cases of attachment in four phases and said all of them are essential as during these times the child forms a vital bond with the caregiver.

1. Pre Attachment Phase (Birth – 3 Months): Here the infant does not show preference among different caregivers but they do begin to recognize human faces and respond to human voices. At this stage, the infant cries and fusses as a means of communication and it does work as it gets the attention of the caregiver to remain in their close proximity.

2. Indiscriminate Attachment (3 Months – 6 Months): At this stage, infants start to show preference and decides their favored caregiver. They start to babble gently to their favorite caregiver and start to respond with a  smile when engaged in an activity by their preferred person. Additionally, when they are crying or feel uneasy, they quickly calm down and are relaxed upon being picked up by their chosen caretaker. However, they accept care from anyone at this stage.

3. Discriminate Attachment (6 Months – 2 Years): Once a child crosses the 6-8 months mark, the preference for a specific individual becomes evident. Also, the baby starts to resist separation from their preferred individual and forms separation anxiety upon separation. Here the babies also begin to tell apart unfamiliar faces and fear the strangers while they enthusiastically respond to their favorite caregivers.

4. Multiple Attachments (2 Years and beyond): Once a child reaches the fourth stage of attachment, they develop a sense that their caregivers have other matters as well, and start to understand that they can’t be around them forever. Additionally, they begin to bond with others in their proximity like siblings and even new people. Here the child has already developed strong attachment and as the child ages, they rely less on the caregiver.

Thanks to this theory we are able to understand and apply the positive habits, behaviors towards the child, and their development. Along with understanding the source of nature and personality of adults as to why some are confident and trusting while others are anxious and nonsocial.

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