Parent-child attachment is a concept that greatly influences a child’s interactions with others throughout their lifetime.

A child develops an attachment with anyone who they spend time with on a regular basis.

In the 1950s, the idea of attachment theory was developed.

John Bowlby, a psychoanalyst, described the term “attachment” in the context of infant-parent relationships.

Bowlby explored the behaviors that an infant displayed in relation to their parent, such as screaming, clinging, or crying. He believed these behaviors were reinforced through natural selection with the purpose of helping the infant to survive.

It was thought that without these types of behaviors some infants could be left alone too long potentially putting them at risk of danger.

The behaviors that an infant engages in in order to attach with a caregiver make up what Bowlby called the “attachment behavioral system.”

A person’s attachment behavioral system is the foundation of how they form and maintain relationships with others.

Research has explored an infant’s attachment style by separating infants from their caregiver and observing their behavior. Typically, in these situations, an infant will react in one of four ways.

The four attachment styles include:

  1. Secure attachment
  2. Anxious-resistant attachment
  3. Avoidant attachment
  4. Disorganized-disoriented attachment

Infants with a secure attachment generally become distressed when separated from their caregiver, but they seek and receive comfort when they are reunited with the caregiver.

Infants with an anxious-resistant attachment generally become more distressed (as compared to securely attached infants). They also try to seek comfort from parents may be have more troublesome behaviors, as well.

Infants with an avoidant attachment generally do not become distressed when separated from their caregiver. They typically do not attend to their caregiver or they actively ignore their caregiver when the caregiver returns.

Infants with a disorganized-disoriented attachment do not show a predictable pattern of behavior when their parent leaves and returns.

The attachment style that an infant experiences plays a role in the type of relationships they will have in childhood and adulthood.

Bowlby believed that children could be better served with professional supports when the clinician looked at a bigger picture, when they considered environmental, setting, and social factors and how these things related to the child’s behaviors.

Bowlby’s ideas led to an increase in helping parents to make positive changes in the child’s environment including in the way in which parents interacted with their child.

Mary Ainsworth, who also studied children and their relationships with their parents, aided Bowlby in developing attachment theory. Together, they completed a large amount of research to support their theory.

One experiment completed that supported attachment theory was done with rhesus monkeys. Harry Harlow studied relationships between parents and their children and used monkeys as research participants.

Harlow explored how a parent-child relationship (particularly with a mother) was based on emotion rather than just physiological need.

Wire Mesh or Cloth Mother?

Harlow found that when a monkey was taken away from its biological mother after birth and then offered a surrogate mother made of wire mesh which provided milk, the monkey would choose the surrogate mother covered in soft cloth rather than the wire mesh-only surrogate.

Responding to Loud Noises

In another study, Harlow found that monkeys would return to a soft cloth surrogate mother when they heard a loud noise. However, monkeys who were given a bare wire mesh surrogate mother would behave in other ways, such as throwing themselves to the ground, rocking back and forth, or screaming.

The monkey studies supported the idea that parent-child attachment should include physical closeness and responsiveness to create an emotional connection. This lays the foundation to help a child be better able to cope with stress and manage their emotions.

Attachment in parent-child relationships is very important for a child’s functioning throughout life.