Attachment Theory Overview

In 1958 Harry Harlow gave his annual addressed to the American Psychological Association where he showed evidence of how a baby monkey has an innate need to attach to its mother, and that if this need is neglected or abused, serious psycho-emotional behavioural conditions manifest. Since this point, Attachment Theory is considered irrefutable.
Amassing over 60-years of evidence based research (including the most eminent Minnesota longitudinal study into risk and adaption which focuses on parent-child interactions and published its 30-year findings in 2004), Attachment Theory probably has the largest evidence base of any single theory in psychology.
At its most basic, Attachment Theory reveals to us a baby’s inborn need to attach to its mother where the child receives face-to-face interactions and hugs/contact-comfort which become the basis of its emotional stability and a secure personality. This is perfectly true. Yet Attachment Theory includes an abundance of evidenced parent-child behaviours which incrementally point children towards or away from this hoped for outcome. Listed below are a few key concepts of Attachment Theory.

Attachment behaviours innately unfold: Attachment is an innately programmed (genetically driven) behaviour which serves many evolutionary functions of which emotional development is its principal concern.
Several different phases in the first four years (more than listed here): Attachment is shown to begin at birth (babies can identify mother’s milk at two weeks old), yet intensifies strongly for the preference of only being comforted by mother (primary caregiver) at 6 months, and the most intense phases run through 1-3 years of age where children seek to keep close proximity to their parents and have a healthy fear of strangers (especially in places outside the home).
Four types of Attachment Styles exist which are caused by very distinct parent-child interactions. If you’re interested in detailed explanations of the research on each Attachment Styles, you can click through to articles by using the links below.
Secure Attachment Style: the foundation of a secure attachment is comforting a baby/toddler whenever it’s in distress (sympathy). The contact-comfort of a hug is proven to release potent anti-stress hormones, such as oxytocin, which also create and strengthen relationship bonds. Lots of face-to-face interaction with mother in the first year-and-a-half develops a strong neural basis for emotional literacy. Secure attachment styles are associated with stable personality types with good, if not excellent, interpersonal skill. They are often seen as natural leaders.
Avoidant Attachment Style: the foundation of an avoidant attachment is a baby/toddler who is persistently not comforted when distressed. These children are left in a cocktail of stress hormones, gradually learn not to seek comfort or express distress and so stop asking for hugs and affection. Although they may seem the least distressed by situations as they play by themselves without expressing discomfort, tests show that these toddlers are the most stressed on a biological level. Avoidant attachment styles are heavily associated with conduct disorders and drug abuse in teens and adulthood (both avoidant and resistant types are associated with depression although for different reasons). They are often perceived as mean by their peers and exploit the clinginess of those with resistant attachment styles.
Resistant Attachment Style: the foundation of an resistant attachment is a baby/toddler who is inconsistently comforted when distressed. As they receive comfort when distressed sometimes, yet not at others, resistant attachment types, become anxious as to when they will receive comfort when distressed and why they’re not receiving attention at those times when they don’t. This fear of not receiving comfort is thought to be at the core of the clingy and attention seeking behaviour they develop. Resistant attachment styles are heavily associated with anxiety disorders in the teen years and adulthood (both avoidant and resistant types are associated with depression although for different reasons). The clinginess of persons with resistant type attachment can lead them to form and stay in abusive relationships with a person who has an avoidant attachment style and conduct disorders. All the cases of exploitative and abusive relationships (in the 30-year finding of the Minnesota project) were a resistant attachment with an avoidant type.
Disorganised Attachment Style: the foundation of a disorganised attachment is a baby/toddler who becomes frightened or terrified of their mother (primary caregiver). As the innate way babies/toddlers get comfort when distressed or fearful is by seeking their mother for contact-comfort, if mother becomes the source of the threat, baby/toddler wants to flee away from the threat yet flee to its mother at the same time. Thus a psychological contradiction that cannot be resolved is created. Forced into psychological paralysis and dissociation, these children have huge barriers erected to learning from the very person who is responsible for teaching them life’s lessons. Disorganised attachment is associated with dissociated personality disorders and children who have a severe inability to process emotions.
Contact-Comfort: is the term given to physically comforting someone such as with a hug, kiss, stroke or embrace. Although it applies to adults and relationships in general, this concept is central to Attachment Theory. When babies/toddlers are distressed, hormones such as cortisol (dubbed the stress hormone) are released on a neurobiological level.
Children left to stew in such stress cocktails have a very difficult time functioning properly, their ability to learn is severely curbed, vigilant dispositions lead to anxiety based cognitive biasses, immune system functioning is compromised, and emotional development crippled. As emotions are our motivations to do things and not to do things while maintaining a moral environment, having their development stifled by an interrupted development has absolutely devastating consequences for the wellbeing of those who suffer such neglect as babies/toddlers. It’s hard to imagine a more cruel and enduring torture, for their interpersonal communication (without intervention) will cause them to have perpetual relationship conflicts and so losses, sadness and despair throughout their lives.
Life naturally causes many stresses to manifest in the minds of babies/toddlers who are trying to make sense of the world’s various multitudes of stimuli. Fortunately for our babies and toddlers they can be held in the arms of the person they trust most in the whole world, and the physical contact with mother’s body alone will instinctively release potent anti-stress hormones and neurotransmitters which will dispel stress and endow them with the confidence to face the thing which has caused them distress.
Babies and toddlers who do not receive contact-comfort become emotionally disturbed.
Not only does contact-comfort dispel “fixated with fear” stressed states of babies and toddlers, for it endows them with the courage to face the previously feared thing while releasing their abilities to process the situation in a calm state, so the development of understanding progresses. Contact-comfort creates deep trusting bonds between those who experience it together.
The most vital times that contact-comfort can be administered are at those times when a child is genuinely distressed.
Face-to-Face Contact: As the foundations for emotions are being sculpted into neural networks through the attachment phases, especially in the first year-and-a-half of life, the ramifications of neglect are critical. Apart from the physical needs of sustenance and security, nothing surpasses the importance of face-to-face interaction and contact-comfort for babies and toddlers. Females have a greater part of their brain devoted to processing emotions on faces and a greater ability to express those emotions on their faces. Interactive face-to-face expressions of emotions between mother and baby which are attuned to baby’s experience are the interactions which inform the neural development of the right brain (emotional brain) which is in a growth spurt in the first year-and-a-half of life. It seems as if the right brain is genetically coded to be using mother’s facial expressions, in this window, to sculpt neural pathways, and this process would include etching environmentally based updates so as the child is best prepared for the present physical and social epoch. This period is mediated by babies/toddlers who become intensely bound to their mother (primary caregiver) who they trust more than anyone else in the world whilst becoming intensely suspicious of strangers. Mother’s expressions in this period outrank everyone else’s.
As previously stated, stressed babies/toddlers would be in no condition to process mother’s facial features, so contact-comfort (the dispelling of fears) is a prerequisite for face-to-face communication to be effective.


1. Dr A Schore’s presentations of research in developmental neuroscience at various conferences.

2. Development of the Person: The 30-year findings of the Minnesota Longitudinal Study into Risk and Adaptation from Birth to Adulthood.