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June 2000  -  Volume 3  -  Issue 4

Terms to Know: Attachment and Bonding

Attachment - A bond between one person and another. In the field of infant development, attachment refers to a special bond characterized by the unique qualities of the special bond that forms in maternal-infant or primary caregiver-infant relationships. (1)

Classifications of Attachment:

Securely attached - is characterized by infants who can leave the individual to whom they are attached in order to explore new experiences for a short time (3). A child who has developed a secure attachment relationship will display the following patterns of behavior:

  • pleasure in reunion after a brief separation period
  • "touch and go" with parent in using the parent as a secure base for exploration.
  • active "search" for the parent without becoming immobilized by distress in separation.
  • approach to parent with ability to derive satisfaction/comfort from parent and to resume exploration/play. (2)

Insecure (Anxious Resistant) - Infants who are not securely attached to another person cry extensively, even when being held (3). The child may receive some semblance of nurturance, protection, attention/stimulation some of the time (such as when the needs of the child coincide with those of the parent, the child will develop an insecure or anxious resistant attachment relationship with the parent. A child with this type of attachment will display the following patterns of behavior:

  • unable to use the parent as a secure base for exploration
  • become extremely distressed when separated from the parent
  • become "helpless" to find solution to loss/separation
  • after a brief separation cannot be comforted by the parent and continue to display distress even with parent's efforts to comfort/soothe. (2)

Unattached (Anxious Avoidant) - Unattached infants exhibit no concerns for the presence of others. They ignore people when they are present and show no anxiety when people leave. Unattached infants do not develop interpersonal bonds (3). Children with this type of attachment will display the following patterns of behavior:

  • absence of pleasure in reunion after a brief separation period.
  • failure to seek proximity/contact with parent directly (approach/avoid) following separation (wants contact but fails to seek because of fear of rebuff)
  • explore as freely in absence of parent as in presence with absence of "touch and go"
  • no distress or observable response to separation from parent. (2)

Bonding - The process of forming attachment. Just as bonding is the term used when gluing one object to another, bonding is using our emotional glue to become connected to another. Bonding, therefore, involves a set of behaviors that will help lead to an emotional connection (attachment) (1).

Theories of Attachment - Five explanations have been postulated for the development of attachment:

  1. Ethological Theory - postulates that the development is a natural and spontaneous phenomenon that has survival value for the species and is triggered by a particular stimulus in the environment, such as separation or the presence of danger. The key word in this theory is "triggered." Attachment is not learned; it is an inherent phenomenon triggered by appropriate conditions. An example of this is imprinting (3).
  2. Psychoanalytic Theory - emphasizes the importance of the infant's investment of psychosexual energy (libido) in maintaining contact with objects that are associated with the satisfaction of instinctive biological needs. The key concept in this model is that attachment is a natural phenomenon triggered by an internally directed maturational process and mediated by need gratification. An example is feeding - an instinctive gratification (3).
  3. Social Learning Theory - the idea that infants attach themselves to a caretaker because that caretaker has been associated with the receipt of a primary reinforcer - food or tactile stimulation. While social learning theory has had a significant influence on psychologists' views of attachment, research has indicated that primary needs, such as the need for food, may not be as important in the development of attachment as those creature contact needs whose satisfaction is derived from close physical and emotional contact between the caretaker and the infant (3).
  4. Communication Theory - T.G.R. Bower postulates that the ability to communicate with significant people around oneself is of critical importance to the security of any human. An infant's communication is nonlinguistic and probably idiosyncratic to each child and to the people with whom the child is in continual contact (3).
  5. Cognitive Theory - postulates that certain cognitive or intellectual skills must be possessed by an infant in order to develop attachment. Two cognitive capacities of particular importance are:
    1. Ability to Differentiate People - without this skill, it would not be possible to develop a specific attachment because all people would fall into the same class.
    2. Understanding Object Permanence - critical in the development of attachment is the infant's understanding that ans object has permanence even when he or she does not have sensory contact with it. (3)


(1) Perry, Bruce D., M.D. Ph.D., of The Child Trauma Academy - excerpted from "Maltreated Children: Experience, Brain Development and the Next Generation", W.W. Norton & Company, New York.. 1999. Website:

(2) Baird, Diane, L.C.S.W, excerpt from compiled training materials on attachment for "Separation, Transiiton and Unpredictability: How change impacts foster children and how to help.", 2000.

(3) Faw, Terry and Gary S. Belkin, Child Psychology, McGraw-Hill, 1989. Ch. 10 - Personality and Social Development in the Child Under Two, p. 218-230.

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