Concerned About Unconventional Mental Health Interventions?

Concerned About Unconventional Mental Health Interventions?
Alternative Psychotherapies: Evaluating Unconventional Mental Health Treatments

Monday, September 12, 2011

What Is Attachment?

What IS attachment, anyway? This word is used constantly by parents and teachers, attorneys and judges, as well as psychologists and social workers. What do they mean? Is attachment one of those things like obscenity, that we can’t define, but “we know it when we see it”?

Actually, one of the problems with understanding attachment is that many people don’t know it when they see it. As a discussion of attachment and child custody decisions pointed out a couple of years ago, “few custody evaluators recognized the distinction between a highly dependent or demonstratively affectionate relationship between a parent and a child and a secure attachment” (Calloway & Erard [2009]. Introduction to the special issue on attachment and child custody. Journal of Child Custody, 6, 1-7). Some quasi-professionals who emphasize attachment believe that the attachment of a child to a caregiver is indicated by physical demonstrations of affection, eye contact “on the parent’s terms”, obedience, and gratitude.

Many textbooks define attachment as an “emotional bond” or “tie” between two people, especially a parent and a child. The organization ATTACh (Association for the Treatment and Training of Attachment in Children) gives the following lengthier definition of attachment:
“Attachment is a reciprocal process by which an emotional connection develops between an infant and his/her primary caregiver. It influences the child’s physical, neurological, cognitive, and psychological development. It becomes the basis for development of basic trust or mistrust, and shapes how the child will relate to the world, learn, and form relationships throughout life.” (

But let’s parse these definitions. Is it of any help to say that something is an “emotional bond”, without saying what an emotional bond is? Actual bonds involve close physical proximity, enforced by physical methods like ropes or handcuffs. Attachment, then, is being said to be like a bond in that it maintains proximity, but the way it does this is through emotional factors rather than with ropes. This is an analogy rather than a definition, and it is inadequate for two reasons. One is that although attachment does maintain a young child’s physical proximity to a caregiver, continuing development alters the way in which attachment is expressed. In any case, the seeking of proximity is not the same at all times, but occurs when the child feels threatened or uncomfortable. The other problem is that this description of attachment leaves it unclear whether both members of the pair behave in the same way or have the same emotions or motivations relative to maintaining proximity. In fact, in the course of development, parent and child trade several times the position of being the one that wants more proximity; the child who has a toddler clung to the parent who was leaving for work grows to the teenager whose parent is anxious to know where he is going and when he will be back

Now let’s look at the ATTACh version. It’s longer and more complicated, but is it any better? It begins by saying that “attachment is a … process”. No doubt there are processes leading to attachment, but if attachment is a process, it’s difficult to see how we can determine whether attachment is secure or even present. Surely attachment is some sort of end state, and not simply an ongoing process. Perhaps the “emotional connection” which is said to result from the attachment process is the actual attachment, but it too remains undefined.

ATTACh also says that attachment is not just a process, but a “reciprocal process”. I interpret this as meaning that attachment develops in the course of interactions with other people and could not exist in a social vacuum, and this is certainly correct. ATTACh may also intend to say that attachment (emotional connection?) in a child develops in tandem with some emotional change in the adult caregiver, which may be true, but seems to be irrelevant to the later emphasis placed on the child’s own development.

ATTACh speaks of connections between an infant and the primary caregiver and appears to be limiting attachment to this relationship. Here we encounter some problems, because all the evidence is that young children can have many attachment relationships, some more obvious than others, and that these relationships may or may not share qualities like security. On the other hand, caregivers tend to be monotropic and have one or two preferred infants, even if they work with a group of children of similar ages; perhaps the ATTACh authors were thinking of the adult’s connection with a “primary” baby when they wrote this.

ATTACh goes on to cite the various aspects of development that are influenced by attachment (although whether as a process or as a loosely-defined emotional connection is not clear). It is not stated how attachment affects the child’s physical development, or how psychological development is different from cognitive development, but even if these points are set aside, these remarks do not contribute to the definition of attachment, but simply say more about things that are related to the undefined process or end state. Similarly, in the last sentence, references to basic trust and to shaping relationships do nothing more than to say that something called attachment is involved here. (As to the statement about learning, it is far from clear what the authors meant.)

It would seem that neither the textbook definition nor the ATTACh effort is of much use in clarifying what attachment actually means. I’d like to offer an alternative definition that I believe cuts through some of the difficulties we’ve seen here.

I would suggest that attachment is best thought of as an attitude, or a readiness to behave in particular ways toward the object of the attitude. It is an attitude toward human beings that involves the readiness to behave differently toward familiar and unfamiliar people, but to do so in different ways when there is perceived threat than when there is not. Like other attitudes, attachment changes with development, and although young children show their attachment by seeking proximity to familiar people when uncomfortable, they gradually move toward other related behaviors. Also, like other attitudes, attachment involves characteristic emotional responses that may occur together with or instead of observable behavior, and these too change with development. Attachment attitudes vary with experience as well as with age and culminate in an internal working model of human relationships in general as well as the specific reaction to threat which is their foundation.

This may not be the perfect definition, but at least it actually is a definition. Comments and editing are invited.

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