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Attatchment theories

Attatchment Theories


There are a number of theorists that have carried out vast research and have come to varying conclusions on what attachment is.

Sigmund Freud was such a theorist.

Sigmund Freud

He put forward the notion that a child goes through their development in ‘Psychosexual Stages’. Freud viewed this theory as a child needing to change their erogenous zones as they age. With this he claims that if a child transfers its libidinal energy, meaning the emotional energy which is usually sexually related, successfully then the energy will move on to the next zone. Yet if there are problems such as frustration or overindulgence, then the energy will become either transfixed in the zone it is in or it will fall back to an earlier zone. This will mean that development will be impaired.

There are altogether five stages in Freud’s theory, they are:

1) The Oral Stage. This is from birth to 18 months old.

2) The Anal Stage. This is from 18 months to 3-5 years old.

3) The Phallic Stage. This is from 3-5 to 6-8 years old.

4) The Latency Stage. This is from 6-8 to puberty.

5) The Genital Stage. This is from puberty to death.

Freud believed that from birth to 18 months old, a child has the mouth as an erogenous zone. The child suckles on the mother’s breast and starts to form a bond.

The next zone in the anal stage is the anus. The problems for parents of a child in this stage are toilet training. Parents who put a demand on exactly when the child goes to the toilet leave the child to develop into having strong habits. The parents who leave their child to be able to decide for itself when they should go to the toilet have a child that develops expressively.

The Phallic stage has the genitals as the erogenous zone. It is at this age that children walk around without any clothes on and explore there own genitals openly. The problem here lies within the understanding that the mother and father have a relationship separate to that of the child, and thus jealousy forms. Freud claims that it is at this stage that a boy starts to lust after his mother and wants to become her lover from his preconceptions of sexual life. Deep down it means that he wants his mother all to himself, not share him with his father. He sees his father as a threat to his desire for his mother yet worries about what his father may think or do if he found out. For girls it involves ‘Penis Envy’. They explore themselves as much as boys at this age yet this is when they notice that they do not have something that protrudes from their body. They feel like they have been cheated because they see something that is bigger as better.

There are no erogenous zones in the last two stages. This is because at the latency stage both boys and girls repress their feelings towards sex or penis envy and due to this there is a decline in sexuality in them. They start to move of in single sex groups in order to gain their own identity.

In the genital stage the sexual desire re-appears but in puberty the adolescent tries to either push their sexual urge into something like sport or repress it again.

Another theorist who has a similar link with Freud is Erik Homburger Erikson.

Erik Homburger Erikson

He has eight stages of social development which are determined by age, Ego crisis and a task; the first three of which relate to Freud’s stages. They are:

1) Infancy: 0 –18 months (similar to Oral Stage). The Ego crisis in this stage is Trust Vs Mistrust. Can an infant trust an adult. The task it has to perform is forming an attachment to its mother, this in turn takes care of the crisis.

2) Early Childhood: 18 months – 3 years (similar to Anal Stage). The Ego crisis is Autonomy Vs Shame and Doubt. The task to overcome the crisis is to gain some basic self control and learning how to differentiate between right and wrong

3) Play Age: 3 – 6 years (similar to Phallic Stage). The Ego crisis in this stage is Initiative Vs Guilt. The task in which to overcome the crisis is to become more purposeful and direct.

4) School Age: 6 – 11 years (similar to Latency Stage). The Ego crisis in this stage is Industry Vs Inferiority. The task in which the crisis is to be overcome is to develop school, social and physical skills.

The above four stages are relevant but should you wish to look at the final eight please consult my reference page.

Mary Ainsworth

Mary Ainsworth developed a different way of measuring how an attachment is formed. Ainsworth set up a laboratory procedure called the "Strange Situation". Within this test the parent and infant are taken into the room from which they are to be observed. They are left alone in the room and the parent is asked not to join the infant whilst it explores the room. Then a stranger enters the room, he/she firstly talks with the parent and then approaches the infant, and on doing so the parent slips out of the room. The stranger now stays, and interacts with the infant. The parent greets and comforts the infant and then leaves again. This time the infant knows it has been left alone. The stranger now enters the room and starts to interact with the infant. Finally the parent enters the room, greets and then picks up the infant whilst the stranger slips out of the room.

From this Ainsworth was able to classify the infant into one of three attachment categories she had developed based on it’s behaviour when the parent returned.

The three attachment categories are:

1. Securely attached

2. Insecurely attached (Avoidant)

3. Insecurely attached (Anxious/Ambivalent)

Securely attached means that the infant sought to interact with its parent following her absence.

Avoidant attached means that the infant may show sings of avoidance towards its mother upon her return – the infant might just as easily be comforted by the stranger.

Anxious/Ambivalent attachment means that the infant may show signs of seeking and resistance simultaneously towards its mother upon her return.

There are also four stages of attachment in an infant. These are:

First stage – This is the Pre-attachment phase. It occurs from birth to three months

old. This is when an infant starts to show preference for human objects

which look and smile.

Second stage – This is the Indiscriminate phase. It occurs from three to seven months

Old. This is where an infant develops the skill of recognising between

different people and can distinguish between friends and family and

strangers. The infant is able to do this by either the sound of voices or

by smell – which is known as Pheromones, the chemical scent that is

emitted by everyone but is individual to one person.

Third stage – This is the Discriminate phase. It occurs from seven to nine months

old This is where the infant can discriminate and start to choose who

they want to form bonds with. For example: brother, sister, other

family or babysitter. The infant can also decide to reject the people

they do not want to bond with. They can show this toward strangers by

kicking out, which is a natural instinct.

Forth Stage – This is the Multiple-attachment phase. It occurs from nine months

onwards. This is when the infant becomes increasingly independent,

and in turn starts to form bonds with other people. It also starts to

develop its own personality e.g. what it wants to eat not eat.

Someone who worked closely with Ainsworth, was John Bowlby.

John Bowlby

Bowlby’s theory completely contradicted Freud’s. he believed that instead of a bond forming with the mother because of being fed by her or satisfying its needs in any way, but solely because it is biologically programmed to attach like this. The infant has a set attachment behaviour system, which involves the infant using certain signalling functions, such as rooting, grasping, sucking, following, clinging and approaching as ways in which the infant has a role in the seeking and contact of the caregiver. The infant then becomes attached to the caregiver with whom he/she has had the most contact and then perfects his art by knowing how and when to gain the attention of the attached caregiver.

A popular theorist of what is known as Cognitive Development is Jean Piaget.

Piaget also had a set of stages in which the development of infants took place. These are:

1) The Sensorimotor Period from birth to 2 years old. Throughout this time a child’s cognitive system is limited. From birth it can only make motor reflexes i.e. move arms and legs. Yet as it gets older it starts to develop the reflexes so that it uses a certain motion for a certain function.

2) The Preoperational Thought Period from 2 to 6/7 years old. From this age a child gains skills which allow him/her to represent mental imagery, mainly language. At this age the child is concerned mainly with themselves and has a narrcisist attitude. It can only use the skills to see the world from only their own perspective.

3) The Concrete Operations Period from 6/7 to 11/12 years old. From this age a child is able to take onboard another person’s view and take in more than just their own perspective at the same time. They can understand concrete or logical problems, they are unable to work on abstract ones.

4) The Formal Operations Period from 11/12 to adult. A child that has reached this period is capable of thinking both logically and abstractly. This is the final stage in a child’s development and they can enter adulthood.

A theorist who took Piaget’s theory and elaborated on it was Lawrence Kohlberg.

Kohlberg went on from Piaget and identified a six stage development of moral reasoning in children. There are three levels to this development with two stages in each. These are:

Level one: Preconventional Morality – from 4 to 10 years old.

Stage one: This is where the child learns to adhere to rules in order to avoid


Stage two: This is where the child learns to abide by society’s rules in order to

obtain rewards.

Level two: Conventional Morality – from 10 to 13 years old.

Stage three: This is where the child learns to behave morally in order to get the

Approval of other people.

Stage four: this is where the child learns to conform to authority in order to avoid

Guilt and criticism.

Level three: Postconventional Morality – from adolescence to adulthood.

Stage five: This is where a person shows concern about their rights and vote


Stage six: This is when a person is completely reliant on decision making by

His/her own mind and conscience.

This showed that unlike Piaget’s theory, it takes a considerably longer time to achieve moral maturity.


I planned to conduct an observation on a four year old male. The observation took place in the infant’s family home as I felt this would let me observe him where he feels the safest. Due to the busy schedules that the mother and father of the infant have I was only able to observe the him for one day, between the times of 09:00AM and 13:30PM. I set up set up the observation so as I would not be the only stranger that the infant would come into contact with. I arranged that a visitor who had never met the infant would come by without warning so that I could measure his reaction to them. The person I chose was a friend of mine, whom has met the mother but not the infant.

I drew up an observation list with headings that I felt would enable me to quickly account for the different types of behaviour the infant might exhibit. (See Appendix one).

The headings I used were: Crying, tantrum, demanding, happy, smiling, laughing, playing, talking/contact, behaviour with stranger and other.

Within the other category I wanted to look at things relating to Freud’s Anal and Phallic stages, such as going to the toilet on his own and touching his own genitals. As well as knowing if he had done something wrong and whether or not he acted morally, as in the theory of Kohlberg.

I arranged with the mother and father that they would both take turns interacting with the infant and also that they would leave the stranger and myself alone with the infant for a certain period of time. These time periods were to be five minute intervals in which the parents would go upstairs or to the kitchen, leaving the infant on his own.

I then planned to both observe any behaviours of the infant and the interactions between the infant and A) his parents and B) the stranger.

I tried to observe in such a way as to not disrupt the infant’s normal pattern too much. I hoped that the longer I stayed there, the more he would get used to me being there and would carry on regardless.


From the results of the bar graphs (see appendices two – eleven), we can see that the infant seemed to have a balanced display of behaviour.

If we look at appendix two we have an overview of all the types of behaviour the infant displayed and the amount of times he displayed them. The highest of them being playing, which he did 35 times throughout the observation.

The first on the list was crying. If we look at appendix three, it shows that he eight times at different intervals of the day. Yet what is interesting is that he cried the most when my observation was over and I left. He also cried a once at 12:00PM which was the time that the other stranger came round. He cried twice during the 11:00 – 11:30AM time slot but this was because he was hungry and wanted lunch.

The next was the infant throwing a tantrum. By looking at appendix four, we can see that he only through one tantrum which was at 11:30AM and this was because after crying to let his mother know he was hungry, it wasn’t working so he threw a tantrum. In the others column I noted that this was when he realised he had misbehaved because he stopped when his mother told him she was taking his videos away from him. This led him not only to apologise to his mother, but also to me. Yet he did this on his own without being told to do so.

There was a variance when it came to demanding. The key principle for most of the infant’s demands were for attention from his parents. You will notice from appendix five that the main times he was demanding was when I first got there, when the stranger arrived and then left, and finally when I left. This seemed to be that the attention was not directed at him and so he demanded it.

From looking at appendix six, we can see that the measurement of when the child was happy seemed to be consistent. He seemed at his most happy for both the half hour after I had settled in and for the half an hour when the stranger was getting ready to go.

By looking at appendix seven, we can see that the infant seemed to smile for most of the day and the only time he didn’t smile at all was when the stranger was there.

The same applies to when the infant laughed. His only break from doing so came when the stranger did.(see appendix eight

The infant was only sad on two occasions. The first seemed to be when the stranger arrived, the second being when I left.(see appendix nine).

There was no specific pattern as to when the infant played. Yet it seemed to hit a crescendo just before he started to get hungry.(see appendix ten).

The amount of time he spent talking or making contact with me or the stranger seemed to be gradual. If we look at appendix eleven. It peaked up with me at a steady level and then dropped when the stranger came in. yet there was still conversing between himself and the stranger.

If we look at the pie chart on appendix twelve when can see that there is quite an even distribution of results for the types of behaviour. With the two very negative types, tantrum and sad, having the smallest percentage.

The MEAN of the results is 19.7

There is no MODE because there is no one number that occurs more than once.

The Median is 22 or verbally it is the amount of times the infant was happy.

The RANGE is 34.

There were also results I did not collate into figures this was because they happened at irregular intervals but were the same. The first was the exploration of genitals. The infant did not once touch his genitalia. The other was going to the toilet without asking. He did this every single time and did not ask or have to be told when to go.

From the results I can see that some of the theories I have looked at could be applied in at least part of their context.

For instance, the infant went to the toilet without being told to do so and this correlates with Freud’s Anal Stage of development; the infant falls into the age category also. Yet to counterbalance or even contradict Freud’s Phallic Stage, in which the infant also falls into the age category, he did not once touch or explore his genitals.

There is also some evidence to link with Ainsworth’s Strange Situation theory, due to the fact that the child seemed to display a degree of distress when confronted by stranger. Yet again it holds no water because he did not avoid or reject his parent when they returned.

Even Piaget’s theory holds contradictions. He claims that at the infant age group he should be able to use his skills for mental imagery for just his own opinions, yet the infant can also take on other people’s opinions alongside his own; something he should not be able to do under he is six or seven.


I draw my conclusion that the infant I observed has no attachment disorder and is therefore securely attached to his parents. I have reached the overall conclusion that although every theory has a good deal of relevance, no one theory can be used when describing attachment.

It seems that Bowlby wants us to believe that every child instinctively forms a bond with a caregiver purely on the basis of biological grounding. Yet how can this be so when an infant’s mind is more complex than that. If this were the case then surely the child would attach itself to anyone who it comes into contact with. I have found this not the case.

Yet his point on a child knowing how to act in order to gain the attention of the caregiver does stand up. I observed to child firstly crying and then throwing a tantrum in order to get the attention of his parents.

Kohlberg’s theory that the child by the age of four learns to adhere to rules in order to avoid punishment seems to be illustrated within my findings. The infant misbehaved and was told of his punishment, then without prompting he understood that if he apologised the punishment would not be as severe.

I conclude that one theory cannot be fully used for attachment. In order to understand we must be prepared to give up on the misconceptions that lie around one good point in each theory. Every child is different and although the way one acts may be similar to a theory definition, it does not mean that the whole theory is correct.

In order to look at an individual child’s development, we need to look at a variety of different theories, some relating to basic attachment and others linked to the development of the whole child. Only then can we really define what a child’s attachment to an adult is.


Gross, Richard (1996) Psychology The Science of Mind and Behaviour, Third edition, Hodder & Stoughton.

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