Updated on Dec 23, 2009

Emerging in the 1940s, attachment theory is the joint work of John Bowlby (1907–1990) and Mary Ainsworth (1913–1999). Attachment theory relates to strong, affectionate bonds that human beings share with each other. Bowlby specifically defined parental attachments as inherent, affectionate bonds between infants and their primary caregivers. Attachment relationships tend to be relatively enduring throughout the lifespan and serve two primary purposes. First, they provide infants with the comfort, care, and security that they need for survival. Second, they serve as templates for relationships that infants develop later in life with others such as friends, teachers, colleagues, and romantic partners. Since its inception, attachment theory has been examined by a number of scholars and continues to be researched in new areas. For instance, research regarding attachment relations among persons of color has begun to emerge. In addition, beginning back in the 1980s, several contemporary, key scholars began examining of the influence of attachment relationships on numerous outcomes such as motivation, student-teacher relationships, transitions to college, psychological health, and social adjustment, to name a few.

Several key figures in the attachment literature beyond Bowlby and Ainsworth have emerged throughout the decades (from the 1940s to the early 21st century), and new scholars continue to supply meaningful contributions. Ellen Moss, who examines attachment relationships and behavioral problems among school age students, has published numerous academic articles on the subject. Diane St. Laurent studies the influence of parental attachment relationships on peer relationships, academic outcomes, and behavioral outcomes among primary and elementary school children. Kathryn Went-zel examines the influence of parent and peer attachments, and teacher pedagogical caring (perceptions that students have of their teacher providing care and support) on motivation, student adjustment, and academic adjustment among students from a variety of ages. Other key figures include Maureen Kenny, who researches the influence of parental attachment relationships on mental health outcomes among adolescents and young adults. Lastly, Kenneth Rice examines the influence of parental attachment relationships on outcomes such as psychological, social, and emotional well-being to predict students' adjustment to college. A review of the work of any of these scholars will provide an insightful, informative look into the theoretical and practical aspects of attachment theory. However, the following entry provides a basic understanding of attachment relationships and their relation to various outcomes.


Parenting behaviors are said to give rise to the formation of the relationships. Attachments are based upon two primary behaviors that caregivers display towards their children: (1) the caregiver's accessibility and responsiveness, and (2) the caregiver's ability to provide protection and security. Attachment relationships are represented in the form of cognitive working models (i.e. thoughts) that infants hold of themselves and others based upon the two primary caregiver behaviors. Infants whose caregivers are affectionate, warm, and responsive to their basic needs for care develop a positive self-view, for they know that they are worthy and deserving of love. Conversely, infants whose caregivers are cold, aloof, neglectful, or inconsistent develop a negative view of themselves because they think that they are not worthy or deserving of love. The extent to which the caregivers provide security and protection shapes infants' view of others and the world. On the one hand, caregivers who protect their infants from harm and provide security prime their infants to develop positive views of others and the world for they see others as reliable and trustworthy and view the world as safe for exploration. On the other hand, caregivers who do not provide security prime their children to view others as unreliable and untrustworthy and to view the world as unsafe.


While parenting behaviors are the primary catalysts that shape attachment relationships, other contextual (i.e. environmental) factors have also been found to indirectly contribute to the formation of attachment relationships, making attachment bonds complex. For instance, parents with better psychological health provide their infants with higher quality care. Hence, infants of these caregivers tend to be attached more securely (or positively) than infants whose caregivers are psychologically maladjusted or distressed. For instance, clinically depressed mothers or care-givers who engage in intrusive, hostile, and/or unresponsive care giving due to their depression are likely to have children who are insecurely attached (negatively attached). Greater marital or relationship satisfaction is also associated with attachment security, as these caregivers tend to display more sensitive parenting skills that contribute to the formation of secure attachments.

Both Bowlby and Ainsworth argue for the universality of attachment relationships, stating that attachment relationships occur cross-culturally due to their biological basis. However, demographic factors, including race/ethnicity and socioeconomic status (SES), have also been shown to contribute to the formation of attachment relationships, and even influence views of the ideal attachment relationship. As Robert Hinde (1991) states: “what is biologically best in one situation may not be so in another. Natural selection tends to produce not rigid types of behavior, but alternative strategies … so while a secure mother-child relationship may be best in some instances, other types of relationships may be better in others” (pp. 160-161). The presence of attachment relationships has not been challenged, but the criteria utilized to classify individuals as secure or insecure has been challenged. For instance, caregivers in Japan would fault caregivers in the United States who encourage their infants to be explorative and autonomous because Japanese caregivers value continuous, close proximity and contact with their infants. Therefore, cultural contexts must be considered when evaluating attachment relationships.

Caregivers from lower incomes often have to contend with added stressors such as financial worries and being able to provide adequate clothing and shelter for their children. Continuous exposure to these stressors has been known to create psychological maladjustment (e.g. depression and/or anxiety) that negatively affects the quality of the attachment relationship. Despite the negative influence that a lack of resources may have on attachment security, additional support from extended family and friends may minimize these negative influences. Social support networks can provide children with the opportunity to form secure bonds with other adult caregivers or may afford parents the opportunity to provide better quality care for their children by lessening the burden of fulfilling other obligations that may detract from providing quality care.

A majority of research related to attachment theory focuses on parents' influences on their children. However, attachment relationships are bi-directional in that parental and infant characteristics influence the attachment bond. For instance, oftentimes overlooked, infants' temperament is one such factor that is said to influence attachment bonds. While numerous definitions of temperament exist, temperament generally refers to basic, inherent dispositions that guide human behaviors, such as expression, reactivity, emotionality, and sociability.

Thomas and Chess identify three temperament styles: Easy, Difficult, and Slow-to-Warm. Children with Easy temperaments develop regular sleeping and feeding schedules, smile at strangers, are interpersonally pleasant and joyful, adapt easily to new situations, accept most frustration with little fuss, and are typically easy to parent. By contrast, Difficult children are irregular in their biological functions, irritable, fussy, non-adaptive, withdraw from new stimuli, and are generally difficult to parent. Slow-to-Warm children have mild intensity in expression, are somewhat regular in their biological functions, and tend to approach new situations, but they also tend to take longer to adapt to new situations and are slower to warm inter-personally than Easy children are. Thomas and Chess estimate that 40-50% of infants are Easy, 10-20% are Difficult, and 15-25% are Slow-to-Warm.

How does temperament relate to attachment relationships? Caregivers often report that it is more challenging to interact meaningfully with Difficult children because they are fussy, irritable, and non-adaptive. Therefore, it is difficult to form an affective bond with these children. However, children with Easy or Slow-to-Warm temperaments are interpersonally pleasant, adaptive, and not fussy, which makes bonding easier, so children with these type of temperaments help facilitate bonding.


Ainsworth identified three types of attachment styles based upon observations of caregivers interacting with their infants (roughly 1 year of age) during a research experiment called The Strange Situation. The attachment styles include the insecure-avoidant (pattern A) style, the secure (pattern B) style, and the insecure-ambivalent (pattern C) style. The Strange Situation is a 20-minute experimental drama designed to reveal infants' attachment style (Ainsworth, 1978). During the experiment, the mother and infant are introduced to a laboratory playroom in which the infant is allowed to explore the room and play with toys while the mother watches. After a brief period, an unfamiliar woman enters the playroom, initially speaks with the mother, and then proceeds to interact with the infant. While the stranger plays with the infant, the mother leaves the room briefly but returns. A second separation occurs in which the infant is left completely alone for a brief period. The stranger returns first, and then the mother returns. The infant's responses to the separations from his/her mother and the reactions upon the mothers' return were documented and used to classify infants as securely or insecurely attached. Infants who were comfortable exploring the room in their mother's presence, cried in their mother's absence, and were comforted by their mother's return to the room were labeled “secure.” Infants who refused to leave their mothers to play with the toys, cried in their mother's absence, and failed to be consoled by their mother's comfort upon returning were labeled “insecure-ambivalent (anxious).” Infants who seemed unaffected by their mother's presence or absence in the room were labeled as “insecure-avoidant.”

Methodologies similar to The Strange Situation are commonly used to measure attachment styles from infancy to kindergarten. Among older elementary school children, self-report questionnaires are commonly used to measure attachment styles. Self-report questionnaires, which solicit information directly from children, or their parent(s), hence the name self-report, require children to read or listen to a set of statements or questions and choose the response that most closely applies to them. For instance, the Parental Attachment Questionnaire, a self-report questionnaire, has been widely used among children to measure attachment styles. Among adolescents and adults, several self-report questionnaires such as the Parental Attachment Questionnaire, the Parental Bonding Instrument, the Inventory of Parent and Peer Attachment, and West and Sheldon's (1988) Measure of Insecure Attachment are commonly used to measure attachment relationships.


According to Ainsworth, secure infants experience warm, responsive relationships with their primary caregivers that are encouraging of autonomy. Infants with secure attachments cognitively have positive views of themselves and others because they know that they are worthy of love and equate security and protection with their caregivers. As adults, these infants are comfortable with closeness and separateness in their relationships with others, are self-reliant and self-confident, cooperative, helpful toward others, have high self-esteem, tend to be successful, and view the world as a place to be explored. Data have consistently demonstrated that a majority of children worldwide, roughly 65–70%, have secure attachment relationships. For instance, approximately 67% of children raised in the United States and Britain have secure relationships. Likewise, among Gusii women of Kenya, Ker-moian and Leiderman classified 61% of infants as secure, 20% as anxious, and 19% as ambivalent.

Insecure-ambivalent (anxious) infants tend to experience warmth from their primary caregivers, but their caregivers do not respond to their needs for basic care promptly and consistently or provide security and protection (Ainsworth, 1989). These infants learn that they are worthy of love, but view their caregivers as unreliable and untrustworthy, which tends to paint their view of the world as unsafe. As a result, these infants tend to develop “clingy” behavior toward their caregivers and fear abandonment because they never know if the caregiver will be available to respond to their needs. As adults, they tend to fear being separated from or abandoned by their romantic partners or friends; they may become overly dependent on others and tend to act immature. Furthermore, under times of stress, these individuals are apt to develop symptoms such as depression or phobias. Roughly 15% of infants have an avoidant attachment style. Among a sample of Chinese infants in China, Hu and Meng found that 68% of infants had secure attachments with their maternal figures, 16% were considered ambivalent, and 16% were considered avoidant.

Insecure-avoidant infants tend to experience neglectful relationships with their primary caregivers. These infants' caregivers are unresponsive and do not provide warmth or a sense of protection and security. These infants learn that they are not worthy of love and view others as unresponsive, unreliable, and unsafe. As adults, these individuals have difficulty trusting others, do not believe that they are worthy of love, and do not expect others to be responsive to their needs (Ainsworth, 1989). These infants are prone to having later interpersonal difficulties with others due to difficulty bonding, tend to suffer from low self-esteem, lack confidence, and have difficulty adapting. Roughly 15% of children have an avoidant attachment style.

Based upon interviews that they conducted with individuals, in the early 1990s, Bartholomew and Horowitz created more contemporary classifications of attachment styles. Four different categories of attachment styles emerged from Bartholomew and Horowitz's research and they labeled them: secure, preoccupied, dismissing, and fearful. According to Bartholomew and Horowitz, individuals with a “secure” attachment style cognitively have a sense of worthiness and lovability (a positive view of the self) and believe other people are accepting and responsive (a positive view of others). Individuals with a “fearful” attachment style have a sense of worthlessness and feelings of being unloved (a negative view of the self) and believe others will be untrustworthy and rejecting (a negative view of others). Individuals with a “dismissing” attachment style tend to have a sense of worthiness and lovability (a positive view of the self) but have a negative disposition towards others (a negative view of others). Individuals with a “preoccupied” attachment style have a sense of worthlessness and feelings of being unloved (a negative view of the self) but have a positive disposition of others (a positive view of others).


In addition to influencing psychological, social, and emotional outcomes, parental attachment relationships influence students' academic success through several mediums. For instance, children's attachments to their parents serve as templates for relationships in which they engage with others such as teachers. Given this affiliation, teacher-child attachments, or bonds that children form with their teachers, are likely to mirror the attachments that children have with their parents. In essence, children with secure parental attachments are likely to have secure teacher-child attachments, while those with avoidant or ambivalent attachments are likely to have the same type of relationship with their teachers.

O'Conner and McCartney found support for this claim by demonstrating that students with insecure parental attachments also had insecure teacher attachments in three independent samples of preschool, kindergarten, and first-grade students. Teachers are likely to have a more difficult time bonding with students with insecure attachments because these children tend to harbor negative views of the teacher that will impede the bonding process. Subsequently, it may be difficult for teachers to learn about these children's needs to respond to them in a manner that facilitates learning and adjustment. As a result, insecure children are more likely to struggle academically than secure children are because secure children are able to successfully establish secure attachments with their teacher, view their teacher favorably, have the confidence necessary to succeed, and utilize the teacher as a secure base from which to explore and engage in academic tasks and challenges.

Furthermore, studies have demonstrated that parental attachments strongly influence attachments that students develop with their peers. Similar to teacher attachments, peer attachments often mirror those of parental attachments. Peer attachments have been linked to a number of educational outcomes through various studies, thereby indirectly connecting parental attachments to educational outcomes in yet another facet. For instance, students with secure peer attachments typically demonstrate greater motivation, academic achievement, and prosocial behaviors. In contrast, students with insecure attachments are more prone to exhibiting problematic behaviors and typically achieve less academic success.

Attachment also influences self-efficacy (individuals' belief in their ability to successfully complete tasks), self-confidence (individuals' positive perceptions of their general abilities), and self-esteem (individuals' feeling of self-worth and satisfaction with oneself), all of which are vital to academic success. Secure children have the confidence, esteem, and security that they need to complete academic tasks successfully, are more likely to be engaged in classroom activities, and tend to be more motivated than their insecure peers are. Soares, Lemos, and Almeida found that secure adolescents are more likely to engage in goal-oriented behavior, engage in active problem solving, and be motivated to attempt challenging academic tasks than insecure children. As a result, secure children often attain greater academic achievement than their insecure counterparts do.

Among a sample of sixth grade and ninth grade students, Wong, Wiest, and Cusick found that children who had high self-esteem, high scholastic self-efficacy (confidence in their ability to academically excel), and secure parental attachments preferred to be academically challenged and were motivated to learn for the sake of mastering the course content. By contrast, their insecure counterparts who lacked self-esteem and scholastic self-efficacy did not achieve at as high a level. Additionally, among the ninth grade students, teacher support was associated with greater academic achievement, which is consistent with findings from others who have demonstrated positive associations between teacher attachment security and higher grade point averages.

Lastly, attachment styles are associated with various behavioral outcomes that influence educational outcomes. For instance, secure children tend to be resilient, confident, and independent, which facilitates learning and academic success. However, avoidant children are likely to be clingy and unsure, while ambivalent children are likely to exhibit problem behaviors (e.g. hostility and aggression) and have interpersonal difficulties with their peers. All of these behavioral difficulties may hinder educational success. Furthermore, attachment insecurity has also been associated with attention problems such as Attention Deficit Disorder and/or Attention Deficit-Hyper Activity Disorder. Jacobson and Hofmann found insecurely attached children at ages 9, 11, and 15 had decreased attention spans, resulting in these children having difficulty attuning to instructions and engaging in classroom activities for extended amounts of time, both of which have been shown to impede learning.

In conclusion, attachment relationships influence numerous aspects of our lives from learning and achievement to psychological and social outcomes. Attachments are not just limited to parental attachments, as peer attachments and teacher attachments have also been shown to predict numerous outcomes. Therefore, fostering attachment styles that promote healthy, adaptive functioning throughout the lifespan is critical to well being.


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