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Relationships in Childhood Can Affect Those in Adulthood - Attachment Theory

Updated on October 23, 2019

In this essay, we will be discussing how attachment influences relationships in adolescence and childhood.

The theory of attachment states that infants are biologically inclined to form attachments in which one can experience comfort and security (Bowlby, 1988). Bowlby examined 44 delinquent children which had a history of stealing, he categorised these children's into six character types. The main finding of this research was that 17 out of the 44 thieves had a early or prolonged separation from their caregiver before they were 5 years old. Moreover 12 of these 14 which were separated from their caregiver before the age of five were categorised as affectionless. This is an important study because it shows that the child's early environment can impact the development of an individual. According to the psychologist Mary Ainsworth, an attachment can be defined as an "affectional tie that one person forms between himself and another specific one – a tie that binds them together and endures over time."(Ashworth 1967). An attachment can be measured by separation. When separated an individual will experience various levels of distress.This was tested on children by Mary Ainsworth in the strange situation. Another case study tested adult relationships. The results we obtained were strongly correlated with the strange situation and the adult attachment style. We will be discussing the adult attachment style and its relation to the strange situation later on in this essay. Some of these case studies are invalid because there is not enough evidence to support it. I will be further discussing the critiques of these methodologies.

The earliest attachments we form are with our primary caregivers in most cases the mother.These attachments ensure to keep a child secure and protected, therefore, ensuring the child's natural instinct of survival. The reason why we seek attachments in childhood is that it creates a safe space in which we can receive care and comfort in times of distress. These attachments also act as a base for the child to explore their surroundings.In other words, they are aware that there is someone to protect them when something goes wrong. An attachment in childhood is likely to form the caregiver who is the most responsive to the child's crying and initiates social interactions.

Mary Ainsworth (developmental psychologist) found three distinct attachment types in the strange situation. Using the experimental procedure of the strange situation the child between ages of twelve and twenty-four months were observed playing for 21 minutes while the caregiver and different strangers enter and leave the room. This created a rhythm of familiar and unfamiliar presence in the room. The situation had varied in the level of stress and the child's response was observed in the situation. The types of attachment that occur in childhood are classified as secure attachment, avoidant attachment, and anxious/ambivalent attachment. When the child is securely attached to the primary caregiver, the child stays close to the caregiver and shows moderate distress when the mother leaves and the child are happy when the primary caregiver returns. 76% of children are in this category of secure attachment. 15% were classified as avoidant, this is because they would not seek contact with the mother when she is in the room and when the caregiver would leave the infant would not cry. The last type of attachment they studied was an ambivalent attachment. This was shown because of how the infant was upset when the mother left and was angry at the mother when she returned. 10% of infants are classified as ambivalent/resistant. Waters tested the strange situation on 50 infants at 12 and 18 months of age. He found out that 48 out of 50 infants were classified in the same category in the Ainsworth experiment after 6 months. This shows that the results of her study are reliable. One of the criticisms of this study is that there was low population validity as this study was carried out on 100 American children thus these results cannot represent the whole population.

Adult attachment style is linked to the psychological and biological systems that regulate threat appraisal, response, and recovery. Those who are most likely to be attachment figures in adolescence and adulthood is who is most responsive to the individual's anxieties and social interaction. The adolescent attachment interview (AAI) was carried out to test the attachment types in adulthood (Hazan and shaver 1987). The three types of attachment in adolescence and adulthood are secure, dismissing and preoccupied. The Adult Attachment Interview consists of 20 questions which ask about the experiences with parents and other attachment figures, significant losses, and trauma. The results of this interview is then used to classify the attachment types in adults. 55% of these adults classified as securely attached.This was because they find it easy to get close to others and they don't worry about abandonment. 25% were classified as dismissive. This was because they find it uncomfortable to get close to others and they have difficulty trusting people. The last type is an anxious/ preoccupied attachment. These individuals feel like their significant other doesn't love them. 20% of adults and adolescents fall into this category.

Attachment in early childhood does influence the formation of relationships in adolescence and adulthood because humans have evolved to develop experience-based mental images of relationship ideals(John Bowlby). These happen subconsciously and this function allows individuals in gathering and interpreting information in social scenarios. The individual will then know what to expect from a relationship because of the attachments they experience in childhood.

Because of this, the type of attachment the child had (insecure, secure) in early life has a great influence on how the individual is attached in later life, this is known as adult attachment style. (Ainsworth et al., 1978; Hazan and Shaver, 1987)

Instant attachment acting as a base for future relationships can be proved by the follow-up study of infant classification.This was compared to the adult attachment interview classification at 21 years. (Waters et al 2000) 71% of infants who were securely attached were also securely attached as adults. Furthermore, 76% of infants who were insecurely attached were classified as insecure in the adult attachment interview.

There is a small percentage of individuals which have a secure attachment in adulthood despite having been insecurely attached as a child. This suggests that the individual had a positive relationship with someone they are close to and due to this it changed their attachment type in adulthood to secure. (Sroufe, 2005).

This research suggests that we are able to change the way an individual is attached and it also contradicts the notion that attachment in childhood influences the formation of relationships in adulthood. It suggests that positive life experiences in relationships are a huge factor to secure adult attachment. The presence of negative life events can also contribute to the change of an attachment style throughout life. This was identified by waters et al. (2000). Adolescentes which had insecure attachment are more likely to have experienced negative life events in childhood. Negative life events experienced by secure adolescents were potentially less stressful than the individuals who became insecurely attached. This indicated that the more stressful the event the higher the impact on the individual, and it is more likely for that individual to be insecurely attached.

Continuity of attachment from childhood to adolescence was measured by Goodman and Kruskal. The main indicator of continuity of attachment was measured by negative life events. Children whose parents had a divorce when the child was younger were insecurely attached. In comparison three families of adolescents with secure attachment representations experienced divorce. This shows that negative life events have a higher impact on the child attachment when the negative event occurs when the child is younger. A weakness of this continuity of attachment case study(Reynolds,1984) is that you cannot measure the attachment continuity in conventional families. This is because they will experience little or no negative life events. These results cannot be used as a representative of all attachment continuity into adulthood.

In conclusion, attachment in early life does influence relationships in adulthood and adolescence.This is mainly because humans have developed mental images of relationship ideals as discussed by Bowlby. If the infant is securely attached as a child it's most likely for the individual to be securely attached as an adult also. I believe this because of the follow-up study of infant classification. 76 percent of infants who were securely attached were also securely attached as adults.This clearly proves that childhood attachment influences adulthood attachment in an average person's life. There are instances when attachment can change, these are only when circumstances change. For example, negative life events can lead to a change from secure attachment as a child to insecure as an adult. On the other hand, it can also change for the better. Infants who are insecurely attached can become securely attached adults. This is only when the individual has a major positive relationship which changes the way they view relationships. This could be done by a partner or a counselor or a friend. In this essay, one of the major things I have learned is that we are able to change attachment styles. This gives an insecurity attached individual hope and a belief that their relationships can change for the better.


  • (2018). Attachment | Adoption in Child Time. [online] Available at: [Accessed 5 Jan. 2018].

  • Bretherton, I. (1992). The origins of attachment theory: John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth. Developmental Psychology, 28(5), pp.759-775.

  • Dykas, M. and Cassidy, J. (2011). Attachment and the processing of social information across the life span: Theory and evidence. Psychological Bulletin, 137(1), pp.19-46

  • Hamilton, C. (2000). Continuity and Discontinuity of Attachment from Infancy through Adolescence. Child Development, 71(3), pp.690-694.

  • Hazan, C. and Shaver, P. (1987). Romantic love conceptualized as an attachment process. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 52(3), pp.511-524.

  • McConnell, E. (2018). Attachment across the Life Span: Factors that Contribute to Stability and Change.. [online] Available at: [Accessed 5 Jan. 2018].


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