Attachment Theory | Child Development Essay Sample

Critically analyse a child developmental theory, make clear links between this theory and your child observational study. Additionally, you are required a discussion on how this observation has enhanced your knowledge on child development in relation to social work.

The purpose of this essay is to critically analyse and evaluate a child development theory,   which I will link to an observation study that I carried out in the nursery. For the purpose of confidentiality, I use the pseudonym Peter Adam for the boy I observed. Peter was chosen for this observation with no predisposition of his culture, ethnicity and gender and religious and linguistic background.

He is a lively and energetic 37-month-old English boy. He is the first child in his home and lives with his mother and dad and his little brother who attends the same nursery. Peter relates very well with his peers, and he is very supportive of them.

Several developmental theories came to mind prior to the observation, including Vygotsky’s and Piaget’s cognitive development theories, but attachment is the theory that I found to fit better because it makes up one of the most vibrant models in developmental psychology and its relationship are critical to a young child ideal development. To that effect, this essay will focus on the strengths and weaknesses of Bowlby’s attachment theory and how it fits with Peter and its application to social work practice.

Attachment Theory on Child Development

child development theory

Renowned as the first exponent of attachment theory Bowlby (1973), argues that attachment theory brings together social, emotional and cognitive aspects of development. Bowlby derives his ideas significantly from Darwin, but Freud also influenced him. Bowlby was a psychoanalyst who drew from clinical experience with children and adults to conceptualise his theory (Wilson et al., 2011).

Bowlby (1969) claims that the purpose of attachment is to raise the child’s prospects of survival because it safeguards the infant from physical and psychological harm. He points out that some aspects of cognitive sensor-motor development and building of strong relationships are also essential for attachment theory.

The nature, form and development of relationships are crucial to social work practice. Bowlby also believe that separating a child from a parental figure can cause much anxiety and can have a lasting effect if it prolongs the separation during his or her first four years. In his view, maternal attachment is important for healthy psychological development and that children need to develop it by the time they reached one-year-old.

However, research from Emerson and Schaffer (1964) concluded that babies and young children can develop attachment to more than one primary caregiver.  They also believe that infants need some time before they are developmentally ready to form an honest attachment to another person. For them, the first time a child can be attached to his or her caregiver is at the age of seven to nine months. This is the age that infants enter Piaget’s fourth sensory motor sub stage and the point where if they see anything hidden from them, they can locate it.

Bowlby’s theory was developed at the time when most mothers did not work and stayed at home as full-time carers. At the same time, there were little, if any, nurseries or child care centres for children (Riddall-Leech, 2005).  Today, there are varieties of nurseries to choose from and most mothers take up work.

attachment theory and child development

Bowlby believes that maternal deprivation in infancy and lack of secure attachment could mean that children could not be able to form lasting relationships later in life and are likely to be offenders in society. However, in his subsequent studies, Bowlby (1988) concluded that circumstances can shape a later relationship pattern, as an early attachment to the later social pattern is not necessarily direct.  This raises questions for social workers as to when to take children from their caregivers, as missing the critical period could mean that children could face several difficulties in later life; including mental health issues.

However, careful analysis of the theory can help social workers to know when to intervene as it provides the model of analysis in judging the quality of relationships.  It is important in child protection, as it can support social workers to remove a child where there are serious concerns in relation to attachment.  The fundamental theories that are influential to the attachment theory are psychoanalytic, learning, cognitive and Ethological.

According to Grossman (1995), attachment is multiple relationships among others, and it is the actual foundation of solid individual development. He believes that strong attachment help children to form relationships with others in later years.

Nevertheless, Marrone (2014) argues that attachment is a way of conceptualising the tendency of people to make healthy, affectionate bonds.   He explains the many forms of emotional distress and personality disorders such as anxiety, depression and anger to which apathetic separation and loss give rise to.

attachment theory and child development

Strong attachment is crucial in social work practice as it promotes the establishment of strong relationships. Ainsworth & Wittig (1969) claim that Children may show attachment behaviours to attract their caregiver’s attention positively, such as cooing, smiling, and may also cry for their caregivers to soothe them. They seek for closeness in other to feel secure. Bowlby emphasises the importance of safeguarding the young and maintaining their survival.

With regards to an attachment behaviour system, a child maintains closer proximity to the mother or the caregiver. Bowlby (1988) states that attachment behaviour is any form of behaviour that results in a person maintaining closeness to a preferred individual who is considered as a better able to cope with the world.

However, Bowlby (1969) points out that pure attachment behaviour happens within the first six months of a child’s life. For the first two to six months, the child can differentiate between known and unknown attachment figures and become more responsive to the caregiver. By the age of one, children are able to display a sequence of attachment behaviours. This means that children use their mothers or caregivers as a safe base when they start walking and exploring their environment.

Ainsworth & Wittig (1969) in their studies came out with three types of attachment behaviour. They developed the strange situation pattern and claim that children are classified into one of the three groups. In their opinion, children are Avoidant (Type A), Secure (Type B), or Ambivalent (Type C). The aim of the study was to assess the extent of trust a child has in the physical and emotional availability and receptiveness of his or her mother or caregiver. Type A and C are considered as insecure attachment and when children fall under those types, they are likely to face long term emotional effect such as loneliness and difficulty forming relationships.

Secure and insecure attachment

attachment theory and child development

Secure attachment is when a child developed confidence in his or her caregiver and uses his or her caregiver to discover objects and relate to other people (Ainsworth et al., 1978).  The child usually has in mind that regardless of what he or she does, the mother or caregiver will be available in times of need.

A child is considered being secure if the child can explore beyond his or her comfort zone and be mindful that he or she will be protected when frighten, comforted when distress and looked after when needed (Bowlby, 1988).   To this effect, securely attached children see their caregivers as reliable sources of protection and security. They rely on their caregivers for support when they are in a difficult situation.

Sroufe, Carlson & Schulman (1993), claim that unlike insecurely attached children, children that are securely attached express their emotions healthier, mostly skilled with their peers at conversation, and usually have higher self-esteem. Peter at the age of 37 months already demonstrates some of these qualities which also support the fact that he is securely attached. He communicates freely with his peers and confidently engages with them.

It is also possible that he will grow into preadolescent with high self-esteem as he is already interacting positively with his peers and the nursery staff. Furthermore, Waters, Wippman and Sroufe (1979) found that children between 3 and 4 age group who are considered being secure at 15 months of age are more likely to be self-directed and adore learning new cognitive skills. Appendix 1 shows that Peter at the time of my observation said what he needed to say, went to areas of play he wanted and needed to be and enjoyed learning new cognitive skills.

Patterson & Moran (1988) claim that securely attached children display competence in their environment, eager to explore the environment and are usually sociable. Peter displays most of secure attachment qualities when I was observing him. He was confident and energetic in his environment. He was also kind to his peers and responsive to them and the staff.

attachment theory and child development

As shown in Appendix 1, Peter was very interested in pretend plays. He made eye contact with me and instinctively looked away at my first encounter with him.  He later came back and demanded to know why I was in the nursery because I was not one of the staff. I smiled, and he ran away laughing.

Soon, it was time for a snack. Peter quickly washed his hands and went and sat next to his name patiently. The teacher came and asked the colour of the cup he wanted so he could give him milk, and he said red. Peter took the milk and said thank you to the teacher. His communication with the staff and his relationship with his peers show that he was a confident and active boy. Bretherton (1990) outlined that a secure attachment relationship mirrors support, care and love. Peter attachment relationship with the staff and mother gave evidence of care, love and support.

During my third visit, I observed Peter’s mother drop him and his little brother at the nursery. He waves at his mother and said “see you later” bearing in mind that his mother was coming back. He quickly settles down, went to his friends and said “hello” he took a train and started to play on the train track. He called his friends to join him, they came over to him and were playing with the trains together; taking turns.

According to Stern (1997), a crucial aspect of growth of attachment is the synchronised routines that mothers and their children formed during the initial phases of children’s life. In an agreement with Stern (1977), I noticed that Peter was aware of his routine; the time his mother drops him and the time he gets picked up.

Just before his mother came to pick him, he picked up a toy phone and said “mum I am waiting, it is almost time” and he quickly went back to his friends to play.

This was rather surprising to me, and I wonder whether it was a coincident. When his mother came to pick him up, upon noticing her, he gave a big smile and ran to the other room to inform his brother about the presence of their mother. His mother joined them in the room and he was already smiling and playing with his brother with excitement. This suggests that Peter’s mother has established a strong routine at the initial stages of his life, which he has now happily adapted.

From my observation of Peter, I can conclude that he is securely attached as he did not show any sign of avoidant, resistant and disorganised; characteristics that are typical of insecure children.

attachment theory and child development

For children with insecure types of attachments, avoidant is a demonstration of the fact that children are unclear about the responses of their mothers or caregivers. They are usually not sure if their caregiver or mother will respond or support them when needed. Children in this category are always prone to anxiety and have a tendency to be clingy.

They are usually fearful of exploring outside their comfort zone and are not excited upon seeing their caregiver or mother. Children under this category are mostly not distress when their mother or caregiver is not around; they could be distress for various reasons such as being left on their own rather than the absence of the caregiver. Caregivers of those children are often regarded as insensitive and often unemotional or express rather cold emotions (Ainsworth, 1979).

Shemmings & Shimmings (2011) claim that Disorganised attachment refers to fleeting behaviours displayed by children if they are found in anxious situations in the presence of an abusive caregiver. With regards to Disorganised attachment, children may display bizarre behaviours such as pulling their hair.

They may also exhibit strange behaviours such as avoiding their mother, but they are very distressed on separation from their caregiver or mother. They will often seek closeness to strangers instead of the caregiver. Shemmings (2011) concludes that disorganised attachment is significant in children with severe neurological abnormalities such as autism and Down syndrome.

Cole (2004) argues that children who in their first year of life are in homes or institutions that lack sufficient and consistent care cried constantly at the beginning and later lapsed into a state of depression.

attachment theory

He also claims that children who are in institutions that lack manners of stimulation and ordinary contacts are certain to show aggressive behaviour and are unlikely to establish a proper relationship with others when they grow older. However, if relevant professionals such as social workers are mindful of such children, they might be able to support them to shape their lives. This could be achieved by early intervention.

“Attachment theory provides comprehensive relationship based theory of personality development and our psychological progress through life” (Howe et al., 1999, p.10). Those who work with children mostly depend on attachment theory to make some kind of decisions, as it helps them to understand the importance of developing close relationships.

Similarly, Hersov (1994) argues that some aspect of attachment theory has a continuous impact on child care policies and practices. Cortina & Marrone (2003) claims that attachment theory describes moods that are associated with trauma, anxiety, anger and sadness. Attachment support and offers security and protection against stress.

The theory of attachment has been of great assistance to social workers and psychologist. It has improved their understanding of how to deal with some issues such as relationships and extraordinary conducts that are reported by those working or dealing with children. Hersov (1994) agrees that attachment theory has brought major changes in daily child care, hospitals, adoption and fostering. He claims that attachment theory has helped social workers to remove abused children from their parents or caregivers.

Notwithstanding the strength of attachment theory, intellectuals like Thomas, Goldberg and Chess point to some limitations. Thomas and Chess (1977), states that Bowlby’s attachment theory mostly refers to women as caregivers. Such “monotropic” thinking is outdated and too feminist. A child in today’s world is able to develop an attachment with the father or any caregiver if they are looked after under optimal condition. By focussing on mothers as caregivers, attachment theory exposes them to undue criticism if the ideal condition did not succeed.

Goldberg (2000) suggests that early attachment helps in the development of a child, but does not determine later development. However, along with other influences, early attachment does make a significant contribution in later years. Bowlby’s early attachment assertion has also been criticised by feminist writers of the theory been mother-infant relationship.

secure and insecure attachment

To his credit, Bowlby accepted the weakness in over emphasising the mother-infant relationship in his later writing.  According to Shemmings (2011), Bowlby stopped using the term mother and instead used various terms such as an attachment figure, a principal caregiver or a primary caregiver. Bowlby (1988) also changed his early perception of maternal deprivation, as it is not relevant in today’s world.

Scholars will now agree that children form an attachment relationship from more than one adult and there will not be any adverse effect if the child is separated from the caregiver for a period (Main & Weston, 1981).

Rutter et al. (1976) studied a group of boys who have been separated from their mothers for a period during their infancy.  They found that, contrary to Bowlby’s theory, the majority of the children did not become antisocial and that those who did were not because of separation, but the challenges that often follow the separation that caused the problem. On account of this, losing a mother at birth will not affect the child if he or she is looked after in an ideal condition.

Harris (1998) is of the view that children are most easily influenced by their peers in shaping their personality than their attachment figures. In his view, a child who is brought up in a neighbourhood with a high level of crime or anti-social behaviour is most likely to be associated with crime irrespective of the influence of his or her caregiver.

Harris also made reference to various twin studies which have concluded that personality traits are established from parents’ genes, and that siblings who are brought up by the same parents in the same household, but who mature into different types of people. In his view attachment theorist, especially Bowlby, places far too much blame on parents for negative behaviours of their children. Field (1996) also claims that Bowlby places too much emphasis on parental attachment and suggests that the concept needs to be broadened.

In spite of the criticisms by the likes of Harris, Weston, Field and Lamb of Bowlby, attachment theory has been widely used by professionals such as social workers and psychologist.  The theory has been used to help children with bizarre behaviours, relationship problems, and to save many vulnerable children from abusive homes.


As a social work student, the attachment theory has enhanced my understanding of child development and why children may display certain behaviours. It has also improved my knowledge on why some adults or teenagers may have relationship problem and has reinforced social work value not to be judgemental.

Furthermore, attachment theory is important because it is the central idea of any discussion of children’s social development. However, as attachment theory is used by people from various professions, cultures and traditions, the scope needs to be broadened to reflect the complexity of human behaviour.

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