The concept of attachment was introduced for the first time by John Bowlby, a British researcher trained in psychoanalysis at the beginning of the twentieth century. He proposed this theory in order to explain the behaviour between children and mothers.

Bowlby pursued his interests on the relationship between mother and child when, after the Second World War, he began to work in the children department at the Tavistock clinic in London: during this period he started to be interested in the effects of separation and on the influence of the quality of the relationship between child and mother on the child’s personality development.

Bowlby was influenced by Lorenz’s studies on imprinting, Waddington’s epigenetic studies (in particular channeling and assimilation concepts – 1977) and by the hypothesis that different kinds of developments may arise from different types of environmental factors. He began to conceive the relationship between child and caregiver as based on biological factors. According to this perspective, all human beings are genetically orientated to social life and everyone is able to behave in such a way to facilitate the creation of affective bonds.

According to Bowlby’s Theory, attachment is an essential biological system that will have an influence on relational and emotional processes related to the child’s survival. The attachment system, by requiring parental care, aims to obtain adult proximity and protection; this would then promote the child’s development.

It seems appropriate to describe some of the concepts related to the attachment theory:

Attachment bond: an affective bond that is constant in time and is addressed to a specific person. During childhood the attachment bond can manifest during potentially dangerous situations, and it is not determined by associative learning (or rather, the child does not learn how and when to use this kind of behaviour, it emerges instinctively: the relational desire is innate and stems from natural selection processes (Cassidy, 2011).

The adaptive aim of this bond is not only to ensure protection, but also to guarantee the child’s wellbeing, by stimulating social processes and promoting environment exploration. Affective features of attachment bond are related to the child’s wish for his caregiver’s presence and to the discomfort he feels when this person is not present.

Attachment behaviours: these behaviours are put into action by the child by instinct; these behaviours allow him or her not only to attract the caregiver’s attention in case of necessity, but also to regulate distance and closeness. Some attachment behaviours are, for example, smiling, crying and vocalizing. These change in time as the child learns how to use them in effective ways.

The child, observing the adult’s reactions to the behaviour, will build expectation responses and change the behaviour accordingly (for example, a child will learn that mother is available to play if she looks at her, the child will then respond with a smile to the mother’s sight).

Attachment system: attachment behaviours are gradually organized in a “behavioural system” whose features depend on the caregiver’s interactional style (in particular, on her sensitivity and her ability to respond in an appropriate way to the child’s signals) and on the evolution of the relationship through time.

Adult’s effectiveness to be used by the child as a secure basis for environmental exploration, and the quality of attachment bonds between child and caregiver, mostly depend on the quality of interactions between child and adult through the time (Ainsworth, 1978; Bowlby, 1982).


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Marta Bezzone



– Dykas, Matthew J.; Cassidy, Jude “Attachment and the processing of social information across the life span: Theory and evidence.” Psychological Bulletin, Vol 137(1), Jan 2011, 19-46.

– Waddington CH (1953). “Genetic assimilation of an acquired character”. Evolution 7 (2): 118–126.

– J. Holmes, “La teoria dell’attaccamento, John Bowlby e la sua scuola”, Raffaello Cortina, Milano 2004

– Ainsworth, Mary D. Salter; Blehar, Mary C.; Waters, Everett; Wall, Sally “Patterns of attachment: A psychological study of the strange situation.” Oxford, England: Lawrence Erlbaum. (1978).

– J Bowlby (1982); “Attachment and loss: Retrospect and prospect” American Journal of Orthopsychiatry. 52(4): 664-678.

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