Attachment Theory: What Does It Say? Why Is It Crucial?

Last updated by Lauren Hart

“What was your childhood like?” When we consult a psychologist, we always get asked this question during the first session. It’s logical because a lot of trauma occurs during this pivotal period. Obviously, it’s also a way of finding out whether the attachment to an adult took place properly. This is a crucial concept in psychology, theorized by the psychiatrist John Bowlby. What is the theory of attachment? Why is it crucial? Here’s what you need to know about attachment.

Attachment Theory: What Does It Say? Why Is It Crucial?

The origins of the theory

At Wengood, we’ve already talked to you about John Bowlby, particularly through romantic attachment. However, we haven’t gone back over the origins of attachment theory and its importance 🧐. In 1951, the psychiatrist published a report entitled “Maternal Care and Mental Health” for the World Health Organization (WHO) on conditions in nurseries. From then on, he set out to understand the effects of prolonged separation on young children.

At the time, too little attention was paid to the relationship between children and their environment. With Freud, the focus was more on drives. Nevertheless, Bowlby refuted Freud and began to talk about “attachment” in his writings. He went on to demonstrate that babies are predisposed to attachment and that the attachment bond is crucial in meeting the child’s primary needs.

👋 Don’t know what primary needs are? You can read our article on Maslow’s Pyramid theory to learn a little more about the scale of needs.

>>> Read; What is separation anxiety?

How does attachment develop according to the theory?

Additional studies have reinforced Bowlby’s work in 1978, in particular, that of Ainsworth, Blehar, Waters, and Wall on the stages of attachment 🍼:

  • From 0 to 3 months, pre-attachment phase: the baby will activate attachment behaviors through crying, but there’s no main figure yet.
  • From 3 to 6 months, emergence phase: behaviors will diversify, and the baby will have a particular person as a figure.
  • From 6 months to 2 years: the child has a reference figure and needs one whenever they’re feeling unwell.
  • From the age of 2: multiple attachments are established because the child’s security needs have been met by the main figure.

To find out how a child forms an attachment, we can identify two types of behavior. The child will seek out their main figure (the “caregiver”) in order to feel secure and will protest if they’re separated. Attachment generally takes the form of crying, clinging on, screaming, smiling, etc. In short, any signal they can give to show that they need their attachment figure to regulate their needs and emotions.

🤔 Is it always the mother who’s the main attachment figure?

According to the theory, there’s only one main attachment figure. It’s usually the mother because women have the mental load of the child in our society. But that doesn’t mean there can’t be other strong, subsidiary attachment figures.

👋 You may be interested in this article: What is narcissistic injury?

Why do we need attachment?

With these studies complementing the theory, it’s clear that we need at least one reference figure during childhood. According to Bowlby, this is crucial if we are to develop in a balanced way. Indeed, children are incapable of managing their emotions on their own or surviving if they don’t have someone to look after them. They also need a warm, consistent and predictable relationship in order to thrive.

Above all, having an attachment figure prevents us from developing fears. Yes, if there was the slightest imbalance during early childhood, we can develop a fear of abandonment, for example 🤕.

📌 My testimonial

I’ve always been afraid of being abandoned for as long as I can remember. This has inevitably had an impact on my relationships with friends and lovers. I’ve had an insecure attachment for a long time, and it was through therapy that I identified one of the reasons for this behavior.

My parents were away for several months when I was a baby, and I was about 1 when they went on a humanitarian trip. My grandparents looked after me at that time and even though I was safe, not seeing my parents during that stage of my development had a strong impact on my personality.

I wouldn’t call it a trauma now, but it’s undeniable that it was one of the reasons for my fear of abandonment, my lack of confidence and my self-sabotage in love. Of course, it’s not the only avenue I’ve explored through therapy, but it’s one of them.

Is the theory always proven?

This theory put forward by the psychiatrist remains fairly central to therapies today. It’s a dominant approach to the creation of emotional bonds in children and has been the basis of a lot more research on the subject. Nonetheless, there have been subsequent criticisms, particularly that it doesn’t cover all aspects of social relationships. Indeed, social relationships are complex, and attachment theory has its limits and can’t explain all our adult social behaviors 🤔. Going back to my example, even though I’ve dug deeper into this aspect with my psychological care, I know that it’s not the only reason I’m the way I am. There are so many things to take into account that it’s difficult to say it’s the only cause in my case.

We therefore need to take a step back and look at all the possibilities. Attachment theory is an important concept to consider, especially when you’re a parent, but it’s not the only determining factor. If you have fears or a lack of confidence and need to understand where they come from, don’t hesitate to seek help.

Editor’s note: An interesting approach

Attachment theory is an interesting one and allows you to reflect on your childhood and your experiences. If you feel that something isn’t right or that there’s something to explore in this area, don’t hesitate to contact a psychologist so that together you can take stock and put in place new habits and ways of thinking to help you be happier.

🤗 Understanding yourself, accepting yourself, being happy... It’s here and now!


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Article presented by Lauren Hart

Writing is a beautiful means of expression that I cannot do without. It has allowed me to channel my hypersensitivity, plus I love writing about psychology and personal development. For me, self-understanding is the best way to move forward!

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Wengood's favorite tunes 🎵

Wengood's playlist


  1. Only LoveBen Howard
  2. Invalid date
  3. Fix YouColdplay
  4. Beautiful DayU2
  5. Thinking out LoudEd Sheeran
  6. White FlagDido
  7. Lay Me DownSam Smith
  8. Nine Million BicyclesKatie Melua
  9. Put Your Records OnCorinne Bailey Rae
  10. Summertime SadnessLana Del Rey
  11. Imagine - Remastered 2010John Lennon
  12. Shake It OutFlorence + The Machine
  13. Space Oddity - Love You Til Tuesday versionDavid Bowie
  14. What A Wonderful WorldLouis Armstrong
  15. With Or Without YouU2
  16. HelloAdele
  17. Don't Stop Me NowQueen
  18. Skinny LoveBirdy
  19. WingsBirdy
  20. Californian SoilLondon Grammar

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