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Attachment theory is a psychological model that attempts to describe the long-term and short-term relationships. However, attachment theory is not formulated as a general theory of relationships. It addresses how human beings respond within relationships when hurt, separated from loved ones, or perceiving a threat.
Essentially all infants become attached if provided any caregiver, but there are individual differences in the quality of the relationships. In infants, attachment as a motivational and behavioral system directs the child to seek proximity with a familiar caregiver when they are alarmed, with the expectation that they will receive protection and emotional support. John Bowlby believed that the tendency for primate infants to develop attachments to familiar caregivers was the result of evolutionary pressures, since attachment behavior would facilitate the infant’s survival in the face of dangers such as predation or exposure to the elements.
The most important of attachment theory is that an infant needs to develop a relationship with at least one primary caregiver for the child’s successful social and emotional development, and in particular for learning how to effectively regulate their feelings. Any caregiver is equally likely to become the principal attachment figure if they provide most of the child care and related social interaction. In the presence of a sensitive and responsive caregiver, the infant will use the caregiver as a “safe base” from which to explore. This relationship can be effective, as in the mother-child relation; frequently studied in Western culture, or it can involve a community of caregivers (siblings/extended family/teachers) as can be seen in any area. It should be recognized that “even sensitive caregivers get it right only about 50 percent of the time. Their communications are either out of synch, or mismatched. There are times when parents feel tired or distracted. In other words, attuned interactions rupture quite frequently. But the hallmark of a sensitive caregiver is that the ruptures are managed and repaired.
Attachments between infants and caregivers form even if this caregiver is not sensitive and responsive in social interactions with them. This has important implications. Infants cannot exit unpredictable or insensitive caregiving relationships. Instead they must manage themselves as best they can within such relationships. Based on the research it was found that children will have different patterns of attachment depending primarily on how they experienced their early caregiving environment. Early patterns of attachment, in turn, shape — but do not determine — the individual’s expectations in later relationships. Four different attachment classifications have been identified in children: secure attachment, anxious-ambivalent attachment, anxious-avoidant attachment, and disorganized attachment. Secure attachment is when children feel they can rely on their caregivers to attend to their needs of proximity, emotional support and protection. It is considered to be the best attachment style.
Anxious-ambivalent attachment is when the infant feels separation anxiety when separated from the caregiver and does not feel reassured when the caregiver returns to the infant. Anxious-avoidant attachment is when the infant avoids their parents. Disorganized attachment is when there is a lack of attachment behavior. Attachment theory has become the dominant theory used today in the study of infant behavior and in the fields of infant mental health, treatment of children, and related fields.As attachment theory offers a broad, far-reaching view of human functioning, it can enrich a therapist’s understanding of patients and the therapeutic relationship rather than dictate a particular form of treatment. Some forms of psychoanalysis-based therapy for adults—within relational psychoanalysis and other approaches also incorporate attachment theory and patterns.
In the first decade of the 21st century, key concepts of attachment were incorporated into existing models of behavioural couple therapy, multidimensional family therapy and couple and family therapy. Specifically attachment-centred interventions have been developed, such as attachment-based family therapy and emotionally focused therapy. Attachment theory and research laid the foundation for the development of the understanding of mentalization or reflective functioning and its presence, absence or distortion in psychopathology.
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