Home » Bowlby’s Attachment Theory: Applications in Social Work

Bowlby’s Attachment Theory: Applications in Social Work

Describe and Evaluate Attachment Theory and Assess Its Value for Social Work.

Attachment theory, pioneered by John Bowlby, holds that an individual’s emotional and interpersonal development throughout life can be understood, and is ultimately shaped by and rooted in, a system of attachment behaviours they form and internalize during a critical period in early life.

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According to Bowlby, attachment behavior in children arises out of an innate, instinctual need for security and stability. (Bowlby, 1969) Though a child can form multiple attachments, there is usually one primary figure they place at the top of their hierarchy. This is usually the child’s mother. But there is nothing intrinsic about the ‘maternal’ relationship per se that establishes its primacy over other attachment relationships. It is simply that mothers are often the most sensitive and responsive caregivers on a consistent basis over the longest period of time.

There are important quantitative and qualitative distinctions Bowlby draws to properly describe the attachment relationship. The qualitative distinction has to do with the nature of caregiving. Children form attachments based upon the sensitivity and responsiveness of an adult’s reaction to attachment behaviours. Hence, an adult who feeds a child but who is at the same time insensitive or unresponsive will be a less likely candidate for attachment than an adult who does not feed them but remains sensitive and responsive in their interactions with the child.

Even with the qualitative conditions met, the attachment relationship is still based upon their consistent application over an extended period of time. It is not enough to be responsive and sensitive as a caregiver in one instance or another. Healthy attachment relationships are formed with these qualitative conditions properly met over time. The primary attachment figure is usually the most consistent and continually present person who interacts with the child. Furthermore, this quantitative distinction appears to be the more significant of the two in forming attachment relationships because the lack of appropriate caregiver responsiveness has been shown not to sever or invalidate the attachment relationship, but to result in unhealthy and even pathological attachment behaviours. (Ainsworth, 1985)

So the need for security and stability on the part of the infant results in attachment behaviours directed most commonly at a parent, usually the mother, who becomes their primary attachment figure. The nature of these behaviours is determined by how the primary attachment figure responds to them. Thus, the attachment relationship reflects the interaction between infant need and parental response.

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One of the most readily identifiable attachment behaviours is proximity seeking, where the child responds to distressful or frightening stimulus by seeking out their primary attachment figure. It is this security that the infant’s instinctual behaviour is designed to achieve. The role of this security is critical for the formation of a psychological stability that allows proper development to occur. Separation (or the threat of separation) from the caregiver, or inappropriate caregiver responses to attachment behaviour, can result in alarm and anxiety which arrest the development of the child as they seek to reestablish the security that allows them to naturally develop.

Bowlby identifies the time period of six months to two years of age as a critical stage where most of the basic attachments, and after which, the fundamental internalizations of an ‘internal working model’ are formed. During this time infants and toddlers begin to display attachment behaviours that spawn relationships with caregivers which will form the basis for how they interact and relate to the rest of the world.

Bowlby describes the ‘internal working model’, which develops after the ‘sensitivity period’, as a basis of understanding against which the child relates and responds to everything from the experience and analysis of emotions to the formation and understanding of human relationships and interactions. The ‘internal working model’ is not irrevocably fixed during the critical period, but it is most heavily and initially influenced there. Hence the developmental importance, and impact, of this period on the child is of huge significance to their healthy growth and future well-being.

Whereas Bowlby’s model views attachments as the building blocks of an ‘internal working model’ that continues to develop throughout the child’s life, it does not delve deeply into the role of security created by attachment behaviours, and the various kinds of behaviour that can follow from various parental responses.

Here, Mary Ainsworth’s addition to attachment theory is similarly pioneering. Ainsworth identifies the role of the primary attachment figure as a ‘secure base’ from which the child is free to explore. (Ainsworth et al., 1978) This exploration is a natural part of the child’s development and will occur uniquely according to the given factors present in the personality and makeup of each child.

Such exploration occurs, however, under the conditions of healthy attachment. To identify different types of attachments, Ainsworth conducted an empirical study known as the ‘strange situation’ which yielded three initial classifications of attachment behaviour: secure, resistant, avoidant. Later studies following up on this work added a fourth: disorganized, usually resulting from abusive situations or mentally unsound parental response. Together, these four categories form the commonly accepted classifications of attachment behaviour within the child/caregiver relationship in attachment theory.

In the strange situation study, a mother entered a room with her child. After they were left alone and the child began playing with toys a stranger entered the room and began talking with the mother, then approached the child with a toy. The mother left as the stranger engaged the child, then returned. The child was then left alone after which the stranger, then the mother successively returned. Finally, the stranger left and the mother and child were alone together in the room again.

The study looked at how the children responded to the presence and absence of their mother and a stranger, in different variations, and how they explored the room and engaged the toys. Securely attached infants explored the room while remaining aware of their attachment figure’s location. They were alarmed by their mother’s departure from the room and comforted by her return. They were also more comfortable and willing to engage the stranger in the presence of their mother, and more comfortable with the stranger’s interaction with their mother absent than those not securely attached. Avoidant insecurely-attached children showed little response upon their mother’s departure or return while resistant insecurely-attached children displayed extreme distress upon their mother’s departure and resistance upon reunion, as if the need for the caregiver had been recognized but not accompanied by a feeling of security in accepting their comforting gestures, possibly due to inconsistent parental sensitivity and responsiveness to the child’s needs.

Here it is clear that the consistency of parental availability and the manner of parental response are key in determining the foundational framework of how children react to their environment and interact with others.

We see with Bowlby and Ainsworth the development of a model focused on the earliest stages of interpersonal and emotional development which not only identifies the correlative impact upon the well-being of children in later life, but provides a framework for understanding the causal factors involved in different types of identified behaviours.

This is a particularly useful tool in the field of social work where myriad factors often complicate the view of how best to impact a child’s welfare. (Howe et al., 1999) Understanding the developmental aspects that inform healthy behaviour and growth is an important tool in confronting many of the challenges facing social workers today.

This is evident in the first example of Howe et al.’s Attachment Theory, Child Maltreatment, and Family Support: A Practice and Assessment Model. His first example is of a woman, Melanie, who was raised by a demanding, abusive, and mentally-unsound mother, who was sexually abused by her father regularly (He died of a heart-attack the evening after he had intercourse with her at the age of fourteen), and who has three children. Her oldest son, Peter, age 7, has exhibited violent behaviour toward other children, demonstrated actions of theft, arson, cruelty toward animals, and has no friends. Her second son, age 3, is quiet and she is unsure about her ability to raise her infant daughter.

Howe describes how “a developmental perspective based on people’s past and present socio-emotional experiences, particularly within close relationships, offers a powerful insight into human personality, styles of caregiving and the character of interpersonal life.” (Howe et al., 1999, p.3) It is this insight that enables an understanding of root causes amidst the fog of developmental complexity that plays into the challenges facing social workers. With attachment theory as a tool, sifting through the fog of factors that form a person’s makeup and identifying the appropriate solution is not an impossible task.

Attachment theory provides grounds for a developmental understanding of individuals. As such it is a huge tool for social workers bound by increasing regulations and legalities. For children living in residential homes, the theory can enable an acute understanding of their development in unique situations, as well as create helpful guidelines for parents to foster healthy development of their children. It also enables a reliable assessment of whether or not a child may be in danger, whether parental practices are contributing to the continuing maladjustment of the child, and whether or not it is appropriate to leave them in their current care.

Howe et al. also mention attachment theory can help foster parents “make sense of children who seem intent on rejecting the love offered by their new family.” (Howe et al., 1999, p.4) Understanding the developmental links between the growth of individuals (or lack thereof) and past attachment relationships is a tool useful to virtually every part of social work.

In the face of such a powerful tool based on theory, however, there are always criticisms. Much like Bowlby’s criticism of the psychoanalytic theories that dominated the conversation prior to attachment theory (as being too preoccupied with children’s psychology in their world of fantasy), psychoanalytic criticisms of attachment theory stress its preoccupation with attachment realities as myopic. (Steele H, Steele M, 1998) (Cassidy, 1998) Other criticisms, such as Maureen Miner’s Back to the Basics in Attachment to God: Revisiting Theory in Light of Theology, points to the lack of attention to concepts of God during the development of the theories of attachment. There has been “ little attention paid to ways in which God might be different from human attachment figures – most obviously, that God is not a physical being whose form and response to human beings can be observed.” (Miner, 2007)

An anthropocentric treatment of God has resulted in a dismissal of theological realities for many people, particularly as it relates to reliance upon and attachments to God. The problem is compounded by the collective inability of individuals to include God in the empirical investigations of attachment theory. Add to this the fact that a majority of people in the world, and indeed many millions in Western countries, and we see the foundations for the explanatory power of attachment theory to begin to show cracks. Miner concludes, however, that the lack of empirical investigation does not preclude attachment theory from accounting for God. Rather, a “rigorous theological dialogue in the development of psychological theories of attachment to God” opens the door to possibilities of study between “theologians and psychologists as they investigate how secure (and insecure) attachment relationships with God might operate.” (Miner, 2007)

The impact of this criticism on social work is significant as it relates to individuals who may have attachment relationships with concepts of God. However, the explanatory power of attachments that do not involve such concepts do not appear in danger. Miner’s criticism is, in effect, a humbling check on the would-be comprehensive aspirations of attachment theories explanatory power in the field of social work. Taking this criticism into account is imperative in keeping the theory, and social work based upon it, honest.

Another important point of concern is the cross-cultural application of attachment theory. In a pluralistic western society, the cross-cultural implications of factoring in attachment theory to social work are very real. While the general consensus is that attachment theory is fundamentally valid across cultures, those analyses suffer from a magnification of Miner’s criticism that a theological conversation is absent, particularly in countries and cultures far more religious and centered on concepts of the divine than the secular West.

A great deal of research has been done in different cultures on attachment theory and attachment theorists Prior, Glaser and Kingsley find that: “Commencing with Ainsworth’s findings in Uganda and Baltimore, US, studies followed in many different cultures, all of which found attachment theory to be applicable across cultures.” (Prior et al., 2006, p.81) Ijzendoorn and Sagi state after exhaustive research: “the universal validity of attachment theory appears to be confirmed in cross-cultural research.” (Cassidy et al., 1999, p.730)

The absence of a theological conversation in Miner’s criticism is focused on a Trinitarian conception of God from a Christian point of view. The UK’s significant Muslim populations only add to the relevance of this criticism. In fact, it can be argued that while Christians exhibit an institutionalized tolerance for secular institutions and concepts (Render unto Caesar…), no such allowances will be forthcoming among Muslims. Add to this the factors of discrimination and unequal opportunity that challenge Muslim populations in the West and you see a significant stumbling block for social workers in this kind of environment. It may indeed be unfair to subject Muslim’s to the analysis that they are ‘avoidant’ or ‘resistant’ insecurely attached. The possibilities of a theological conversation may be bleak as well.

Interestingly enough, this does not negate attachment theories relevance or importance in social work. Rather, it serves as an important refinement for its use. For example, Susanne Bennet and Loretta Vitals Saks identify its application between students and field instructors in the field of social work. “A logical extension [of Bowlby’s original hypothesis] is that attachment theory and research can provide a lens for conceptualizing the field supervisor-student supervisee relationship. Specifically, knowledge of internal working models of attachment can increase understanding of the educational process and the dynamics of supervision.” (Bennet & Saks, 2006)

The idea of the ‘secure base’ forms the foundation of how supervisors ought to manage student growth and education as they explore social work and encounter challenges. Of course, the development of such a relationship would require empirical study, evaluation and development on its own, and the authors caution about the limits of attachment theory as an explanatory tool, but conclude that “With this warning in mind, attachment theory can enhance an understanding of the supervisory relationship, without the supervisor becoming a parent or therapist to the student, because all adults have internalized models of attachment that influence their relational style, regardless of context. The expectation is that, in an attachment-based approach to supervision, field instructors will find clarity regarding the ideal supervisory relationship and guidance when problems arise. Likewise, when students feel understood in a secure relationship, they will find that supervision offers a safe environment for learning, facilitating their exploration and professional growth.” (Bennet & Saks, 2006)

Attachment theory does indeed strike at some fundamental truth at the heart of human development. The truth is, however, that the temptation to run away with it gives rise to the danger of reductionism. In a field as complex and important as social work, the application of theories with such powerful explanatory power is cautioned by careful use and consideration. The field of social work is also an important area of research into the application of attachment theory where attachment theorists themselves may find mutual benefit as well. As long as the disciplines continue independently, however, many interesting developments may be missed. A coordinated approach is not likely any time soon, but stands as a hopeful possibility for the future with incalculable benefits.

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