In This Article Attachment in Social and Emotional Development across the Life Course

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Continuity and Lawful Change in Attachment
  • Intergenerational Transmission of Attachment and the Transmission Gap

Psychology Attachment in Social and Emotional Development across the Life Course
by
Ashley M. Groh
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 November 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199828340-0201

Introduction

Attachment theory is one of the few remaining grand theories in psychology, providing an account of personality development from infancy to adulthood. Thus, it is not surprising that the influence of attachment theory spans several disciplines of psychology, including developmental psychology, clinical psychology, social-personality psychology, and behavioral neuroscience. Attachment theory provides a theoretical framework for understanding the nature of the child’s tie to parents and the legacy of children’s early experiences with parents for socioemotional (mal)adjustment across the lifespan. It has been an especially generative theoretical framework for investigating the significance of early parent–child relationships for children’s subsequent close interpersonal relationships, helping to establish it as one of the main theoretical frameworks guiding research in developmental science. The aim of this overview is to provide an account of attachment theory and research in developmental psychology. Specifically, this overview will first lay the theoretical and methodological groundwork, covering the topics of the history and inception of attachment theory, the origins of individual differences in infant attachment, and the measures used in developmental psychology for assessing individual differences in attachment in childhood and adulthood. Next, the overview will focus on the more substantive questions that have guided developmental research on attachment, including the significance of early parent–child attachment for children’s social and emotional development, the stability of attachment across the early life course, the significance of attachment for romantic relationships in adolescence and adulthood, and finally the intergenerational transmission of attachment.

General Overviews

An understanding of the significance of attachment for close interpersonal relationships across the lifespan must first begin with knowledge of attachment theory. For a thorough understanding of attachment theory, a must-read is the attachment trilogy Bowlby 1973, Bowlby 1980, and Bowlby 1982, in which John Bowlby lays out his theory of attachment. In the first volume, Bowlby 1982 draws on insights from evolutionary theory, systems theory, ethology, and cognitive psychology to provide an integrative theoretical account of the nature of the child’s tie to parents, the normative development of attachment relationships, and the significance of attachment relationships for development. In the latter two volumes, Bowlby 1973 and Bowlby 1980 provide a theoretical account of the negative interpersonal and mental health implications that disruptions in attachment relationships, such as separations from or loss of attachment figures, might have on the developing child. Most research on attachment concerns the antecedents and sequelae of individual differences in the quality of attachment relationships. Thus, another important primary source is Ainsworth, et al. 2015, which provides an overview of Ainsworth’s groundbreaking research in which she identified individual differences in the quality of mother–infant attachment relationships and their caregiving antecedents, a characterization of patterns of infant attachment, and an overview of the most widely used measure of infant attachment, the Strange Situation procedure. In addition to these theoretical accounts of attachment, there are several resources available that provide both relatively brief summaries of attachment theory and survey the vast body of developmental research on the legacy of children’s early attachment-relevant experiences with parents for interpersonal functioning in childhood, adolescence, and adulthood. Cassidy and Shaver 2016 is the most comprehensive source on attachment research. The handbook is divided into chapters that span developmental periods from infancy to adulthood and are written by leading scholars in the specific subfield of attachment research. The chapters serve to orient the reader to the major questions guiding work in the specific area of attachment research and provide a review of the research conducted to date. The chapter Belsky and Cassidy 1994 provides an approachable overview of attachment theory and research for graduate and undergraduate students who are new to attachment theory and research. Roisman and Groh 2011 is another chapter targeted at the level of graduate and undergraduate students that provides an overview of attachment theory, appreciative critique of research conducted to date, and suggestions for future research. Attachment and Human Development is a journal that provides a forum for the presentation and discussion of attachment theory and research. It is the official journal of both the International Attachment Network and the Society for Attachment and Emotion Studies.

  • Ainsworth, M. D. S., M. C. Blehar, E. Waters, and S. N. Wall. 2015. Patterns of attachment: A psychological study of the strange situation. 2d ed. New York: Psychology Press.

    E-mail Citation »

    This book focuses on Ainsworth’s research leading to the identification of individual differences in the quality of mother–infant attachment relationships. The first edition of this book was released in 1978 and is no longer in circulation. This second edition of the book includes a new preface and new appendices. This source is best suited for graduate students who are primarily interested in attachment and parenting research. Also see Individual Differences in Attachment, Caregiving Antecedents of Individual Differences in Attachment, and Infant and Child Behavioral Measures of Attachment.

  • Attachment and Human Development. 1999–.

    E-mail Citation »

    Attachment and Human Development is the official journal of the International Attachment Network and the Society for Attachment and Emotion Studies. This journal is the leading forum for the presentation of empirical research, reviews, and clinical case studies that reflect contemporary advances in attachment theory and research.

  • Belsky, J., and J. Cassidy. 1994. Attachment theory and evidence. In Development through life. Edited by M. Rutter and D. Hay, 373–402. London: Blackwell.

    E-mail Citation »

    This chapter is relevant for undergraduate and graduate students who are just becoming familiar with attachment theory and research. This chapter provides a concise summary of attachment theory that discusses the main points of attachment theory. The chapter reviews some of the classic studies in the attachment field. However, the reader should be aware that there is much new research on the topics surveyed in this chapter. Also see Theoretical Background and Reviews of the Literature.

  • Bowlby, J. 1973. Attachment and loss. Vol. 2, Separation: Anxiety and anger. London: Hogarth.

    E-mail Citation »

    This is the second volume of Bowlby’s attachment trilogy. It focuses on the negative impact that separations from the parent might have on children’s mental health and interpersonal functioning. This volume is best suited for graduate students, especially those with particular interest in atypical development.

  • Bowlby, J. 1980. Attachment and loss. Vol. 3, Loss: Sadness and depression. London: Hogarth.

    E-mail Citation »

    This is the third volume of Bowlby’s attachment trilogy. It focuses on the negative impacts that loss of parents can have on children’s mental health and interpersonal functioning. This volume is best suited for graduate students, especially those with particular interest in atypical development.

  • Bowlby, J. 1982. Attachment and loss. Vol. 1, Attachment. 2d ed. London: Hogarth.

    E-mail Citation »

    This is the first volume of Bowlby’s attachment trilogy in which he lays out his theory of attachment. This volume focuses on the functions of attachment relationships and the role they play in promoting mental health and interpersonal functioning. The first version of this book was published in 1969, but the second edition released in 1982 is recommended because it contains two new chapters that were added in light of research conducted since the release of the first edition. Also see Historical Origins of Attachment Theory and Normative Development of Attachment.

  • Cassidy, J., and P. R. Shaver, eds. 2016. Handbook of attachment: Theory, research, and clinical applications. 3d ed. New York: Guilford.

    E-mail Citation »

    This handbook is the most comprehensive source for research on attachment. If one is interested in a particular area of attachment research, specific chapters written by leading scholars in the field provide an excellent way to orient oneself to the area. Of note, the first edition of the handbook was released in 1999 and the second edition was released in 2008. The third edition, released in 2016, is recommended because it comprises the latest research findings.

  • Roisman, G. I., and A. M. Groh. 2011. Attachment theory and research in developmental psychology: An overview and appreciative critique. In Social development: Relationships in infancy, childhood, and adolescence. Edited by M. K. Underwood and L. H. Rosen, 101–126. New York: Guilford.

    E-mail Citation »

    This chapter is relevant for undergraduate and graduate students who are just becoming familiar with attachment theory. It provides an historical overview of attachment theory, a brief summary of the key points of attachment theory, and an overview of the main measures used in attachment research in developmental psychology. In addition, the authors evaluate support for attachment theory in light of extant evidence and offer suggestions for future research.

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