In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Attachment in Children and Adolescents

  • Introduction
  • Introductory Works
  • Terminology
  • Research Issues
  • Textbooks
  • Books
  • Journals
  • Misuse and Misunderstanding of Attachment Concepts

Childhood Studies Attachment in Children and Adolescents
Jean Mercer
  • LAST REVIEWED: 23 November 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 November 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791231-0095


The term “attachment” is used to describe aspects of intense, intimate emotional relationships, with particular emphasis on parent-child interactions and the emotions children feel toward adult caregivers. Attachment is often defined as an emotional tie or a bond between two people, but these terms are metaphors that can cause misunderstanding, because in fact in the relationship partners have differing emotions, thoughts, and behaviors toward each other. Attachment is more accurately considered as an attitude or readiness to behave in certain ways toward one or more specific people. The term as applied to children may refer to attachment behaviors, including the child’s preferring certain familiar people, approaching them when threatened, and using them as secure bases by returning to them while exploring an unfamiliar place, as well as showing intense and lasting distress upon sudden and long-term separation. All these develop between around eight and thirty months of age and are shaped by experiences with consistent, sensitive, socially responsive caregiving. Attachment may also refer to an internal emotional and cognitive state, the internal working model of social relationships, that reflects care experiences and underlies attachment behavior. Attachment behavior and internal working models change with age, but attachment behavior in early life is thought to be a predictor of attitudes and behavior in later relationships.

Introductory Works

Attachment behaviors and internal working models are discussed by the major theorist on this topic in his work Bowlby 1982, as well as in Waters and Cummings 2000 and works by other contributors. Although there have been a number of attachment theories (e.g., Sigmund Freud’s work, as mentioned in Konner 2004 and Gewirtz 1969), most current discussions of attachment are based on the attachment theory offered by the British psychoanalytically trained psychiatrist John Bowlby (Bowlby’s other two given names are usually omitted). Readers should note that this theory has altered somewhat since first introduced, as pointed out in Rutter 1995 and Mercer 2011, and the original statements by Bowlby should not be expected to conform exactly with modern applications of the basic theory. However, Bowlby’s view that human infants are biologically predetermined to enter social relationships with consistent, familiar caregivers remains the essence of attachment theory today.

  • Bowlby, John. Attachment. New York: Basic Books, 1982.

    One of a series of books stating Bowlby’s fully developed theory. It is accessible to the beginner and an essential read, but probably not the best work for beginning study of attachment. Requires some understanding of psychoanalytic and ethological principles. Originally published in 1969.

  • Gewirtz, J. L. “Potency of a Social Reinforcer as a Function of Satiation and Recovery.” Developmental Psychology 1.1 (1969): 2–13.

    DOI: 10.1037/h0026802

    Gewirtz’s paper offered an alternative to Bowlby’s theory of attachment and discussed child-to-parent attachment as a result of learning and reinforcement. Important to the understanding of developing attachment theory, but best comprehended in the context of Bowlby’s work.

  • Konner, Melvin. “The Ties That Bind.” Nature 429.6993 (2004): 705.

    DOI: 10.1038/429705a

    A simplified presentation of attachment theory and an excellent first step in understanding Bowlby’s work for readers with limited background.

  • Mercer, Jean. “Attachment Theory and Its Vicissitudes: Toward an Updated Theory.” Theory & Psychology 21.1 (2011): 25–45.

    DOI: 10.1177/0959354309356136

    A paper discussing tenets of attachment theory as they were initially offered by Bowlby and as they have been supported or rejected by intervening work. Includes description of the “modern attachment theory” offered by Schore, with criticism of the supportive evidence offered.

  • Rutter, Michael. “Clinical Implications of Attachment Concepts: Retrospect and Prospect.” Journal of Child Psychiatry and Psychology 36.4 (1995): 549–571.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1469-7610.1995.tb02314.x

    A discussion of changes in tenets of attachment theory from Bowlby’s earlier work to 1995. Notes alteration especially in the view that attachment is primarily to the mother, as well as a gradual reduction in consideration of ethological mechanisms.

  • Waters, Everett, and E. Mark Cummings. “A Secure Base from Which to Explore Close Relationships.” Child Development 71.1 (2000): 164–172.

    DOI: 10.1111/1467-8624.00130

    An important paper that discusses observable behaviors related to attachment. Stresses secure base behavior, the child’s use of intermittent contact with a familiar caregiver to support exploration and learning. Reframes view of attachment to emphasize steps in normal development rather than pathologies of separation and grief.

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