Theories in Social Work

Attachment Theory

Attachment theory is one of the best-known theories that provide a framework for social workers to understand human behavior. Attachment theory holds that babies have innate behaviors whose purpose is to ensure that caregivers meet their needs.

Attachment theory is a theory that suggests a psychological bond between individuals that has consequences across the life-span for the way relationships develop and how people behave towards other people.

Attachment can be characterised as an invisible bond formed in relationships.

attachment is not a fixed aspect of development as it is influenced by culture and can change through context.

The term ‘attachment theory’ originated with psychoanalyst John Bowlby following the Second World War as he drew together a large body of theoretical work, including that of Piaget and Melanie Klein, to try to understand the psychological underpinnings of the relationship between parents and their children. Throughout history that bond has been characterised in a number of ways such as a duty, a ‘drive’ or as an ‘affectional bond’.

Simpson et al. (2021) suggest attachment theory has several fundamental principles, most of which address how and why people think, feel and behave in particular ways within relationships at different points of their lives. These principles are consistent with much of the material discussed above.  If required, consult the article fAttachment theory is an evolutionary, biologically based theory.

  1. The attachment system coexists with other behavioural systems, e.g. the exploration, social-caregiving systems in childhood and the sexual/mating system in adulthood.
  2. The attachment system and the caregiving system are interrelated, i.e. the types of bonds that children and adults form—secure, avoidant, ambivalent and disorganised—depend on the type, quantity, and quality of caregiving they have received from prior caregivers/attachment figures.
  3. Attachment relationships serve three functions—proximity seeking, safe haven and providing a secure base.
  4. Attachment figures, and the type of attachment to them, shape internal working models that assist individuals to decide how to react and behave in specific situations.
  5. The attachment system is operative from “the cradle to the grave” although attachment orientations can change over the lifespan.
  6. Attachment security is an inner resource that facilitates resilience; attachment insecurity is a vulnerability associated with poorer outcomes.
  7. Individuals experience a specific sequence of reactions—disorientation, protest, despair and resumption of normal activities (but not necessarily in a rigid sequence)—when separated from or when they lose their attachment figures.
  8. The attachment system is universal, yet also culturally dependent.or elaboration.

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