The starting point of John Bowlby's theory of attachment is an evolutionary one, in that babies are seen as having a biological drive to seek proximity to a protective adult, usually the primary caregiver, in order to survive danger (1969, 1973, 1980). The goal of this drive for closeness is to feel safe, secure and protected. This leads to a range of proximity promoting attachment behaviours.

Attachment behaviours may attract the caregiver's attention in a positive way, for example, cooing, smiling and reaching out. But attachment behaviours also include protest behaviours, such as crying and fretting, which will also bring the caregiver closer in order to soothe the child and end the behaviour. In the toddler years, attachment behaviours will include more direct actions, such as approaching, following, clinging and other behavioural strategies that can achieve proximity to the attachment figure.

All of these behaviours give strong signals which lead caregivers to approach and respond to the needs of the baby. In the first months of life, the signals are repeated countless times. When the baby is hungry, lonely or uncomfortable the sensitive and responsive caregiver will both recognise and react promptly to meet the baby's needs. This experience of a secure base settles the baby and reduces his anxiety, which in turn allows him to play and explore. When the baby is relaxed, smiling and playful, the caregiver will share and reinforce this mood. Through the process of attachment behaviours being responded to promptly and appropriately, therefore, the baby's survival is ensured, and also, his emotional, social and physical development is enhanced and maximised in the context of the relationship.

As attachment behaviours become more organised, so that demands for food or play become more targeted, the adults who respond to them become highly significant to the growing baby. In optimal conditions, attachment behaviours become linked with strong feelings of joy and delight in both directions. Caregivers, of course, respond to the needs and demands of their children in different ways and this gives rise to different attachment patterns.

Selective attachments, then, begin to form from birth and early infancy is a critical period for their development, but there are further key stages throughout childhood. During the toddler years, mobility, play and language develop, providing opportunities to extend attachment relationships to siblings and close adults. By the age of 4 years, secure children are able to think about other people's thoughts and feelings – key to managing relationships with peers and at school.

During the pre-school and primary years, secure children develop the capacity to hold the secure base relationships in mind when they are separated from them (for example, at nursery or school), leaving them free to explore and learn.

Also during this stage, children continue to learn to manage their feelings, co-operate with others and take into account the thoughts and feelings of others.

During adolescence, young people are becoming increasingly confident and competent. Their thinking is more complex and more reflective. There may be experimentation with the rejection of parental norms and values and moving away from the secure base. BUT, family ties and the knowledge that the secure base is still available in times of difficulty remain very important.

The formation and development of attachment relationships continue through the lifespan, so that adult children's relationships with their parents will change and, for example, as adults we both care for and receive care from our partners.

Two important concepts of attachment theory that are relevant for the secure base model will be briefly summarised here: internal working models and mind mindedness.

Internal working models

To understand the lessons that are learned in these early relationships and why they go on to affect subsequent relationships, Bowlby developed the concept of ‘internal working models'. An internal working model is a set of expectations and beliefs about the self, others and the relationship between the self and others. Thus, the internal working model of an individual will contain particular expectations and beliefs about:

  • My own and other people's behaviour
  • Whether or not I am loveable and worthy of love
  • Whether or not others are available, interested and able to help/protect/ support me

Internal working models begin to be formed in early infancy. If, for example, the baby finds that his feelings of hunger and his accompanying crying behaviour results in a prompt response from a loving adult who makes him feel better, he will learn that certain of his behaviours are linked with the positive behaviours of his caregiver. At the same time, he will feel that he is loved and nurtured and that he ‘deserves' this response. A more generalised expectation of adults as people who are likely to be there to help and protect also develops over time. At the other end of the spectrum, a response that is unavailable or cold will lead to an internal working model of the attachment figure as rejecting, the self as unworthy of care and others as not to be relied on for help and support.

The models are termed ‘working' models because they are subject to change and development according to changing experiences in relationships. Bowlby observed that these models are established in the first few years of life and as children get older models retain some flexibility but become increasingly resistant to change.

Children's behaviours become organised around their expectations of themselves and others and, as they grow older, these expectations tend to influence the way in which others relate to them. In this way, positive and negative cycles of reinforcement are set up. For example, the young person who feels good about herself and expects others to be mostly warm and friendly will present herself to a potential new friendship group in a way that signals ‘you can trust me. I will be a good friend' and so elicits a positive response. Conversely, a young person who expects rejection, has low self esteem and a sense of the world as a hostile place is likely to signal ‘I don't need or want your friendship, don't come close to me', which tends to bring about further rejection of the kind they most fear. Positive internal working models can cope with a degree of rejection. Negative internal working models tend to see hostility even in neutral behaviour. Thus to change children's negative expectations of self and others requires caregivers who can sustain availability and sensitive responding in the face of apparent hostility and lack of trust.

Mind mindedness

Bowlby's view of what was necessary for sensitive care relied on the caregiver thinking about the thoughts and feelings of the child, and over time enabling the child to think about the thoughts and feelings of the caregiver and other adults and children.

Modern attachment researchers have built on the foundations of Bowlby's thinking. Meins et al (2001) have shown the importance for secure attachment and social development of what they call the caregiver's ‘mind mindedness'; their capacity to be interested in what the child is thinking and feeling, to see things from the child's point of view, and to communicate this to the child.

This process begins in infancy with the sensitive caregiver viewing even the tiny baby as having thoughts and feelings. The caregiver speculates about these thoughts and feelings and reflects them back to the baby (Are you hungry? Were you feeling lonely?). In doing so, the baby begins to understand and make sense of his inner experiences and feelings and gradually to manage and express them appropriately.

As the baby grows, the mind minded caregiver also finds it natural to talk to the baby about their own feelings and behaviour (‘Mummy's tired now, so we'll stop the game and have a drink') and that of others (‘Your friend felt sad when you wouldn't share the toy, that's why she went off into the other room'). Through this sort of interaction and verbalisation of thoughts and feelings the child learns to distinguish between different feelings in self and others, to express feelings in ways that are effective and socially acceptable, and to empathise with others.

As David Howe (2011) puts it, ‘Parents who focus on their children's subjective experiences help them understand their own and other people's psychological states and how these are linked to actions and behaviour.'

Linked resources

Attachment Across the Lifecourse: a brief introduction