The contribution of attachment to our understanding of development is without parallel (Sroufe in Cassidy and Shaver, 2016). It played a central role in moving from a one-person psychology to a relational psychology where the relationship becomes the unit studied. Attachment theory brings forth the most ‘serviceable’ parts of psychoanalytic theory: The formative influence of early experience, the central nature of affect; the importance of close relationships; and the fact that much of psychological functioning lies outside of awareness.

John Bowlby understood that the self emerged from relationships. The first relationship, initially organised by the caregiver but then becoming dyadic, facilitates the organisation of attitudes, expectations and behaviours (the self). In the Minnesota study of risk and adaptation, attachment relationships were shown to predict later relationship functioning better than any individual infant behaviour. Likewise, dependency, self-management, empathy, self-esteem and behaviour problems are predicted better by the infant relationship than individual traits. Social competence in peer relationships later in childhood is strongly associated with attachment history. The pathways model of development that Bowlby used solved the problem of whether development was characterised by change or continuity by proposing there would be increasing probability of following a pathway the longer it was pursued. Early experience has a special place in attachment theory because of the cumulative nature of development that builds on what came before. All development builds upon itself as old parts become reorganised in new ways. It does not, however, preordain outcomes. Change is possible.

Psychopathology is viewed as a product of the accumulation of adaptations the individual has made as they face developmental issues and challenges. Problems tend to stabilise with development. The pathway is a more powerful predictor of outcome than symptoms at any age. Research must identify early variations in the patterns of adaptation that signal the initiation of pathways and identify the factors that influence this.

Attachment experiences (parental responsiveness, secure base) are only a part of the picture, but an important part. Research must also trace continuity and change in adaptations in subsequent development and discover factors that maintain or deflect people from the pathways they are on. Patterns of organisation in early life predict later adaptations. Secure attachment in the beginning of life means experiencing a basic sense of connection with others which develops a belief that relationships are valuable. Those who are securely attached have positive expectations about themselves and their ability to get support from others. They bring curiosity, zest, and good problem-solving to the social world and skills that make them attractive social partners. The experience of effective dyadic regulation provides a foundation for emotion regulation and self-management later. Those with secure attachment histories believe self-regulation is possible in the face of challenge and recovery from dysregulation is possible (and their brains are tuned to do both). They have an understanding of how relationships work the ability to respond empathically to others. Sroufe notes that during infancy as family stress decreased, or social support increased change from insecure to secure status became more likely. At later stages as family stress and support changed or maternal depression altered so too did behavioural problems.


Cassidy, J., & Shaver, P. R. (2018). Handbook of attachment: Theory, research, and clinical applications (3rd ed.). Guilford Publications.