State of the art: Attachment theory

Howard Steele discusses whether attachment theory has kept pace with the changing family.
it was a bold claim, and one now familiar to most psychologists from their undergraduate days: that immediate and long-term benefits to mental health result if an ‘infant and young child should experience a warm, intimate and continuous relationship between child and mother (or permanent mother-substitute) in which both find satisfaction and enjoyment’ (Bowlby, 1951, p.11). This ‘attachment theory’ and its founding father retain their influence. A survey this year asked 1500 doctoral-level members of the Society for Research in Child Development (SRCD) to name ‘the most revolutionary study in child development’ over the last 50 years (Dixon, 2002). Bowlby (1969) was the third most cited study (after Piaget and Vygotsky), and Ainsworth et al. (1978) came in fourth with their ‘strange situation’ measure of attachment. But in the 50 years since Bowlby’s claims, there have been vast changes in society’s assumptions about and organisation of family life. Can attachment theory still be relevant? This article aims to highlight some of the major achievements in attachment theory and research over the past 15 years, which have confirmed and extended its position as the most powerful contemporary account of social and emotional development available to science.

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