During his work as a psychiatrist, John Bowlby noticed some things about children and their relationships with their primary caregivers. He developed his attachment theory to try to describe and explain his observations. A child, he maintained, is pre-programmed with the need for attachment, and that child behaves accordingly—crying, cooing, smiling, and so on—in order to reach out for attachment. Bowlby also noted that a child will typically form a bond with one primary person, and that attachment gives the child a secure foundation from which to explore his or her world. The attachment also serves as a prototype for future relationships.
Other researchers have expanded upon Bowlby's ideas, explaining, for instance, that some attachments are secure and others are anxious. Those anxious attachments may arise from caregivers who are dismissive of a child's needs or who are unreliable or inconsistent in fulfilling them. Early attachments, one way or another, can drastically affect a child's outlook on the world and their behavior as they grow older.
Social workers must understand the nature of attachment and the difficulties that can arise from insecure attachments. Those who work with children, for instance, will often find themselves in situations in which they need to cope with a child acting out in some way. To get to the root of that behavior, social workers and other people trying to help the child should explore the nature of the child's early attachments to find potential clues that they can use to help the child in his or her current state of development.
Social workers who specialize in adoptions must also know about attachment so they can better understand the background of a child placed in a new home and help foster parents and adoptive parents learn how to form their own attachments with the children placed in their care. This involves teaching foster and adoptive parents about attachment theory, as well as carefully examining a child's behavior with the theory in mind to draw conclusions about what kinds of attachments have been formed in the past.