What is “attachment” and how does it relate to mentoring?

Introduction: The idea of attachment, an enduring emotional bond that connects one person to another across time and space (Ainsworth, 1973;Bowlby, 1969), has long been studied and related to various psychological outcomes. How do differences in attachment styles affect support-seeking and giving styles.

Support-Seeking (Attachment behavior)

Although, the attachment system is usually most apparent in infancy, Bowlby describes its presence and importance throughout the lifespan.  The main goal of support seeking is to increase one’s sense of security, “the sense that the world is generally safe and positively challenging, that one can rely on others or protection and support when needed and that it is easy  and rewarding to explore the world and engage in social and nonsocial activities without fear of injury or demoralizing failure.”

Types of support people seek:

  • Proximity: comfort can be provided by being physically or psychological present
  • Safe Haven:  instrumental and emotional support in times of distress until the threat has passed or is dealt with successfully
  • Secure Base:  helping a person pursue personal goals in a safe and effective

These behaviors look different across the lifespan, but still have the same underlying goals in mind:

  • Infancy: reaching out to be picked up, crying, clinging
  • Adulthood: talking, calling someone, email, text message, driving to someone’s home, and mentally conjuring up soothing, comforting images of attachment figures (Mikulincer & Shaver, 2004, 2007)
  • “such mental representations can bolster a person’s sense of security, allowing him or her to continue pursuing other goals without making bids for proximity and protection.”

Support-Provision (Caregiving behavior)

Bowlby (1982) also believed that people are born with an innate ability to provide protection and support to others in need; these tendencies include empathy and compassion and are activated with the goal to reduce other people’s suffering, protect them from harm, and foster their growth (e.g., Collins, Guichard, Ford, & Feeney, 2006).

Core Elements of Effective Support Provision (caregiving):

  • Sensitivity: attunement to and accurate understanding of, another person’s signals of distress, worry, or need, and responding in synchrony with the person’s support-seeking behavior
  • Responsiveness:  generous intentions, validating the troubled person’s needs and feelings; respecting his or her beliefs attitudes and values; and helping the person feel loved, understood, and cared for (Reis & Shaver, 1988).
    • It’s important to note that lack of sensitivity and responsiveness can cause a support-seeker to feel misunderstood, disrespected, or burdensome – in childhood, this can lead to an insecure attachment and in adulthood it can contribute to demoralization and withdrawal from a relationship.

Differences in Attachment Styles:

Having a history interactions with available, responsive, and supportive attachment figures has been is indicative of secure attachments which have been shown to lead to the use of social support as a distress-regulation strategy. Whereas, a person with unreliable attachment figures likely develops an insecure attachment and may have serious doubts about the effectiveness of support seeking.


Mentors can also serve as important attachment figures for individuals (Bowlby, 1988); these secondary attachment figures lend themselves to act as potentially corrective experiences for those individuals who may not have had a secure attachment relationship with his/her primary caregiver. Accordingly, it makes sense that mentors can also fill this role as an adult that a youth may develop an attachment relationship with. As this review suggests, it may be helpful for mentors to be aware of the kind of support a youth may be seeking, and also the most effective ways to provide such support, such as taking an empathetic stance by demonstrating sensitivity and  responsiveness to the youth’s needs. By serving as a corrective attachment experience, a mentor has the ability to help change a youth’s perception of social support as a means for coping with distress.  As a cautionary note, it is important for mentors to be aware of the adverse effects that failing to be sensitive and responsive may have on the child.