Attachment theory

Closeness and belongingness are thought to be an important human need,1 both from an evolutionary perspective and a normal psychological developmental perspective. When we are accepted by others we experience feelings of warmth and security. By contrast rejection by others can cause feelings of shame or anxiety.

Bowlby’s original work on attachment theory focused on the relationship between infants and their caregivers and associated responses during brief periods of separation. It was proposed that strong, secure attachments formed in the early years were associated with an individual’s ability to form intimate, trusting and emotionally secure relationships in adulthood through feelings of high self worth and the ability to trust others.2

More recently, work has been done to investigate the attachments individuals may form with groups.3 It appears that the relationships individuals form with groups may have similar functions to the infant-caregiver relationships described by Bowlby. Social validation by a group can promote increased feelings of self esteem, self worth and beliefs that trusting others are available for support. For at risk youth who may have few or no close friends or who do not have a peer group with whom they associate, feeling accepted and part of a group may be very important and one of the main motivations for continued participation in the program.

As Cotterell4 states:

“…in bonding with such groups the person experiences a sense of belonging and endorsement, a ‘sense of place’ in the group and the secure feeling of being ‘at home’ with her/his mates or chums”

“Peer groups supply positive emotional experiences to their members through acceptance and recognition of the individual. They provide a sense of belonging and solidarity within the group which confirms their group identity”

Attachment behaviour can however have negative consequences. A review by Resnick5 reports that “the development of a close relationship with at least one caring, competent, reliable adult who recognizes, values and rewards prosocial behaviour” (p.158) is  repeatedly evident in studies of resilient youth. Where this relationship is equivalent to the one between a peer program participant and the program facilitator, this can be problematic, leading to possible dependency issues. The program facilitator is often a respected, charismatic individual perceived as knowledgeable, open-minded always there to listen, and sometimes the only person at risk youth feel they can rely on. The continuing burden of this responsibility may be associated with increased staff stress and burnout. Measures need to be in place to monitor the role of peer-based programs for both participants and staff to ensure young people develop a range of supportive relationships both inside and outside the program context. This will enable them to ‘move on’ from the peer program as independent functioning adults at the appropriate time.


  1. Baumeister, R. and M. Leary (1995). “The need to belong: Desire for interpersonal attachments as a fundamental human motivation. ” Psychological Bulletin 117: 497-529.
  2. Bowlby, J. (1969/1982). Attachment and loss. New York, Basic Books.
  3. Smith, E., J. Murphy, et al. (1999). “Attachment to groups: Theory and measurement.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 77: 94-110.
  4. Cotterell, J. (1996). Social networks and social influences in adolescence. London, Routledge.
  5. Resnick, M. (2000). “Protective Factors, Resiliency, and Healthy Youth Development Philadelphia, Hanley & Belfus, Inc.” Adolescent Medicine: State of the Art Reviews Vol. II (No.1, February).