Attachment Theory

Attachment theory provides a useful theoretical framework for understanding how relationships function to facilitate or hinder developmental progress, such as progress in career development. A central tenet of this theory concerns the central role of attachments as enduring emotional bonds of substantial intensity that influence healthy development and participation in satisfying relationships. Regularities in interactions with caregivers provide children with a sense of security. As individuals mature, cognitive representations (schemas)—or internal working models of attachment relationships—develop and become essential to the experience of security throughout the life span and are predictive of a number of adaptive outcomes. These models become activated and essential during times of stress. Continued participation in mutually satisfying relationships plays a significant role in healthy human development across the life span. Individuals at any age are better adjusted when they have confidence in the accessibility and responsiveness of a trusted other.

Anxiety generated by new situations, such as those encountered when engaging in career tasks, can be alleviated through the experience of attachment to a significant person in one’s life who can provide emotional security. This relationship, referred to as the secure base, can provide some of the necessary ingredients for successful adaptation to a wide range of new contexts. The transition to a new work environment, which is undoubtedly even more complex for young people leaving school, represents the sort of challenge for which the experience of a secure base would be particularly important.

Much of the research on family relationships has investigated the role of attachment on various career behaviors. Specifically, attachment has consistently been found to be positively related to college students’ degree of vocational exploration, career decision making, educational and career aspirations, expectations and orientation, and effective and healthy transitions.

Similarly, research has found that high school students who anticipated parental support for certain careers, also valued those careers. There also is support for the role of attachment on other career variables including adult adjustment to work, adaptive relationships at work, and career maturity. In the following sections, more information on career exploration, career decision making, occupational aspirations, expectations, and career orientation, and transitions is provided.

Attachment Theory and Career Exploration

Career exploration is an important component in identifying, evaluating, and deciding on vocational alternatives. Career exploration has generally been defined as a process wherein individuals seek out information about themselves and the educational and occupational environment to facilitate progress in career development. It is thought that the experience of felt security within secure attachment relationships facilitates the exploration process, which frequently evokes anxiety.

Research suggests that parental attachment is positively related to vocational exploration. In particular, researchers have found that attachment to both peers and mother (but typically not father) is positively associated with environmental exploration, progress in committing to career choices, and career search self-efficacy. In a sample of high school students, other researchers found that a secure attachment to both parents was positively related to the frequency with which girls engaged in exploratory activities and the diversity of the activities that they engaged in. For boys, no relationship was found between parental attachment and exploratory behaviors. For girls, but not for boys, support has been found for the positive association between attachment to mother and satisfaction with exploration in terms of feeling well informed. The results of these studies suggest that attachment with parents facilitates vocational exploration.

Attachment Theory and Career Decision Making

The literature on career decision making includes career decidedness, career commitment, and career decision-making self-efficacy. Progress in moving from an undecided position to a committed position with respect to career choice is a developmental process that is thought to be influenced by contextual factors such as attachment relationships. It has been suggested that the experience of the secure base fosters the risk taking and experimentation that are integral to the process of deciding on and committing to a career choice. Research suggests that for female college students, attachment to both parents is positively related to commitment to career choices and negatively related to the tendency to foreclose on a career choice (i.e., committing to a career decision without adequately engaging in exploration). For college males, only attachment to father is typically related to commitment and tendency to foreclose. Other research has found that attachment to mother was positively related to committing to a career choice, but to a lesser extent than attachment to peers for both men and women.

Attachment to mother, father, and peers also has been shown to be negatively related to fear of commitment to career choices and positively associated with career decision-making self-efficacy. Other evidence indicates that students who experience greater levels of attachment anxiety (i.e., fear of abandonment coupled with the desire for extreme closeness) also report less vocational self-concept crystallization (i.e., degree of clarity and certainty of self-perception with respect to vocationally relevant attitudes, values, interests, needs, and abilities) and greater global career indecision. The literature on attachment and career decision making suggests that attachment influences the various aspects of the career decision-making process for adolescents, such as career commitment and self-efficacy.

Occupational Aspirations, Expectations, and Career Orientation

Several investigations have provided evidence to suggest that adolescent girls’ attachment with their mothers contributes to their career orientation. In a longitudinal study of female high school seniors, researchers have found that attachment to mother during high school contributed to the career aspirations of these women 5 years later, but the effect was mediated through career self-efficacy. Most of the research in this area was conducted on a relatively homogenous sample of predominantly middle- to upper-middle-class European American girls. Research is needed with males and participants who are representative of diverse racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic groups.


A number of investigators have argued that an adaptive level of attachment between late adolescents and their parents may be beneficial for developmental progress and adjustment in transitions. Evidence suggests that attachment to parents at the end of high school predicts positive changes in expectations of support and socio-emotional adjustment across the transition to college. Research also has shown that parental attachment is positively related to college student adjustment. One study found that for women, attachment to both parents was related to academic autonomy, and for men, attachment to mother was related only to academic autonomy and academic and personal adjustment. In a related study, college student adjustment was positively related to a secure adult attachment style and was negatively related to fearful and preoccupied attachment styles. Other research demonstrated that the relationship between attachment and college student develop was mediated by separation-individuation from parents. Implications of this research suggests a model of individuation-within-relatedness for understanding adolescent development.


The current literature on attachment relationships and career development is suggestive of a positive relationship between a secure attachment to parents and progress in career development. Although only attachment research was reviewed here, research also implicates the importance of separation-individuation from parents as an important construct that may work in tandem with attachment. In summary, attachment relationships seem to have a particularly significant influence on career progress. It also should be stressed that relational influences on career outcomes should not be examined in isolation from gender, race, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status.


  1. Blustein, D., Prezioso, M., & Schultheiss, D. (1995). Attachment theory and career development: Current status and future directions. The Counseling Psychologist, 23, 416—132.
  2. Blustein, D., Walbridge, M., Friedlander, M., & Palladino, D. (1991). Contributions of psychological separation and parental attachment to the career development process. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 38, 39-50.
  3. Bowlby, J. (1982). Attachment and loss: Vol. 1. Attachment (2nd ed.). New York: Basic Books.
  4. Ketterson, T. U., & Blustein, D. L. (1997). Attachment relationships and the career exploration process. The Career Development Quarterly, 46, 167-178.
  5. O’Brien, K. M., Friedman, S. M., Tipton, L. C., & Lin, S. G. (2000). Attachment, separation, and women’s vocational development: A longitudinal analysis. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 47, 301-315.
  6. Whiston, S. C., & Keller, B. K. (2004). The influences of the family of origin on career development: A review and analysis. The Counseling Psychologist, 32, 493-568.

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