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Kami Merrifield & Allison Ewing-Cooper, University of Arizona

Allison Ewing-Cooper.jpgKami Merrifield.jpgThere are many theories regarding how advisors can successfully approach working with students (e.g., Appreciative Advising, Coaching, Strengths-Based), but less is known about the underlying relationships between advisors and their advisees. Attachment Theory, introduced by John Bowlby (Bowlby, 1969) and refined by Mary Ainsworth (Ainsworth, 1982), focuses on the relationships between children and their caregivers and how these relationships influence children’s views of themselves and the world around them. Attachment theory is not singularly focused on adult-child relationships as it has also been extended to apply to adult romantic relationships (Hazan & Shaver, 1987) and could conceivably apply to a variety of adult interpersonal relationships, including the advisor-advisee relationship. Attachment Theory offers a distinctive framework for understanding the advisor-student relationship from a developmental perspective. This theory offers a valuable, unique vantage point from which to examine advisor-student interactions along with potential points of practice and interventions that can improve advising relationships.

Introduction to Attachment Theory and Key Terms

In his original conception of Attachment Theory, John Bowlby (1969) proposed that infants form bonds with caregivers as a survival mechanism. Caregivers provide nourishment and protection from the dangers of the world. Advisors fulfill a similar role when they help students safely navigate the complexities of the new academic world. Interactions between students and advisors may also lay the foundation for how students will interact with the rest of the university. While physical survival is not at stake, students are aware that their time in the university is critical to their success in life. Students spend tens of thousands of dollars a year to secure an education that will launch them into reliable and profitable careers and enable them to earn enough money to live and, hopefully, thrive (maybe it is about survival after all) (Carnevale et al., 2011).

Through their interactions with their caregivers, infants develop an internal working model (Bowlby, 1969), a framework for understanding the world and their place in it. The internal working model is based on perceptions of other people (are they primarily good and helpful or untrustworthy), the self (am I a valuable person worthy of care), and interactions (am I able to communicate and get what I need from others effectively). Children who develop a sense that, generally, the world is a decent place with people (secure bases) who can and will help them have the confidence to explore and try new things.

Advisors are in a unique position in the higher education setting because they work with students on a regular basis throughout their academic career. By offering essential information to students in supportive, non-judgmental, and culturally appropriate ways, advisors demonstrate to students that they are welcome, important members of the learning community and that they are part of a community that wants to, and is capable of, meeting their needs as they work to achieve their academic goals. Similar to the way parents serve as a secure base, good advisors (and other university personnel) work to promote a safe, nurturing environment where students feel more confident exploring and trying new things, even when success is not guaranteed.

Infants and children learn a great deal about the world (and themselves) through their interactions with their caregivers. Likewise, advisors communicate to students the extent to which they are important to the university. Students often ask themselves, “Should I ask for help?” especially when they may have stumbled or even failed at a task. They ask, “Am I able to communicate what I need?” and “Will someone come to my aid if I need them? Can they provide what I need to be successful (survive)?” Advisors answer these questions in the affirmative for students when they are responsive, encouraging, and consistent.

Attachment Styles and Advice for Working with Each Style

Children who develop a good internal working model and use their caregiver as a secure base are said to develop a secure attachment (Ainsworth et al., 1978). Behaviors associated with a secure attachment are proximity seeking behaviors with caregivers, exploration and confidence in new situations, and quickly being soothed in stressful situations. Likewise, a securely attached student would have a good internal working model, where they believe others (university personnel) will help them and they are worthy of help. They have the confidence to explore the university and try new things, but they will ask for help when needed.      

If caregivers are inconsistent or unreliable, children develop insecure attachments. There are three types of insecure attachments: avoidant, anxious-ambivalent, and disorganized (Ainsworth et al., 1978).  Figure one displays the four attachment styles along the dimensions of perception of self and perception of others.

Figure 1
Attachment Styles



Perception of Self






of Others



Insecure Anxious-Avoidant



Insecure Disorganized


Children with avoidant attachments do not ask for help from their caregivers. Over time, they learn that their caregivers either cannot, or do not want to, meet their needs. When children with avoidant attachment styles face challenges, they do so alone, succeeding or failing on their own. Students may develop an insecure-avoidant attachment with their advisor if the advisor is perceived as unwilling to help or unreliable/untrustworthy with information. Students may pick up on these messages when advisors do not respond promptly to questions (especially in times of need) or if they receive perceived conflicting information (i.e., conflicting messages from the advisor and other university personnel or websites). While it is never the intention of student support staff to confuse or frustrate students, this outcome can occur when inconsistent information is disseminated. Reliable, consistent information is essential if advisors (and other staff) wish students to trust them and ask for help when needed. Reliability goes beyond individuals working to give out correct information on fliers, emails, handouts, and websites. All sources of information managed by the university must be updated regularly and be accurate so students can trust the information provided regardless of the source (e.g., advisor, instructor, or website). Quick check-ins or confirmation of information will go a long way with avoidant students. 

While children with avoidant attachment styles tend to withdraw and solve problems on their own, children with anxious-ambivalent attachment styles show approach-withdrawal-approach behavior patterns. Children with the anxious-ambivalent attachment style are not sure if their needs will be met by their caregivers. They express a great deal of worry, anger, and frustration because they do not feel like they can depend on their caregiver, yet they still need help. Students with anxious-ambivalent attachment styles may demonstrate inconsistent and frustrating behaviors when interacting with advisors. One example of this behavior is a student who refuses to enroll in classes after an advising appointment. They may meet with, and email, their advisor multiple times, asking about their class choices and checking to see how each class fits with their academic plan (even after receiving this information multiple times). The student finally settles down to enroll, but only in the presence of their advisor. In this example, the student seeks help from their advisor but does not trust the information or themself to act on it. Each decision represents a huge investment from the advisor in time and energy.  Sometimes, students who are anxious-ambivalent may try to force the advisor to make decisions for them, not trusting themselves to choose the right class. If something does not work out for the student, they may become angry with their advisor, blaming them for offering bad advice. Consistency, compassion, and patience over time can help anxious-ambivalent students reduce their anxiety. For example, an advisor might begin by having a student enroll in classes in their office and then on their own (emailing the advisor to check their schedule) before the student has the confidence to enroll alone. 

The third insecure attachment style is disorganized. Disorganized children are often confused and lack affect in interactions with their caregivers. Their caregivers are usually highly unpredictable and may even be neglectful or abusive. A student with a disorganized attachment style does not connect with the university; they are unsure of the role of an advisor and unlikely to ever reach out. Disorganized students are the hardest to reach, as they are the most unsure of their place at the university and may need creative reach outs (maybe a phone call or snail mail) and many attempts to get to them. Advisors can help these students by finding ways to connect them to the university (e.g., learning of a hobby and connecting them to a club) and sending short, friendly emails (and not being upset if they don’t get responses). 

Another aspect of attachment theory is how children’s characteristics affect how caregivers interact with them. Therefore, advisors should consider their reactions to certain student behaviors such as overdependence, ghosting, and perceived entitlement as these behaviors may signal more about the students’ internal working models of relationships in general as opposed to the specific advisor-advisee relationship. Advisors would benefit from adjusting their advising styles to meet different students’ needs; for example, an anxious-ambivalent student may need more intrusive advising and scaffolding while an avoidant student may benefit more from brief, friendly check-ins from a distance (e.g., a short email that their schedule looks great or a reminder to enroll in math). 


In the unknown, new world of the university, consistent, warm advisors are secure bases from which students can explore their novel surroundings. Advisors help students build positive internal working models about the university, coming to see the institution as a helpful place where they belong. When challenges arise, this positive perception can drive students to seek out resources to meet their needs rather than giving up and leaving. By investing time to learn about students and providing consistent care, advisors help students develop secure attachments, and thus be more likely to persist and graduate.  

Kami Merrifield
Student Success and Retention Specialist
College of Social and Behavioral Sciences
University of Arizona

Allison Ewing-Cooper
Director of Academic Advising and Student Success
College of Social and Behavioral Sciences
University of Arizona


Ainsworth, M. D. S. (1982). Attachment: Retrospect and prospect. In C. M. Parkes & J. Stevenson-Hinde (Eds.), The place of attachment in human behavior (pp. 3–30). Basic Books.

Ainsworth, M., Blehar, M., Waters, E., & Wall, S. (1978). Patterns of attachment. Lawrence Erlbaum and Associates.

Bowlby, J. (1969). Attachment and loss: Vol. 1. Attachment. Basic Books.

Carnevale, A. P., Rose, S. J., & Cheah, B. (2011). The college payoff: Education, occupations, lifetime earnings. Georgetown University Center for Education and the Workforce. https://1gyhoq479ufd3yna29x7ubjn-wpengine.netdna-ssl.com/wp-content/uploads/collegepayoff-completed.pdf

Hazan, C., & Shaver, P.  (1987). Romantic love conceptualized as an attachment process. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 52(3), 511–524.  https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-3514.52.3.511.

Cite this article using APA style as: Merrifield, K. & Ewing-Cooper, A. (2021, December). Developing a secure base: Using attachment theory to frame the advisor-advisee relationship. Academic Advising Today, 44(4). [insert url here] 


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