Attachment theory is a groundbreaking observation that explains the functions and importance of the child-parent bond. In this article, we’ll look at the origins of this theory, the four attachment patterns and the four phases a child goes through to establish an attachment.
Table of Contents
What is Attachment
Attachment is an infant’s ability to seek proximity to a specific caretaker. It is also the emotional bond developed between an infant and the caretaker (usually mother but can also be a father or other primary caregivers).
This behavioral mechanism evolves to protect an immature offspring and increase the baby’s chances of survival. The result is a coordinated relationship in which the infant’s distress or fear are noted by the mother, who, in turn, provides comfort and protection.
British psychiatrist John Bowlby studied the impact of maternal deprivation on young children and how early family relationships could significantly affect a child’s personality development and the relationships they form when they grow up.
Bowlby was the first attachment theorist who laid the foundation of the famous Attachment Theory, which was later refined by Ainsworth, Sroufe, and a host of other scholars1.
Bowlby’s Attachment Theory
Attachment theory is a sophisticated and complex theory of the development of personality and capacity for close, romantic relationships, stress coping, and many other things later in the child’s life.
Bowlby theorized that early-life experiences were critical in creating different types of attachment between a child and the caretaker. The resulting attachment became an internal working model of the child, shaping the way they see themselves, others, and close relationships generally.
This working model acts as a kind of internal guidance system filtering and appraising experiences in the world, and influencing feelings and behavior, especially when it comes to relationships.
Although the type of attachment is fluid and can change over time, its impact can continue to adulthood, influencing the development and outcomes of a person2.
To grow up mentally and relationally healthy, a young child needs to experience a responsive, warm, intimate, and continuous relationship with his mother or another permanent caretaker during early childhood. The caretaker then becomes a secure base from which the child can explore the environment. The caretaker’s responsiveness creates an internal working model as generally accessible and responsive. Therein lies their security. The child will be more able to handle distress later in life, such as separation, with less fear, hostility, and avoidance.
Ainsworth Attachment Theory
Mary Ainsworth, who had worked under Bowlby in the early days of her career, started her own research in Uganda in 1953. In this research, she noticed distinct differences in the quality of mother-infant interactions.
Ainsworth categorized these different attachment patterns into three infant attachment types: securely attached, insecurely attached, and not-yet attached.
Ainsworth also found a high correlation between secure attachment and maternal sensitivity. Babies of sensitive mothers tended to be securely attached, whereas babies of less sensitive mothers were more likely to be classified as insecure3.
Ainsworth’s Strange Situation
In 1963, Ainsworth embarked on a second observational project. In this revolutionary research, Ainsworth recorded thorough observations of the interaction between mothers and infants with an emphasis on meaningful behavior patterns in context. She also designed a groundbreaking procedure that ended up being the most prevalent experiment that could identify a young child’s attachment style.
The Strange Situation is a series of 20-minute miniature dramas used to demonstrate the differences in mother-infant interactions and their relationships to an infant’s attachment. Participating infants are at about 12 to 18 months of age.
In the Strange Situation procedure, the mother and infant are introduced to a laboratory playroom. Later, an unfamiliar woman, the stranger, joins them. While the stranger plays with the baby, the mother leaves briefly and then returns. A second separation follows during which the baby is completely alone. Finally, the stranger and then the mother return.
Most infants explored the playroom and toys more vigorously in the presence of their mothers than after a stranger entered or while the mother was absent, as expected.
But what’s surprising was that they exhibited different patterns when reuniting with their mothers, and those patterns correlated highly with these children’s observed attachment types.
Patterns of Attachment in Early Childhood
From the Strange Situation laboratory procedure, the following three types of attachment can be identified – secure, resistant-avoidant, or anxious-ambivalent4,5. Later, a fourth category, disorganized-disoriented, was added by researchers Main, Hesse, and Solomon6.
In the Strange Situation, when the mother is present, a securely attached infant is more confident. They use the mother as a secure base from which to explore more in the playroom. They are distressed when the mother leaves. Upon the mother leaving and returning, a securely attached child seeks proximity, interaction, and contact with their mother.
Securely attached infants are more cooperative when being fed. The interactions are usually smooth and joyful.
When they’re older, these children cry less. They rely on facial expressions, gestures, and vocalizations to communicate their needs. Securely attached children are happier and less aggressive. They also sought contact and holding less often. When they grow even older, they are generally more competent.
Mothers of securely attached babies are more available, responsive, and sensitive to their children’s feelings. They responded quickly and reliably to the infants’ cues. These mothers also meshed playful behavior with that of their babies, creating mutually satisfying interactions7.
An avoidantly attached baby rarely cries during the separation episode. When united with the mother, the baby avoids the mother, either mingling proximity-seeking and avoidant behavior or ignoring her altogether.
Babies who are avoidantly attached are usually less cooperative and more easily angered in interactions. Avoidance is a defensive mechanism, lessening the anxiety and anger experienced in conflict situations.
When they grow older, avoidantly attached babies continue to be more aggressive, non-compliant, and avoidant.
Parents of avoidant children are often rejecting, aloof, more often angry, and uncomfortable with bodily contact. They tend to withdraw support when their children most need it in times of distress.
An anxious-ambivalent baby shows no signs of anxiety before the mother leaves but becomes intensely distressed when she does. When united, the baby appears ambivalent with the mother, seeking close contact with her and yet resisting contact or interaction. They seem to dislike being held but react even more negatively when being put down.
When ambivalently attached babies grow older, they become more easily frustrated, less persistent, and generally less competent.
Parents of anxious children are somewhat more self-preoccupied, perhaps more sensitive to their own needs and anxiety than to their children’s needs, and often intrusive and inconsistent.
During the Strange Situation, a disorganizedly attached child displays a variety of odd, unusual, contradictory, or conflicted behavior when the parent is there. They may show contradicting behavior patterns, such as intense attachment behavior followed by suddenly freezing or dazed action. They may avoid the caretaker but become distressed or angry when the caretaker leaves. They can suddenly stop motion or appear fearful of the parent.
Disorganized attachment is a strong predictor of emotional dysregulation and related mental health problems later in life. These children usually grow up with poor regulation and control of negative emotions. They are more likely to show oppositional, hostile, and aggressive behavior.
Parents of disorganized babies are often more troubled, depressed, and abusive, perhaps because they are still troubled by their own unresolved attachment-related traumas and losses.
Bowlby’s Four Phases of Attachment
Bowlby has distinguished four phases of the development of child-mother attachment8.
Pre-attachment Phase: 0 – 2 months
During the first few months in the first year, infants are inherently interested in and responsive to social interaction with virtually anyone. A baby shows a general rather than an individual attachment. Although they may recognize their mother or the primary caregiver, they are not distressed if another responsive, loving caretaker takes over. While the comforting actions of a caring adult are the baby’s base, the baby does not insist on a particular person.
Attachment-in-the-making Phase: 2 – 6 months
The baby begins to show preferences by, for example, smiling and vocalizing to and settling more quickly with some caregivers than others. They start to develop “stranger anxiety.” An unknown face is neither pleasurable nor exciting to the baby. Instead, it signals danger.
But attachment to the primary caretaker is not the only attachment the baby can form. Babies can also develop secondary attachments to other adults.
This period also matches the stage at which the baby becomes mobile and less dependent. When the baby crawls off from the mother, they keep the mother in view. The mother has become an inner secure base from which the child can venture out.
Clear-cut Attachment Phase: 6 months – 2 years
The child has a strong need to remain physically close to their primary caretaker. They can tolerate separation for only a limited period, preferably with another familiar person around.
Prolonged separation during these years is a major trauma which can be exacerbated if the child cannot build a new attachment. The pattern and security of the child’s relationships so far have become almost ingrained in the child’s internal representation of the relationship world. This internal working model becomes significantly harder to change as the child grows.
Goal-corrected Partnership Phase: 3 years – adolescence
At three years of age, the child becomes able to tolerate not seeing the mother, provided they know where she is or when she will return. They can now comprehend that other people are separate from themselves and have their own thoughts, perceptions, desires, and existence. The attachment relationship has transformed into a more complex relationship, called a partnership. The term “goal-corrected” underlines the flexible and planning-like nature of the relationship.
This period is also the time when a child begins to engage in reciprocal relationships. They can start using language to express needs and appreciate space and time. According to Bowlby, this is the time when a child can begin to benefit from being a part of a group regularly, i.e., attending preschool.
By adolescence, the child’s peer group becomes more important and influential than parents. The child may form dependencies with their peers, although home and family remain fundamentally important.
Why is Attachment Theory Important?
Attachment theory plays a very important role in explaining how parenting affects a child’s personality development, which in turn impacts their outcomes in life.
Before the Theory of Attachment emerged, the prevailing psychoanalytic theory declared that internal conflict, rather than the environment, was the main factor shaping a child’s personality development, a belief based on philosophical meaning and imagination rather than on scientific evidence9.
Bowlby’s research provided hard evidence that early emotional bonding was vital in forming a secure attachment. Such attachment is based on relationships, not on feeding alone, as suggested by behaviorists.
Bowlby was able to show findings demonstrating pervasive ill effects of institutional and hospital care on infants and young children at the time, findings that could not be explained by behaviorism theories.
Factors That Determine a Child’s Attachment
Children tend to develop attachments of varying intensities to different people, called subsidiary attachment figures, but have one principal figure they are most strongly attached to.
The quality of the relationship rather than the quantity of time spent together determines who becomes the child’s primary attachment figure. Therefore, babies can become attached to fathers or other relatives who they do not have prolonged daily contact with if these people are more responsive to them and create stronger attachments.
Critical Period / Sensitive Period
Attachment is formed in the early years in a child’s life during the critical period or sensitive period – a phase in which the brain is more plastic and receptive to the influence of attachment experiences. After this critical period has passed, the attachment pattern has essentially “burnt in”, making it very hard, although not impossible, to change10,11.
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