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The demand for literature on parenting and child rearing has increased exponentially over the past few decades. Parents, teachings and other professionals are being coming increasingly aware of the importance of the early relationship between mother and infant in determining future success in intimate, social and professional relationships. Over the centuries there have been a number of approaches to parenting, some promoting a formal, distant relationship, encouraging independence. However, more recently the relationship between a child and his or her primary care-giver (particularly the mother) has been shown to form the corner stone of future emotional functioning. Bowlby’s (1980) theory of infant attachment explains how an infant’s first experience with his or her mother influences the formation of mental representation of the self and of others. The representation of the self determines the individual’s sense of self worth, of how worthy one feels of receiving love. The representation of others shapes how the individual interprets the world and others as being reliable and trustworthy, or unreliable and not to be trusted. The development of these cognitive processes is rooted in the style of attachment an infant forms with his or her mother. The follow essay will provide an overview of attachment processes and styles and will consider the long-term impact of these.
The origins of attachment theory are heavily rooted in the observations of psychologist John Bowlby and the subsequent contributions of Mary Ainsworth and others. Attachment can be understood as the tone of affection that exists between two people (or animals) and is described by Bowlby (1969: 194) as the ‘lasting psychological connectedness between human beings’. According to Bowlby, this occurs when the relationship between the mother and infant is loving and intimate, and one from which both receive enjoyment and satisfaction. Attachment differs from bonding in that bonding entails the emotional feelings that a mother experiences for her infant and does not include an element of security.
Kaplan and Sadock (1998) identify phases of attachment:
1. Pre-attachment Phase (birth – 12 weeks) – characterized by babies using their eyes to orientate themselves to their mother, following her with their eyes and turning towards her voice.
2. Attachment Making Phase (12 weeks – 6 months) – sees the infant developing an attachment to more than one person in their environment (eg. Mother and father).
3. Clear Cut Attachment Phase (6 months – 24 months) – the infant shows obvious signs of distress when removed from mother and seeks proximity with mother on her return and is easily soothed by her.
4. Fourth Phase (25 months and onwards) – the child views the mother as separate.
Bowlby (1969) proposed that from birth an infant will constantly seek proximity to his or her mother so as to gain comfort and security. This seeking of proximity, according to Bowlby, can be partly explained as an attachment behavioral system based on the evolutionary process of natural selection. Accordingly, only those who maintain close proximity to their mother are safe from danger and more likely to survive the potential threats of their environment. Early studies by Harry Harlow (1958), a psychologist intrigued by love, relieved the attachment needs of monkeys. One particular study showed that young monkeys, removed at birth from their mother and then given the choice between a wire monkey offering food or a wire monkey covered in cloth (yet without food), would opt for the comfort of the soft wire monkey over food. This experiment showed that attachment is more than a need for food, but includes strong elements of a need for love and affection.
According to Bowlby (1969, 1980) the affectional bond between mother and child has a far reaching impact, continuing throughout life. He identified four primary characteristics of attachments:
1. Safety – The carer provides the child with a ‘safe haven’; a place where he or she can return when feeling threatened. Here the child will receive acceptance and comfort in times of distress.
2. Security – The carer provides the child with a sense of security. The child feels confident to explore his or her environment.
3. Proximity – The child seeks to maintain close proximity to the carer; thereby maintaining a sense of safety and comfort.
4. Separation – When separated from the carer, the child becomes distressed and seeks proximity with the carer on his or her return and is readily soothed by him or her.
Bowlby found that achieving satisfactory proximity in times of distress will result in feelings of relief, however, should the mother fail to respond to the infants attempts at receiving proximity (through crying), this will result in one of two secondary strategies: 1) Deactivation is the repression of attachment needs and avoidance of seeking proximity; 2) Hyperactivation is the continual, often unsuccessful and frustrating, attempts at attaining proximity. Bowlby (1969, 1980) highlights the importance of the quality of the mother’s responsiveness and sensitivity to the infants needs in the formation of healthy, secure attachment styles. A mother who responds with sensitivity to her infant’s cries helps the infant contain his or her anxieties, and mirrors for the infant emotional regulation. Later, the child will be able to be a container for his or her own emotions. Bowlby (1969, 1980) explains how a responsive mother provides a secure base for the child to explore his or her environment free of fear and anxiety. However, an insensitive or inconsistent mother creates, for the child, a sense of insecurity evoking feelings of anxiety and avoidance behavior.
Mary Ainsworth, a colleague of Bowlby, built on Bowlby’s theory. Ainsworth observed the significant influence the early attachment between mother and baby had on present and future behavior. This researcher, for example, found that by soothing a baby when they cry reduced future crying behavior. Also, Ainsworth found that secure attachment reduced anxiety and that bodily contact between mother and baby nurtured the development of future self-reliance as apposed to clinging behavior (Ainsworth, 1985). Ainsworth, Blehar, Walters and Walls (1978) undertook a study to explore Bowlby’s theory. These researchers developed a study called the ‘Stranger Situation’, which sought to observe the attachment related behavior of infants when separated from and later reunited with their mother. The process of the stranger situation involved the mother and child initially being placed in the same room; a stranger would then enter the room while the mother left. The stranger would then leave the room and the mother would return and comfort her child. Again the mother would leave and the stranger would return. Finally, the mother would return to the room and comfort her child. Based on the child’s behavior through this process, Ainsworth and colleagues were able to identify three distinct attachment styles:
1. Secure Attachment – A securely attached child will be seen to freely explore his or her environment in the presence of his or her mother. When the mother leaves, this child will show obvious distress and will seek proximity with his or her mother on her return, being readily comforted by her.
2. Avoidant Attachment – Children who failed to seek proximity to his or her mother were identified has having an avoidant attachment style. These children were seen as exhibiting little range in affect, and did not respond with distress when the mother left and showed little interest on her return. These children would resort to the secondary strategy of deactivation.
3. Anxious/Ambivalent Attachment – Children with this attachment style also failed to seek proximity with his or her mother, but resorted to the secondary strategy of hyperactivation.
Ainsworth (1978) and colleagues were further able to identify the types of mother-child relationships associated with these attachment styles. Securely attached children were found to have mothers who are attuned and sensitive to her child’s emotional as well as physical needs. She formed a secure base for her child and helped regulate stress and emotional disease. Mother’s of children with avoidant attachment styles would respond with little concern to their child’s distress, and rather than comfort them, she would discourage the child’s attempts at achieving proximity and encourage independence. Finally, ambivalently attached child had mothers who responded inconsistently to their children. At times they would respond attentively and provide comfort; yet at other times she would discourage the crying behavior and ignore the child’s attempts at proximity.
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These attachment styles differ slightly in adulthood, with four types being identified: sure, preoccupied, fearful-avoidant and dismissing-avoidant. These types differ to those identified by Ainsworth mainly in the distinction between fearful-avoidant and dismissing-avoidant. An individual showing a dismissing-avoidant style maintains a positive view of self and a negative view of others, while those with a fearful-avoidant styles holds a negative view of both self and others.
Main, Kaplan and Cassidy (1985) were the first to demonstrate how early attachment styles, formed during infancy, are generalised to an individual’s future relationships in adulthood. These researchers described how mental representations of the self and other’s, formed in infancy, are used to predict and interpret attachment-related situations. According to this line of thought, a person who experienced rejection in infancy will carry this experience into adult relationships. They will feel unworthy of love, and moreover, that others are incapable of loving them.
Attachment styles are also shown to influence such things as self-esteem, self-efficacy and socializing abilities. In a study by Kaplan and Sadock (1998) these researchers show how securely attached adolescents are more socially adjusted than those with avoidant or anxious/ambivalent attachment styles. Furthermore, these researchers note how ‘low self-esteem, poor social relatedness, and emotional vulnerability to stress are associated with insecure attachments during the first year of life’ (147).
The development of ‘theory of mind’ is also impeded in attachment theory. Theory of mind is the understanding that each person has heir own, separate beliefs, ideas and mental states. Furthermore, it is the ability to predict, with a large degree of accuracy, how another person may feel or respond in certain situations. For example, a person having ‘theory of mind’ would accurately predict how a person may feel should they fail in an important exam. The development of ‘theory of mind’ or ‘mentalizing capacity’ is directly dependant on secure attachment. A mother who responds consistently with love and acceptance to her infant’s cry demonstrates to the infant that they have understood them and that they are in tune with their needs. This mother has demonstrated that she is able to infer the thoughts and needs of her child. The child then learns this from the mother. This ability to make accurate inferences and to envisage the emotional experiences of others is crucial for health psychological and psychosocial functioning (Fonagy, Gergely, Jurist and Targer, 2005).
As previously noted, unstable or unhealthy attachment is a result of maternal disregard, where a mother is seen to be dismissive, unresponsive, and lacking in warmth and consistency. People having an avoidant or anxious/ambivalent attachment style experience problems in developing and maintaining relationships, in communicating with others, trusting in others, feeling unworthy of love. This deprivation results in disorders of attachment including such things as ‘failure-to-thrive syndromes, psychosocial dwarfism, separation anxiety disorder, avoidant personality disorder, depressive disorders, delinquency, academic problems, and borderline intelligence’ (Kaplan & Sadock, 1998: 147).
These resulting problems highlight some of the adverse effects of a deprived relationship between mother and child.
John Bowlby’s theory of attachment has challenged some of the traditional beliefs on parenting, such as: crying babies should be left alone, holding a baby too much will result in clinging behavior, attending to a distressed baby will result in over dependence. Still today, some of these ‘outdate beliefs’ are held by many. However, research into the area of attachment has revealed a very different picture. The tenderness of the relationship between mother and child has been shown as being paramount to the healthy development on emotional, social, psychological and even educational levels. Children require physical warmth, love, affection, consistency and understanding in order to develop a positive sense of self, trust in the world, confidence to explore the world and a belief in others. Children learn from their mother, from the very time of birth, what to think of the world, who they are in the world, what to expect from the world and what the world expects from them.
Ainsworth, M.S. (1985). Attachment across the life-span. Academic Medicine, 61, 792.
Ainsworth, M. S., Blehar, M. C., Waters, E., & Wall, 5. (1978). Patterns of attachment: A psychological study of the Strange Situation. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.
Bowlby, J. (1969), Attachment and loss, Vol. 1: Attachment. New York: Basic Books.
Bowlby, J. (1980). Attachment and Loss. New York: Basic Books.
Fonagy, P., Gergely, G., Jurist, E.L., & Target, M. (2005). Affect Regulation, Mentalization, and the Development of the Self. London: Karnac.
Harlow, H. F. (1958). The nature of love. American Psychologist, 13, 673-685.
Kaplan, H.I., & Sadock, B.J. (1998). Synopsis of Psychiatry: Behavioral Science/Clinical Psychiatry (8th Ed). Lippincott, Williams & Wilkins, Maryland.
Main, M., Kaplan, N., & Cassidy, J. (1985). Security in infancy, childhood, and adulthood: A move to the level of representation. Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development, 50, 66-104.
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