Early Childhood Attachment

Work on early childhood attachment has drawn on a couple of lines of research in developmental psychology. The first line of research was the work by Harry Harlo and others on infant monkeys. Harlow' s well-known experiments involved taking infant monkeys away from their real mothers and raising them with models of mother monkeys made of wire or cloth. These fake mothers did not provide the grooming, cuddling, holding, or social contact of the real mothers. The infant monkeys raised with the fake mothers developed problems in adolescence and adulthood, growing into adults that were socially insecure, that were generally anxious, and that did not develop normal sexual relations as adults (Harlow , 1958; Harlow & Suomi, 1971; Harlow & Zimmerman, 1959). Moreover , the infant monkeys preferred their real mothers to the fake mothers, and they preferred the cloth mother to the wire mother when given the choice. Harlow concluded that attachment between infant and primary caregiver required physical contact with a warm and responsive mother and that it is vitally important to the psychological development of the infant.

Attachment to the mother during the first si months of life appears crucial to all primates, including humans. Attachment in the human infant begins when he or she develops a preference for people over objects. For example, the child prefers to look at a human face rather than at a toy . Then the preference begins to narrow to familiar persons, so that the child prefers to see people he or she has seen before, compared with strangers. And finally the preference nar rows even further, so that the child prefers the mother or primary caregiver over anyone else.

The ways in which young children develop attachments to their parents and caregivers was the primary topic of research for British psychologist John Bowlby (1969a, 1969b, 1980, 1988). Bowlby focused on the attachment relationship with the mother and how that relationship meets the needs of the infant for protection,

The strong bond between infant and primary caregiver, called attachment, is important in the development of all primates, including humans.

nurturance, and support. Bowlby studied what happens when this attachment relationship is temporarily broken, as when the mother has to leave the infant alone for a short time. He noticed that some infants seem to trust that the mother will return and provide uninterrupted care—these infants are happy when the mother returns. Other infants, in contrast, react negatively to separation and become agitated and distressed when the mother leaves. They can be calmed only by the return of the mother. Bowlby said these infants experience separation anxiety. Bowlby also observed a third type of infants, who seem to become depressed when their mothers leave. Even when the mother returns, these infants seem to remain detached from, or angry at, their mothers.

Psychologist Mary Ainsworth and her colleagues developed a 20-minute procedure for studying separation anxiety—a procedure also used for identifying dif fer-ences between children in how they react to separation from their mothers. This is called the strange situation pr ocedure. In this procedure, a mother and her baby enter the laboratory room, which is like a comfortable living room. The mother sits down, and the child is free to explore the toys and other things in the room. After a few minutes, a stranger, an unfamiliar but friendly adult, enters the room. The mother then gets up and leaves the baby alone with this unfamiliar adult. After a few minutes, the mother returns to the room and the stranger leaves. The mother is alone with the baby for several more minutes. All the while, the infant is being videotaped, so that his or her reactions can later be analyzed.

Across many studies, Ainsworth and her colleagues (e.g., Ainsworth et al., 1972; 1979) found essentially the same three patterns of behavior noted by Bowlby . One group of infants, called securely attached, stoically endured the separation and went about exploring the room, waiting patiently or even approaching the stranger and sometimes wanting to be held by the stranger . When the mothers returned, these infants were glad to see them, typically interacted with them for a while, then went back to exploring the new environment. They seemed confident the mothers woul return, hence the term secure. This group of infants was the lar gest of the three (66 percent fell into this group).

The second group, called the avoidantly attached group, consisted of infants who avoided the mothers when they returned. The infants in this group typically seemed unfazed when the mothers left and typically did not give them much attention when they returned, as if aloof from their mothers. Approximately 20 percent of the babies fell into this category .

Ainsworth called the third category of infant response to separation the ambivalently attached group. The infants in this group were very anxious about the mothers' leaving. Many started crying and protesting vigorously before the mothers even got out of the room. When the mothers were gone, these infants were dif ficul to calm. On the mothers' return, however, the infants behaved ambivalently . Their behavior showed both anger and a desire to be close to the mothers; they approached their mothers but then resisted by squirming and fighting against being held

Mothers of babies in these three groups appear to behave dif ferently. According to subsequent research, reviewed by Ainsworth and Bowlby (1991), mothers of securely attached infants provide more af fection and stimulation to their babies, and are generally more responsive, than mothers of infants in the other groups. These studies have provided clear evidence that a caregiver' s responsiveness to infants leads to a more harmonious relationship later in life between the child and parents. For example, in one study, responsiveness to infant crying in the early months of life was associated with less (not more) crying at 1 year of age. Although this finding was greete with disbelief at first, especially by learning theorists, it eventually influenced re ommendations for parenting practices (Bretherton & Main, 2000).

Mothers of babies from both the ambivalent and the avoidant groups tend to be less attentive to their children, less responsive to their needs. Such mothers appear to be less in tune or less engaged with their babies. Some children react to these less responsive mothers by becoming angry themselves (the ambivalent infants) or by trying to become emotionally detached (the avoidant infants).

These early experiences and reactions of the infant to the parents, particularly the mother, become what Bowlby called working models for later adult relationships. These working models are internalized in the form of unconscious expectations about relationships. If children experience that they are not wanted, or that their mothers cannot be trusted to take care of them, then they may internalize the expectation that probably no one else wants them, either . On the other hand, if children' s needs are met, and they are confident that their parents really love them, then they will expec that others will find them lovable as well (Bowlb , 1988). These expectations about relationships, which are developed in our first contacts with our caregivers, ar thought to become part of our unconscious and thereby exert a powerful influence o our adult relationships.

We might think that the "strange situation" paradigm is useful only for thinking about how children cope with the temporary separation from their caregivers. However, some researchers are studying an adult analogue of this paradigm, where married couples are temporarily separated by life circumstances (Caf ferty, Davis, Medway, O'Hern, & Chappell, 1994). These researchers conducted a longitudinal study on members of the National Guard and other military reserve units who were separated from their spouses and deployed overseas during Operation Desert Storm. They found that attachment styles predicted individual dif ferences in emotional reactions to the separation (securely attached persons were not as distressed) and to post-reunion marital adjustments (ambivalently attached persons had the most dif ficulty) When adult marital relationships are temporarily disrupted, it may be that the persons in those relationships will react and adjust in ways that resemble how they coped with their earliest separations, both of which may be influenced by the style of attachmen they developed early in life with their primary caregiver .

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