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Attachment Theory

Attachment Theory

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Attachment Theory

Attachment theory is a combined work of John Bowlby and his colleague Mary Ainsworth. The two drew on the concepts of psychoanalysis, developmental psychology, information processing, cybernetics, and ethology. These were used in forming the basic tenets of attachment theory. The researchers further revolutionized perceptions of a child’s tie to its mother as well as its disruption through bereavement, deprivation, and separation. The innovative methodology by Ainsworth helped test some of the ideas posited by Bowlby and expounded the theory and is thus responsible for a number of new directions currently studied (Bowlby & Ainsworth, 2013). Ainsworth is attributed with introducing the attachment figure concept, a secure base that allows infants to explore their world. Additionally, Ainsworth formulated the maternal sensitivity concept to signals rent by infants and the role it plays in the infant-mother development of attachment patterns (Bowlby & Ainsworth, 2013).

Holmes (2014) points out that the current ideas that guide the attachment theory have a long history of development. Although the two researchers worked apart from each other at the commencement of their careers, both were heavily influenced by the works of Sigmund Freud as well as other psychoanalysts. Bowlby was influenced directly, while Ainsworth was not. Van der Horst (2011) notes that the first few years of an infant, according to Bowlby, were the most significant. Bowlby was raised by a nanny and never saw much of his mother during day time. At seven years, he was taken to boarding school. The early infant experiences that Bowlby went through affected the views he held on childhood attachment (Van der Horst, 2011). This paper will discuss the attachment theory posited by Bowlby, the importance of attachment, the four phases of attachment, maternal deprivation processes, internal working models, the strange situation, and the consequences of Bowlby’s work.

Defining the Theory

Attachment can be defined as an enduring and deep emotional bond that supersedes space and time and connects people (Bowlby & Ainsworth, 2013). In some cases, attachment is not reciprocal, and one person may not have a similar attachment to the other. Specific child behavior characterizes attachment, such as when a child seeks proximity to the one they share attachments with when threatened or upset (Levy, 2013). Adult attachment behavior includes the appropriate and sensitive response to the needs of a child. This behavior is observed in different cultures across the globe. Follan & Minnis (2010) add that the attachment theory elucidates the emergence of a parent-child relationship and the manner it subsequently influences development.

In the 1930s, Bowlby was a child psychiatrist assisting emotionally disturbed children at the London Child Guidance Clinic. While he was working, his seminal work on attachment theory began even as he considered the importance of the relationship between a child and its mother regarding its cognitive, emotional, and social development. More specifically, the work shaped Bowlby’s belief in the connection between the separations of early infants from their mothers with maladjustments later in life (Van der Horst, 2011). In 1952, Bowlby and James Robertson observed that children, when separated from their mothers, experienced intense distress (Page, 2015). The anxieties of such children did not diminish with other caregivers feeding them. The findings by Bowlby and Robertson were in contradiction to the 1950 Dollard and Miller behavioral theory of attachment. The latter theory posited that a child’s attachment to its mother was because of the act of feeding by its mother. To this end, Bowlby defined attachment as a psychological connection that lasts between persons (Bowlby, 2012). He further proposed that understanding attachment can be likened to the theory of evolution, where the caregiver offers security and safety for an infant. Because attachment is adaptive, it improves the survival chances of an infant (Bowlby, 2012).

Importance of Attachment

Attachment is described as a behavioral and emotional pattern of interactions that develop over a given period and, more so, in contact where infants seek security, support, comfort, and attention. The attachment relationship quality is enhanced when a parent can promptly perceive, interpret and react to the attention and needs of an infant (Vicedo, 2011). The relationship built between caregivers and infants has the most significant influence on a child’s life (Feeney & Van Vleet, 2010). A secure relationship fosters positive development outcomes over a period and influences the quality of relationships that a child has in the future with partners and peers. A secure relationship between a child and its parent assists the child in having control of their emotions under stressful situations; allows a child to confidently explore its environment; and fosters the child’s language, emotional, and cognitive development (Marrone, 2014). Additionally, children with secure attachment are likely to have positive social behavior, such as cooperative and empathetic behaviors, which helps them to develop positive relationships (Pittman et al., 2011). On the other hand, children’s attachments that are disorganized and insecure increase the risk of developing psychopathologies and problematic behaviors. Examples of such behaviors include children in preschool and school age displaying emotional deregulation, depression, and aggression (Hong & Park, 2012).

Bowlby and Ainsworth’s cross-cultural and ethological approach to attachment preserved the central traditional psychoanalysis questions and drew on the mental representation concept as posited by cognitive psychology (Seedall, 2011). The etiological aspect of the attachment theory implies classification and description of the behavior of a child or infant; reference to human evolutionary adaptedness to the environment as evidenced when young humans respond intensely to being left alone in an environment that they are unfamiliar with strange people; and analysis of the role that behaviors and emotions play within a social context (Seedall, 2011). The applicability of the ethological approach to attachment is also witnessed in non-western cultures and environments, implying that the theory is universal in its nature (Seedall, 2011).

Attachment ensures secure care and protection and relieves distress in a child, restoring physiological homeostasis while at the same time encouraging the child to explore its environment (holmes, 2014). Studies on attachment theory in reactions to neurobiology and biology have been done. For example, children are able, through attachment, to first learn to make connections between external events and emotions in a manner that is linguistically meaningful. Additionally, relationship attachments that are non-pathological are the foundation for a child to become cognitively, socially, and emotionally acculturated (Meins, 2013). In a child’s early years, the attachment relationship they develop with their consistent caregivers and parents is the most influential and predominant in their lives. The relationship creates a basis for physiological functioning, cognitive and emotional interpretations of their language development, social and non-social experiences, and acquisition of meaning with reference to others and themselves in socially complex situations. In later stages of life, the attachments that a child forms mediate the acquisition and acceptance of their respective cultures (Meins, 2013; Fitton, 2012).

The central process is the point of attention that emerges when a child is around nine months old, and experiences heightened anxieties over strangers. In this manner, a child, through nature, first learns about their family’s culture through the mother tongue (Morelli, 2015). Attachment relationships that were critical for the survival of infants in the evolution of human beings still influence motives, feelings, and thoughts and hence, close relationships in the entire lifetime (Morelli, 2015). Early attachment and care experiences with a caregiver impact a child’s reactions toward stress in a lasting manner.

The Four Phases of Attachment Theory

1st Phase: Birth-3 Months

Bowlby suggested that the first phase of attachment occurs when the child is born to around three months of age. A child soon after birth develops a preference for human voices and faces. An infant is able to respond to a person though not able to distinguish between people. At six weeks or so, a child smiles at the sight of a human face, and they will also make eye contact. Although a child at this age will smile at any human face, the response from a consistent caretaker with loving attention will promote attachment. A baby encourages attachment to its caregiver through certain behaviors such as sucking, grasping, crying, and babbling. Each behavior that an infant elicits draws them closer to a caregiver and propagates emotional investment and bonding (Bowlby & Ainsworth, 2013; Van Rosmalen et al., 2014).

2nd Phase: 3-6 Months

At around three months old, infants begin to differentiate the different human faces and reserve their attachment behaviors for their preferred persons. A child will stare at a stranger while babbling and smiling at familiar faces. When the infant cries, it will be comforted by the person it favors. At this time, an infant has 2-3 favorite persons but will only favor one particular person. Bowlby, as well as other researchers such as Shaver & Mikulincer (2010), in attachment initially assumed that the most favored person would be an infant’s mother, but it later emerged that it could be any person who was most successful in responding to an infant’s needs and who had interactions that were most positive with it (Bowlby & Ainsworth, 2013).

3rd Phase: 6 Months -3 Years

At around six months, the preference for a specific person is apparent, and when the person leaves a room, the baby begins to suffer from separation anxiety. Once an infant learns to crawl, it will follow its favorite person. When the favorite person returns to the room, the infant will greet them enthusiastically. At around 7-8 months, infants begin to develop a fear of strangers, which manifests as an extra precaution around strangers or crying and more so in an unfamiliar situation. When the child is around one year, it has already developed a model of working around its favorite person, including how the person responds appropriately (Bowlby & Ainsworth, 2013).

4th Phase: 3 Years- End of Childhood

Bowlby did not explore this area much or how a child develops attachments to their favorite person and the impact it has. However, he observed that at three years or so, a child begins to understand that their caretaker has their own plans and goals. Consequently, the child becomes less concerned when their favorite person leaves for some time (Bowlby & Ainsworth, 2013).

The Maternal Deprivation Hypothesis and Critique

Bowlby suggested that an infant that is deprived of its mother would develop problems in life (Batool & Shehzadi, 2017). The word ‘maternal’ was used, seeing that mothers were presumed to be the main caregivers and not because the researcher was making a judgment. Bowlby acknowledged that a bond could be between an infant and another person, not its mother, but the theory assumed the mother to be the main caregiver. Monotropy was a term created by Bowlby to describe the loving and warm relationship shared with a single individual, where an attachment is made with a single person (Batool & Shehzadi, 2017). Bowlby claimed that intellectual, emotional, and social development would be affected irreversibly when the bond between a mother and her child is broken prematurely. This is what is referred to as the maternal deprivation hypothesis (Stephens & Stephens, n.d.).

Bowlby further posited that the first 18-24 months of a child’s life are critical in forming an attachment to its mother for socialization purposes. At this time, an infant learns the rules of society and the way to interact with other people, including appropriate body language and spoken language (Janetsian et al., 2018). He hypothesized that an infant needs its mother to be continually present throughout this period. When an attachment is not formed or where there is a disruption of development, Bowlby asserted that the consequences would be serious. As stated by Bowlby, the main consequences include affectionless psychopathy and developmental retardation (Van der Horst & Van der Veer, 2010). Affectionless psychopathy is the inability of a person to experience deep feelings or guilt toward others, which can result in delinquency. Developmental retardation, as suggested by Bowlby, is characterized by an individual having a low intellectual capacity (Janetsian et al., 2018; Van der Horst & Van der Veer, 2010).

However, critics note that Bowlby does not distinguish between privation and deprivation in his maternal deprivation hypothesis. The hypothesis asserts that these consequences result from failure to form or break a bond, but in essence, when there is no bond, then that is privation and not deprivation. Hence, critiques such as LeVine (2014) often point out that Bowlby did not suggest what other separate consequences result from privation which would be expected to be more serious than deprivation.

Internal Working Models

Bowlby’s attachment theory also explains the internal working model concepts that infants develop. An internal working model is a child’s mental representation of attachment with their favorite person, which later has profound effects on their lifetime relationships as well as their individual success as a parent in the future. All future relationships that a child has been founded on the attachment that a child has with its primary caregiver because the relationship has created a mental representation in the child’s life (Bowlby, 2012; Beebe et al., 2012).

Bowlby claimed that a child with an internal mental representation of a reliable and kind relationship will most likely exhibit the same qualities in future relationships and would be successful as parents (Obegi & Berant, 2010). On the other hand, Bowlby posited that a child that has negative mental representation (such as those that are abused or neglected) would likely reproduce the same negative patterns in any relationships in the future, which implies that such children would be unsuccessful as parents (Obegi & Berant, 2010). Hence, although it appears to be a myth that those with model upbringing would be successful parents, it would appear that for every person, the first attachment formed with the primary caregiver would affect the attachment formed with their own children to some extent. Fonagy (2018) demonstrated this by assessing the internal working models of pregnant women using the Adult Attachment Interview. The assessment measured the level of secure attachment of the pregnant women’s 12-18-month-old babies. The study’s results showed that mothers who had reported having insecure attachments with their mothers also had attachments that were least secure with their children.

The Strange Situation

Bowlby observed that individual differences were exhibited by children when it came to developing attachments. However, Ainsworth (2015) is credited for further researching the separation between parents and infants, which established a clearer understanding of the differences exhibited by the individuals. Ainsworth developed the ‘strange situation’ method to assess the diverseness in children aged one year. The strange situation comprises two brief lab scenarios where an infant is left by a caregiver (Ainsworth et al., 2015). In the first instance, an infant is left with a stranger, while in the second instance; an infant is left alone briefly and later joined by a stranger. The separation between an infant and the caregiver in both scenarios lasted for close to three minutes. Observations from the strange situations yielded three attachment patterns identified by Ainsworth and colleagues. Later, a fourth attachment was included after further research was conducted. The four patterns of attachment included secure attachment, avoidant attachment, resistant attachment, and disorganized attachment (Ainsworth et al., 2015; Lamb et al., 2013).

In the secure attachment, infants use their caregivers as a base of security from which they can explore the world around them. An infant will venture to explore and move away from their caregiver, but if they encounter a frightening situation or need to be reassured, they return to the caregiver. An infant will get upset when the caregiver leaves but is still confident that the caregiver will return. When the caregiver does return, the infant greets them with much enthusiasm (Ainsworth et al., 2015). An infant exhibiting avoidant attachment is insecure when it comes to their caregiver. When an infant is avoidantly attached, it will not exhibit excessive distress when left alone by the caregiver. Once the caregiver returns, the child deliberately avoids the caregiver (Ainsworth et al., 2015). Resistant attachment is also an insecure form of infant attachment, where an infant becomes extremely upset when left alone by the caregiver. Such an infant will exhibit inconsistent behavior when the caregiver returns. The infant will appear to be happy initially but will quickly avoid the caregiver and resist attempts to be picked up. Such an infant will often respond angrily toward the caregiver and may also be avoidant in some moments (Ainsworth et al., 2015). Disorganized attachment is often displayed by infants who have been neglected, abused, or involved in inconsistent parenting practices. Children in this attachment category appear confused and disoriented in the presence of the caregiver. They also appear to perceive the caregiver as a source of fear and, at the same time, as a source of comfort which leads to conflicting and disorganized behavior (Ainsworth et al., 2015).

Ainsworth demonstrated that early attachment styles have consequences experienced in the individual’s entire life (Lamn et al., 2013). For example, a person with a secure attachment style during childhood will tend to have better self-esteem and be capable of forming healthy and strong relationships as an adult. A person with an avoidant attachment style during their childhood may become emotionally un-invested and may have difficulty in sharing their feelings and thoughts with others, thus affecting the health of any potential relationships as an adult. Additionally, a person who has a resistant attachment style in their childhood may have difficulty in forging relationships as an adult, and when they do manage to create a relationship, they may question whether the love their partners offer is genuine or not (Behrens, Parker, & Haltigan, 2011; Fonagy, 2018; O’Gorman, 2012; Allen & Miga, 2010).

The Consequences of Bowlby’s Work

Bowlby’s work had significant influence in several areas and not only in how it revolutionized the approach to psychology. The hypotheses and theories have impacted several other facets and real-life applications. For starters, there has been a widespread change in child and infant institutional care provision. For example, in the past, care homes focused on ensuring that children were well-groomed, fed, and clothed and ignored the children’s interactions with the nursing staff. Bowlby’s theories showed that mental well-being was equally important; hence, currently, care homes also focus on the same (Lionetti, Pastore, & Barone, 2015). Secondly, the attachment theory changed visiting hours in hospitals. For example, it was believed that when children who had a long-term stay in the hospital were visited by their parents for long periods, they would become upset; hence, parents were asked not to visit their children. However, Bowlby’s work showed that the parent-child attachment is of great importance, and parents ought to spend as much time as possible in hospitals with their ailing children (Tallon, Kendall, & Snider, 2015; Roberts, 2010). Lastly, governments across the globe utilized the attachment theory to front policies and, more specifically, for marketing that women should not work but instead stay home and care for their children. Governments discouraged women from taking up men’s jobs and leaving children at daycares (Blustein, 2011; Abramovitz, 2017).

In conclusion, the attachment theory has changed the perceptions of child and parent interactions and the effects that these attachments have on later adult life. Bowlby and Ainsworth shed light on the special bond between a child and a caregiver and allowed for a better understanding of how society can be altered by improving and building on the said attachment.


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