How Does Attachment Affect Behavior?

By — Pearson Allyn Bacon Prentice Hall
Updated on Sep 29, 2011

According to Bowlby (1969/1982), infants construct internal working models of how relationships work based on their experience with their own attachment figure. Although these models aren't conscious, they prepare the foundation for social and emotional development; guide how children see the world, other people, and themselves; and serve as templates for future relationships, including their relationships with teachers and peers.

Building on the work of Bowlby and Ainsworth, researchers have studied the effects of early attachment and these internal working models in both children and adults.

Children who are securely attached (Weinfeld et al., 1999) receive consistently warm, sensitive, and responsive care from a primary caregiver who enjoys their company. From this experience, they develop internal working models of other people who are there for them, and they see themselves as capable of eliciting whatever they need from their environment. They tend to have a positive view of life, know how to manage and express their feelings (Honig, 2002; Karen 1998), and possess good social skills, many friends, and high self-esteem, Because they are also good problem solvers who can ask for help when they need it, they do well in school (Howes and Ritchie, 2002). About 55 percent of children are securely attached (van IJzendoorn, 1995).

Children who are resistantly or ambivalently attached experience a different kind of care. Their primary caregiver responds to their signals unpredictably (Ainsworth et al., 1978), and because they can't rely on her to provide comfort and security, they develop internal working models in which others can't be trusted and they're unable to get what they need by themselves. It is no wonder that they become clingy, dependent, and demanding (Weinfeld et al., 1999), In longitudinal studies, L. Alan Sroufe and his colleagues (1983; Weinfeld et al., 1999) found that resistantly attached school-age children were angry, anxious, impulsive, and easily frustrated; and their low self-esteem made them an easy target for bullying. They often focus on the teacher, creating conflict in order to keep her attention (Howes and Ritchie, 2002; Karen, 1998). About 8 percent of children have the resistant/ambivalent attachment pattern (van IJzendoorn, 1995).

The early experience of an avoidantly attached child creates yet another set of internal working models. His primary caregiver is rejecting, angry, irritable, and hostile (Weinfeld et al., 1999). Children growing up under these conditions consider themselves unworthy of love and don't believe that other people will be available to them (Karen, 1998; Renken, Egeland, Marvinney, Mangelsdorf, and Sroufe, 1989). To protect themselves from rejection, they turn off their feelings and act as if they don't care, but beneath their tough facade they are hurt, sad, and angry—likely to act aggressively and strike out preemptively (Kobak, 1999). In a study of high-risk elementary school children, Sroufe and colleagues (Renken et al., 1989) found that boys who were avoidantly attached were prone to aggressive, hostile, noncompliant, and disruptive behavior. They lacked empathy, took pleasure in the misery of others, and infuriated their teachers. However, later studies have not found this association between challenging behavior and avoidant attachment among children at low risk (Lyons-Ruth and Jacobvitz, 1999). Approximately 23 percent of children are categorized as avoidant (van IJzendoorn, 1995).

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