What is the Role of Attachment?
One of the most important items that any child carries with him is his relationship with his primary caregiver. This person is usually his mother but may also be his father, grandmother, or someone else entirely. This very first relationship is the basis for his relationship with you.
What we know about early relationships really began with John Bowlby, whose ideas are so much a part of our thinking today that it’s hard to imagine how revolutionary they seemed just 50 years ago. While studying children who had been separated from their parents at a young age, the British psychoanalyst came to believe that a baby’s relationship with his closest caregivers plays a key role in development. Infants are emotional beings who naturally form strong bonds with their parents, Bowlby recognized, and the way those special adults interact with their baby wields a powerful influence on how he turns out (Ainsworth et al., 1978; Bowlby, 1969/1982).
Bowlby (Ainsworth et al., 1978; Bowlby, 1969/1982) realized that human infants, like other animal species, are born with instinctive behaviors that help them to survive. Acts such as crying, smiling, vocalizing, grasping, and clinging keep babies close to their primary caregivers, who protect them from predators, feed and soothe them, and teach them about their environment. These attachment behaviors, as Bowlby (Ainsworth et al., 1978; Bowlby, 1969/1982) called them, help to create attachment—children’s vital emotional tie to their primary caregiver or attachment figure. Nature equips attachment figures with their own innate and complementary behaviors—soothing, calling, restraining, for instance—that also serve to keep babies safe and cement the bond between mother and child (Ainsworth et al., 1978).
In pioneering studies in the 1950s and 1960s, American psychologist Mary Ainsworth (Ainsworth et al., 1978) confirmed Bowlby’s theory by documenting for the first time the emotional impact of parents’ everyday behavior on their children. In Uganda and then in Baltimore, Ainsworth meticulously observed mothers and babies at home over the first year of life. She watched the process of attachment unfold as the babies came to recognize, prefer, seek out, and become attached to their primary caregiver.
These observations enabled Ainsworth to make a critical discovery: A baby’s sense of security depends on how his attachment figure cares for him. During the first year of life an infant evolves an attachment strategy—a way to organize feelings and behavior—that is tailor-made for coping with his own unique caregiving situation. The strategy he develops is the one that will deal best with his particular stressful circumstances and negative emotions and bring him the most security and comfort possible (van IJzendoorn, Schuengel, and Bakermans-Kranenburg, 1999; Weinfeld et al., 1999). All attachment strategies are normal, adaptive, and functional; the trouble is that what works best within the child’s family may not work outside it (Greenberg, DeKlyen, Speltz, and Endriga, 1997).
The Strange Situation
In Uganda, Ainsworth (Ainsworth et al., 1978) observed that babies in unthreatening situations used their mother as a secure base from which to explore their environment, at ease as long as they could connect to her with a touch or a smile. When they felt stressed—if their mother left the room, for example—their attachment behaviors kicked in and sent them searching for her reassurance. But in Baltimore, where mothers and infants didn’t spend as much time together, babies explored more freely and didn’t seem to mind when their mothers came and went. Did secure-base behavior exist in North America, Ainsworth wondered? To find out, she devised the Strange Situation (Ainsworth et al., 1978), a 20-minute laboratory procedure for 12-month-old babies and their mothers that approximates real-life events. In eight short episodes, the mother leaves and returns twice, gradually increasing the baby’s stress.
The procedure demonstrated that North American babies do indeed display secure-base behavior, but it showed much more: The Strange Situation illuminated the whole field of attachment by revealing two types of attachment that had not been apparent in the home setting (Karen, 1998).
- As Ainsworth (Ainsworth et al., 1978) expected, babies who were securely attached played comfortably with the toys in the laboratory, became upset when their mother left, and greeted her eagerly on her return, warmly accepting comfort from her.
- But infants who were unhappy at home—who cried angrily, clung to their mothers, and therefore seemed insecurely (or anxiously) attached—fell into two distinct categories in the laboratory (Ainsworth et al., 1978; Weinfeld, Sroufe, Egeland, and Carlson, 1999). Some stayed at their mothers’ side, became extremely stressed when separated from her, wanted her when she returned—but cried or squirmed in her arms, resisting her soothing attempts. Ainsworth labeled their attachment resistant or ambivalent. A second group of babies seemed utterly blasé in the lab. They played alone, didn’t protest when their mother departed, and paid no attention when she came back. Although these infants looked secure and independent, Ainsworth knew from her home observations that they were not. She termed them avoidantly attached.
- In 1985, researchers Mary Main and Judith Solomon (1986) identified a fourth group of infants who didn’t fit into the three original categories. These babies, who had what they called a disorganized/disoriented attachment, behaved bizarrely in the Strange Situation, approaching their mothers backward, with head averted, or in a trancelike state (Lyons-Ruth and Jacobvitz, 1999; Main and Solomon, 1986).
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