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Deconstructing The Attachment Theory

Attachment theory is a psychological and behavioral theory that looks at how early relationships impact upon the way adults grow and form relationships in later life.

To understand attachment theory, it is best to understand what attachment really is. Psychologist John Bowlby described it as a “lasting psychological connectedness between human beings”, believing that these early emotional bonds formed with an infant’s caregiver drastically impacted their attachment through later life. The idea is that when caregivers are available and responsive to an infant and their needs, the infant can feel secure and safe which means that they are better equipped to explore the world around them.

There are, in fact, four phases of attachment introduced by Schaffer and Emerson, which are distinct from one another. At the pre-attachment/asocial stage (birth to three months), infants aren’t particularly attached to a specific person. When the infant cries or fusses, it attracts the attention of the caregiver and when the baby responds positively to the caregiver, for example by stopping crying, the caregiver is encouraged to remain close to the infant.

The next stage occurs between 6 weeks and 7 months of age. In the indiscriminate attachment stage, you will be able to see preferences forming for primary and secondary caregivers. Infants will accept care from anyone, but they will see their caregiver as a reliable responder to their needs and they will respond to them more positively.

Next comes the discriminate/specific attachment stage, which lasts until roughly 11 months of age. This is when infants truly develop the ability to distinguish between familiar and unfamiliar people. They will be strongly attached to their primary caregiver and may demonstrate separation anxiety when taken away from them, this anxiety can also be manifested as stranger anxiety around people they do not know.

Finally, at roughly 9 months old onwards, children gain the ability to bond strongly with people and caregivers outside of their primary attachment figure. These people could be their siblings, grandparents, or extended family members.

Of course, every child develops differently, and the process of attachment can vary from child to child. It can also be affected by different environmental and social factors. Some children simply do not have an opportunity for attachment as they are raised without a primary caregiver, for example, in an orphanage. Alternatively, they may not have a consistent, reliable caregiver that they can depend on, despite having a primary caregiver. A child’s connection and attachment to their caregiver can impact upon their development and relationships up until adulthood.

The way that infants create attachments through these stages dictates their attachment type, of which there are four – theorised by Mary Ainsworth.

Firstly, there is secure attachment. This is the result of a strong bond with a reliable caregiver. Parents of securely attached infants tend to be more reactive to their needs and more responsive to them. Securely attached infants likely view others as supportive and helpful and they relate positively to others too. In the classroom, you will likely see these children engaging in complex play and successful interactions with others. They are often popular at nursery, and they look to their teachers for interaction and support. They tend to have good self-esteem which continues to adulthood. As adults, they are often able to form trusting and long-lasting relationships, leaning on spouses, friends, and other forms of social support to share feelings and gain advice.

The next form of attachment is called dismissive attachment, which has been linked to low maternal availability. These children may show distress when separated from their caregiver, like a child with secure attachment, but they won’t seem overly relieved when they do return, which is certainly unlike securely attached children. This behavior can manifest as a reluctance to become close to others in adulthood, as well as a consistent worry that spouses don’t reciprocate their feelings. Dismissively attached adults may become distraught when a relationship ends.

Children who do not view their caregivers displaying much emotion or intimacy, or have caregivers that don’t fully respond to the child’s needs for support and affection, may develop avoidant attachment. Although these children may not completely reject parental attention, they also don’t seek it out – they have no preference between their caregiver and a stranger. This can cause the children to grow into adults who struggle with intimacy and don’t invest much time and energy into relationships. Unlike ambivalently attached adults, they don’t feel devastated when relationships end, and are more likely to engage in promiscuous relationships.

Finally, there is insecurely attached children. There is evidence that suggests that inconsistent parenting contributes to this attachment style, for example, parents who both scare and reassure the infant cause them to be confused, which leads to a mix of avoidant and resistant behaviors. This can cause children to grow into a parental role prematurely, taking care of the parent and acting as their caregiver instead. There is evidence that shows that insecurely attached children struggle to competently interact with their peers and they are more likely to develop anxiety and internalisation of emotions.

This was a brief overview of the four attachment styles. It is so interesting how the actions of a parent can continue to impact upon the actions of a child as they grow and develop into adults. Of course, parenting is not an exact science, but the importance here really is to be consistent and responsive to the needs of the child, allowing them to feel safe, happy, and loved.

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