Does the quality of attachment formed between aninfant and the primary caregiver (mother) effect the way we live, and therelationships we will have with others in adulthood? What do infants, childrenand adults require in order to survive as secure and happy individuals? This essay will question the idea thata child’s future relationships and life choices are predetermined by thequality of attachment with the primary caregiver (mother).
It will also discusshow primary attachment relationships in adulthood can contribute to our healthand well-being. JohnBowlby (1907 – 1990), a British psychologist, psychiatrist, and psychoanalystdeveloped the Theory of Attachment after witnessing the distress of infants whohave been separated by their primary caregiver (mother). He graduated fromUniversity of Cambridge in 1928 and worked as a volunteer at a school formaladjusted children. During his time there his experiences with two childrensparked an interest that set the course of his professional life. One child(aged 7) followed Bowlby around and was described as his shadow, while theother boy was an affectionless teenager who was remote and isolated himselffrom others. It was his observations of these two boys that made Bowlby decideon a career as a child psychiatrist (Ainsworth, 1974 cited by Bretherton, 1992,p. 2). During World War II Bowlby worked with colleagues from the TavistockClinic in London.
It was there that he compiled research for his paper’Four-Four Juvenile Thieves: Their Characters and Home Lives, (Bowlby, 1944).This research confirmed to him the importance of family relationships in childtherapy and he claimed he was able to achieve breakthroughs by interviewingboth parents and their children in therapy. Bowlby dismissed the traditionalidea that existed amongst the professionals in the first half of the century,that the only functions of the mother was to provide food and protection. Hedescribed attachment theory as having “a lasting psychological connectednessbetween human beings” (Bowlby, 1969 cited by McLeod, 2009, p. 1).
Bowlbyclaimed that for an infant to grow up to live a heathy mental existence thatthey need to have experienced a warm, intimate, and stable relationship withits mother. He stated that attachment serves to keep the infant close to themother in order to improve the child’s chances of survival. Bowlby believed that the earliest bondsformed by infants and their caregivers have a huge impact and this impactcontinues throughout their adult life. He categorised three characteristics ofattachment as secure attachment, ambivalent attachment (the 7 year old boy) andavoidant attachment (the affectionless teenager). Basing his research onethological theory, Bowlby hypothesised that these attachment behaviours, suchas crying and searching, were responses to separation from the primaryattachment figure – the person that gives protection, care and support.
Becauseinfants cannot feed or protect themselves, they are also dependent upon theprotection of elders. He argued that through evolution, infants who remainclose to the attachment figure have higher survival rates. Bowlby recognisedthat there were individual reactions in the way infants view the accessibilityof the attachment figure and how they regulate the behaviour in response tothreats.
Bowlbyalso believed that there was a critical period of development of attachment.This ‘critical period’ was also illustrated in the work of Konrad Lorenz’spaper on imprinting, (1935, cited by McLeod, 2009, p. 4). Lorenz found thatgeese follow the first moving object they see, during a 12-17 hour criticalperiod after hatching.
This process is known as imprinting and suggests thatattachment is innate and programmed genetically. Another study that correspondswith Barlow’s beliefs was the ground-breaking research of rhesus monkeys in the1950s and 1960s by Harry Harlow (1958, cited by McLeod, 2009, p. 3). Harlowbegan a serious of experiments on infant monkeys by depriving them of theirbiological mothers and using substitute wire and terry cloth covered ‘mothers’.
The study found that the monkeys preferred choice was the terry-cloth covered’mothers’ who only provided comfort and security over the wire covered ‘mother’that provided food. It was also noted that monkeys who had cloth-covered’mothers’ were better at calming themselves when frightened with stimuli. Themonkeys with the wire-covered ‘mothers’ were very distressed when frightenedand would screech, clutch at themselves and rock to and forth. Harlow’s researchproved that attachment and bonding was more important to the mental health ofthe monkeys than just physical needs, i.e.
food. However,it was Mary Ainsworth who developed a technique called the Strange SituationTest that compounded Barlow’s theory of attachment. This study observed infantsand caregiver responses during periods of separation and reunion, in additionto the infant’s reaction to the presence of a stranger. This observationalresearch was conducted in a laboratory with babies between 12-18 months old. Inthe strange situation, securely attached infants – circa 65% – were upset when the mother left theroom but were easily comforted upon reunion. The infants also played easilywith toys and responded well with the stranger when the mother was in closeproximity. The child feels secure in the knowledge that the primary caregiveris sensitive to their signals and responds consistently to their needs.
Otherinfants were nervous and introverted and upon separation became extremelydistressed. When reunited with their mother these children were difficult tosooth, commonly exhibiting clingy and dependent behaviour, but also rejectingthe attachment figure when they engage in interaction. The infant was also seento avoid interaction with the stranger and less likely to play independentlywith toys. This behaviour results from the inconsistent level of response bythe caregiver to their needs and because of this the infant fails to developany feelings of security from the attachment figure. These infants wereclassified as having an Insecure Ambivalent/Resistant Attachment with theircaregiver, circa 10%. Athird category, Insecure Avoidant, circa 25%, infants showed no real signs ofdistress when the mother leaves the room. They are happy to play with toys,even in the presence of the stranger.
They showed little emotion when themother returns and both the mother and stranger are able to comfort the infantequally well. Insecure Avoidant children are associated with unresponsiveprimary care. The child comes to believe that communication of needs has noinfluence on the primary caregiver. A small amount of infants failed to developan organised response to their caregiver. These infants were later categorisedas insecure-disorganised, (Main, M., & Solomon, J. (1986). The caregiver isseen as hostile to the child.
Care is inconsistent, haphazard, harsh, rigid andabusive. The child is caught between having his needs met and a fear of theconsequences of doing so. Basedon research stated, the attachment behavioural system would mean that infantsbecome attached to their primary caregivers even if they don’t receive thecomfort and security to fulfil its needs. The strength and nature of thatattachment (secure/insecure) is based on how their needs were met by theirprimary caregivers. An infant who felt that their primary caregiver respondedwell to them feels more protected and safe. From this secure base, the babywill learn to explore his or her surroundings and react well in socialsituations. Infants that cannot form a secure attachment with their primarycaregiver display different characteristics. Although the need to form anattachment with the caregiver is innate, the behaviour of the infant will bemodified.
The baby will react either with great distress or be dismissive ifseparated or reunited with the caregiver. Because these infants haven’t formeda secure base they will be less likely to explore surroundings and their socialinteraction can go from being described as ‘clingy’ to ‘detached’. This principle of theory should meanthat a secure infant grows into a secure adult forming healthy relationshipsand living a healthy mental life. On the other hand, an infant that has aninsecure base will grow up finding it difficult to either trust or depend onothers. Incontrast some critics believe that all attachment figures are equally importantand that it is the interaction between infants with parents, siblings andextended family that form the secure base. In non-western societies child-rearingduties are distributed among a broader group of people (Tronick, Morelli, &Ivey, 1992 , cited in Keller, 2013, p. 183).
Critics may cite the old proverb’it takes a village to rear a child’. Anothertheory suggests that an infant’s behaviour is influenced by its inheritedtemperamental biases, independent of the mother’s sensitivity and the infant’sattachment bond. The small proportion of infants who inherit a temperamentthat renders them susceptible to extreme levels of uncertainty to unexpectedevents become very upset when the mother leaves and, therefore, are hard tosoothe.
These infants can have affectionate, sensitive mothers to whom they aresecurely attached. Other infants possess a temperament that allows them toremain calm when the mother leaves them alone in the unfamiliar room. They toocan have sensitive mothers to whom they are attached. A sufficient number ofstudies allow me to conclude that psychologists do not yet possess a sensitivemeasure of the quality of an infant’s relationship to each parent. Therefore,no one can know whether the nature of the infant’s attachment relationshipexerts a strong force on the future. (Kagan, 2013).
MichaelRutter also opposed Bowlby’s Attachment Theory in his book Maternal DeprivationReassessed (1979). Bowlby used the term deprivation to refer to the separation,loss or failure to develop an attachment between the infant and the primarycaregiver. Rutter claimed that each of the three scenarios have differenteffects on infants and differentiated between privation and deprivation.Michael Rutter (1981) argued that if a child fails to develop an attachment thisis privation, whereas deprivation refers to the loss of or damage to anattachment. Rutter carried out a survey in 1976 with boys aged between 9 and 12years old and found that boys were four times more likely to be delinquent ifthere was evidence of family stresses. He found no parallel between anti-socialbehaviour and separation from mothers and fathers. However, he did find thatchildren that came from families with low and medium stress levels and wherethe home is seen as a loving environment were less likely to become involvedwith anti-social behaviour. The opposite result was seen in families with ahigh level of stress.
From his survey of research on privation, Rutter proposedthat it is likely to lead initially to clinging, dependent behavior,attention-seeking and indiscriminate friendliness, then as the child matures,an inability to keep rules, form lasting relationships, or feel guilt. He alsofound evidence of anti-social behavior, affectionless psychopathy, anddisorders of language, intellectual development and physical growth. Rutterargues that these problems are not due solely to the lack of attachment to amother figure, as Bowlby claimed, but to factors such as the lack ofintellectual stimulation and social experiences which attachments normallyprovide. In addition, such problems can be overcome later in the child’sdevelopment, with the right kind of care.
(McLeod, S. A. 2008). Manyhealthcare professionals and foster parents would concur with this research. Ina study of 150 children adopted between the years of five and twelve it wasreported that: “Children hadturned out to be more normal and less maladjusted than the original homecircumstances would have suggested, he summarises other studies of recoveryfrom early adverse circumstances and notes that neurotic children frequentlybecome well adjusted adults and that there is no direct relationship betweenchildhood diagnosis and adult prognosis.
(Kadushin, A., 1970 cited in Clarke,A.M.
, & Clarke, A.D., (1976). Bowlby’sfocus was on the nature of the relationship between the infant and the primarycaregiver and he also believed that attachment characterised human experiencefrom “the cradle to the grave”. However, further research began to question theimportance of attachment figures throughout our whole lives.
There is evidencethat there is a strong continuity between infant attachment patterns, child andadolescent patterns and adult attachment patterns. Young children perform bettersocially and are more independent when coming from a secure base. Adolescentshave a strong attachment relationship with their peers but need to know thatthe secure base is still within reach if they are experiencing difficulties.Research into Adult Attachment is fairly new but a study by JulianneHolt-Lunstad and her colleagues at Brigham Young University, Utah (2015) havefound “the influence of both objective and subjective social isolation on riskfor mortality is comparable with well-established risk factors for mortality”.The study entitled: Loneliness and Social Isolation as Risk Factors for Mortality:A Meta-Analytic Review claims that social isolation increases your risk ofdeath by an astounding 30%.
They found that loneliness may be more of asignificant health factor than obesity, exercise, nutrition, smoking ordrinking alcohol in excess. It seems that human beings do have an innate needfor a secure base attachment at every stage in their life – not only for theirmental health quality but also for their physical health too. Bowlby’s and Ainsworth’s Theory ofAttachment was revolutionary at the time but now we are beginning to understandthat it’s not just our primary caregiver or mother who shapes the way in which wecan live happy, secure lives but that as we grow older we need to be able toform new primary attachment relationships with lots of individuals to be ableto flourish. Ainsworth, M. D. S. (1963). Thedevelopment of infant-mother interaction among the Ganda.
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