What do you know about attachment theory

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Attachment theory is a psychological model that attempts to describe the dynamics of long-term and short-term interpersonal relationships between humans. However, “attachment theory is not formulated as a general theory of relationships. It addresses only a specific facet” how human beings respond within relationships when hurt, separated from loved ones, or perceiving a threat. Essentially all infants become attached if provided any caregiver, but there are individual differences in the quality of the relationships. In infants, attachment as a motivational and behavioral system directs the child to seek proximity with a familiar caregiver when they are alarmed, with the expectation that they will receive protection and emotional support. John Bowlby believed that the tendency for primate infants to develop attachments to familiar caregivers was the result of evolutionary pressures, since attachment behavior would facilitate the infant’s survival in the face of dangers such as predation or exposure to the elements.
The most important tenet of attachment theory is that an infant needs to develop a relationship with at least one primary caregiver for the child’s successful social and emotional development, and in particular for learning how to effectively regulate their feelings. Fathers or any other individuals, are equally likely to become principal attachment figures if they provide most of the child care and related social interaction. In the presence of a sensitive and responsive caregiver, the infant will use the caregiver as a “safe base” from which to explore. It should be recognized that “even sensitive caregivers get it right only about 50 percent of the time. Their communications are either out of synch, or mismatched. There are times when parents feel tired or distracted. The telephone rings or there is breakfast to prepare. In other words, attuned interactions rupture quite frequently. But the hallmark of a sensitive caregiver is that the ruptures are managed and repaired.”

Attachments between infants and caregivers form even if this caregiver is not sensitive and responsive in social interactions with them. This has important implications. Infants cannot exit unpredictable or insensitive caregiving relationships. Instead they must manage themselves as best they can within such relationships. Based on her established Strange Situation Protocol, research by developmental psychologist Mary Ainsworth in the 1960s and 1970s found that children will have different patterns of attachment depending primarily on how they experienced their early caregiving environment. Early patterns of attachment, in turn, shape — but do not determine — the individual’s expectations in later relationships. Four different attachment classifications have been identified in children: secure attachment, anxious-ambivalent attachment, anxious-avoidant attachment, and disorganized attachment. Attachment theory has become the dominant theory used today in the study of infant and toddler behavior and in the fields of infant mental health, treatment of children, and related fields. Secure attachment is when children feel they can rely on their caregivers to attend to their needs of proximity, emotional support and protection. It is considered to be the best attachment style. Anxious-ambivalent attachment is when the infant feels separation anxiety when separated from the caregiver and does not feel reassured when the caregiver returns to the infant. Anxious-avoidant attachment is when the infant avoids their parents. Disorganized attachment is when there is a lack of attachment behavior. In the 1980s, the theory was extended to attachment in adults. Attachment applies to adults when adults feel close attachment to their parents and their romantic partners.

A Biological Instinct

Within attachment theory, attachment means “a biological instinct in which proximity to an attachment figure is sought when the child senses or perceives threat or discomfort. Attachment behaviour anticipates a response by the attachment figure which will remove threat or discomfort”. Such bonds may be reciprocal between two adults, but between a child and a caregiver these bonds are based on the child’s need for safety, security and protection, paramount in infancy and childhood. John Bowlby begins by noting that organisms at different levels of the phylogenetic scale regulate instinctive behavior in distinct ways, ranging from primitive reflex-like “fixed action patterns” to complex plan hierarchies with subgoals and strong learning components. In the most complex organisms, instinctive behaviors may be “goal-corrected” with continual on-course adjustments (such as a bird of prey adjusting its flight to the movements of the prey). The concept of cybernetically controlled behavioral systems organized as plan hierarchies (Miller, Galanter, and Pribram, 1960) thus came to replace Freud’s concept of drive and instinct. Such systems regulate behaviors in ways that need not be rigidly innate, but—depending on the organism—can adapt in greater or lesser degrees to changes in environmental circumstances, provided that these do not deviate too much from the organism’s environment of evolutionary adaptedness. Such flexible organisms pay a price, however, because adaptable behavioral systems can more easily be subverted from their optimal path of development. For humans, Bowlby speculates, the environment of evolutionary adaptedness probably resembles that of present-day hunter-gatherer societies for the purpose of survival, and, ultimately, genetic replication.Attachment theory is not an exhaustive description of human relationships, nor is it synonymous with love and affection, although these may indicate that bonds exist.Some infants direct attachment behaviour (proximity seeking) toward more than one attachment figure almost as soon as they start to show discrimination between caregivers; most come to do so during their second year. These figures are arranged hierarchically, with the principal attachment figure at the top. The set-goal of the attachment behavioural system is to maintain the accessibility and availability of the attachment figure. “Alarm” is the term used for activation of the attachment behavioural system caused by fear of danger. “Anxiety” is the anticipation or fear of being cut off from the attachment figure. If the figure is unavailable or unresponsive, separation distress occurs. In infants, physical separation can cause anxiety and anger, followed by sadness and despair. By age three or four, physical separation is no longer such a threat to the child’s bond with the attachment figure. Threats to security in older children and adults arise from prolonged absence, breakdowns in communication, emotional unavailability, or signs of rejection or abandonment.

The attachment behavioural system serves to achieve or maintain proximity to the attachment figure. Pre-attachment behaviours occur in the first six months of life. During the first phase (the first eight weeks), infants smile, babble, and cry to attract the attention of potential caregivers. Although infants of this age learn to discriminate between caregivers, these behaviours are directed at anyone in the vicinity. During the second phase (two to six months), the infant increasingly discriminates between familiar and unfamiliar adults, becoming more responsive toward the caregiver; following and clinging are added to the range of behaviours. Clear-cut attachment develops in the third phase, between the ages of six months and two years. The infant’s behaviour toward the caregiver becomes organized on a goal-directed basis to achieve the conditions that make it feel secure. By the end of the first year, the infant is able to display a range of attachment behaviours designed to maintain proximity. These manifest as protesting the caregiver’s departure, greeting the caregiver’s return, clinging when frightened, and following when able.With the development of locomotion, the infant begins to use the caregiver or caregivers as a “safe base” from which to explore. Infant exploration is greater when the caregiver is present because the infant’s attachment system is relaxed and it is free to explore. If the caregiver is inaccessible or unresponsive, attachment behaviour is more strongly exhibited. Anxiety, fear, illness, and fatigue will cause a child to increase attachment behaviours.

A balance stone in a zen water
A balance stone in a zen water

After the second year, as the child begins to see the caregiver as an independent person, a more complex and goal-corrected partnership is formed. Children begin to notice others’ goals and feelings and plan their actions accordingly. For example, whereas babies cry because of pain, two-year-olds cry to summon their caregiver, and if that does not work, cry louder, shout, or follow.

Common attachment behaviours and emotions, displayed in most social primates including humans, are adaptive. The long-term evolution of these species has involved selection for social behaviors that make individual or group survival more likely. The commonly observed attachment behaviour of toddlers staying near familiar people would have had safety advantages in the environment of early adaptation, and has similar advantages today. Bowlby saw the environment of early adaptation as similar to current hunter-gatherer societies. There is a survival advantage in the capacity to sense possibly dangerous conditions such as unfamiliarity, being alone, or rapid approach. According to Bowlby, proximity-seeking to the attachment figure in the face of threat is the “set-goal” of the attachment behavioural system.

Bowlby’s original account of a sensitivity period

Bowlby’s original account of a sensitivity period during which attachments can form of between six months and two to three years has been modified by later researchers. These researchers have shown that there is indeed a sensitive period during which attachments will form if possible, but the time frame is broader and the effect less fixed and irreversible than first proposed. With further research, authors discussing attachment theory have come to appreciate that social development is affected by later as well as earlier relationships. Early steps in attachment take place most easily if the infant has one caregiver, or the occasional care of a small number of other people. According to Bowlby, almost from the first many children have more than one figure toward whom they direct attachment behaviour. These figures are not treated alike; there is a strong bias for a child to direct attachment behaviour mainly toward one particular person. Bowlby used the term “monotropy” to describe this bias. Researchers and theorists have abandoned this concept insofar as it may be taken to mean that the relationship with the special figure differs qualitatively from that of other figures. Rather, current thinking postulates definite hierarchies of relationships.

Early experiences with caregivers gradually give rise to a system of thoughts, memories, beliefs, expectations, emotions, and behaviours about the self and others. This system, called the “internal working model of social relationships”, continues to develop with time and experience. Internal models regulate, interpret, and predict attachment-related behaviour in the self and the attachment figure. As they develop in line with environmental and developmental changes, they incorporate the capacity to reflect and communicate about past and future attachment relationships. They enable the child to handle new types of social interactions; knowing, for example, that an infant should be treated differently from an older child, or that interactions with teachers and parents share characteristics. This internal working model continues to develop through adulthood, helping cope with friendships, marriage, and parenthood, all of which involve different behaviours and feelings. The development of attachment is a transactional process. Specific attachment behaviours begin with predictable, apparently innate, behaviours in infancy. They change with age in ways that are determined partly by experiences and partly by situational factors. As attachment behaviours change with age, they do so in ways shaped by relationships. A child’s behaviour when reunited with a caregiver is determined not only by how the caregiver has treated the child before, but on the history of effects the child has had on the caregiver.

Biology of attachment

In addition to longitudinal studies, there has been psychophysiological research on the biology of attachment.Research has begun to include neural development, behaviour genetics and temperament concepts. Generally, temperament and attachment constitute separate developmental domains, but aspects of both contribute to a range of interpersonal and intrapersonal developmental outcomes. Some types of temperament may make some individuals susceptible to the stress of unpredictable or hostile relationships with caregivers in the early years.In the absence of available and responsive caregivers it appears that some children are particularly vulnerable to developing attachment disorders.
In psychophysiological research on attachment, the two main areas studied have been autonomic responses, such as heart rate or respiration, and the activity of the hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal axis. Infants’ physiological responses have been measured during the Strange Situation procedure looking at individual differences in infant temperament and the extent to which attachment acts as a moderator. There is some evidence that the quality of caregiving shapes the development of the neurological systems which regulate stress.

Another issue is the role of inherited genetic factors in shaping attachments: for example one type of polymorphism of the gene coding for the D2 dopamine receptor has been linked to anxious attachment and another in the gene for the 5-HT2A serotonin receptor with avoidant attachment.This suggests that the influence of maternal care on attachment security is not the same for all children. One theoretical basis for this is that it makes biological sense for children to vary in their susceptibility to rearing influence

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