Understanding Attachment and Its Lasting Impact
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Nour Bazzy
· 10 min read

A child’s attachment style to a parental figure builds the foundation and the prediction for attachment styles in future relationships, whether romantic or platonic. An attachment style is defined as the type of bond that a child develops between themselves and a caregiver.

According to John Bowlby, who was the first attachment theorist, described attachment as a ‘lasting psychological connectedness between human beings.’ When children were separated from their primary caregivers, Bowlby observed that this separation anxiety or fear could not be diminished until the child sought proximity from a primary caregiver for safety and care. In addition, Bowlby also proposed that the child’s chances of survival can be significantly improv through attachment since the child will be close to the mother.

Although previous behavioural theorists viewed attachment as a learned behavior, John Bowlby suggested that attachment is an innate drive to form attachment with caregivers. Therefore, from this evolutionary perspective, research has shown that historically, children who sustained a proximity to an attachment figure were more likely to survive to adulthood due to them receiving constant care and protection. This entails that natural selection has designed a system to regulate attachment in humans.

Psychologist Mary Ainsworth has supported Bowlby’s original work through her 1970’s research. Ainsworth designed a study known as ‘Strange situation’, which revealed ground-breaking results on the effects of attachment on behavior. In the study, children between the ages of 12-18 months were briefly left alone and then reunited with their mothers. Researchers in this study were required to observe the behavior of children throughout the process. The results of the study yielded the development of three major types of attachment: secure attachment, ambivalent-insecure attachment, and avoidant-insecure attachment. A fourth type of attachment: disorganized-insecure attachment was later added by two researchers Main and Solomon.

Types of Attachment

Secure attachment:

Children who can depend on their caregivers show distress when separated and joy when reunited. Although the child may be upset, they feel assured that the caregiver will return. When frightened, securely attached children are comfortable seeking reassurance from caregivers.

Ambivalent - insecure attachment:

These children become very distressed when a parent leaves. Ambivalent attachment style is considered uncommon, affecting an estimated 7–15% of U.S. children. As a result of poor parental availability, these children cannot depend on their primary caregiver to be there when they need them.

Avoidant - insecure attachment:

Children with an avoidant attachment tend to avoid parents or caregivers, showing no preference between a caregiver and a complete stranger. This attachment style might be a result of abusive or neglectful caregivers. Children who are punished for relying on a caregiver will learn to avoid seeking help in the future.

Disorganized – insecure attachment:

These children display a confusing mix of behavior, seeming disoriented, dazed, or confused. They may avoid or resist the parent. Lack of a clear attachment pattern is likely linked to inconsistent caregiver behavior. In such cases, parents may serve as both a source of comfort and fear, leading to disorganized behavior.

How does the attachment form?

It was through Rudolph Schaffer and Peggy Emerson’s research that the stages of attachment were discovered. Both researchers developed a longitudinal study in which they analyzed the number of attachments formed by 60 infants. During the first year of the infants’ lives, they were observed every four weeks, and then once every 18 months. Therefore, based on their observations, Schaffer and Emerson discovered four stages of attachment:

1. Pre-Attachment Stage

From birth to 3 months, infants do not show any particular attachment to a specific caregiver. The infant's signals, such as crying and fussing, naturally attract the attention of the caregiver and the baby's positive responses encourage the caregiver to remain close.

2. Indiscriminate Attachment

Between 6 weeks of age to 7 months, infants begin to show preferences for primary and secondary caregivers. Infants develop trust that the caregiver will respond to their needs. While they still accept care from others, infants start distinguishing between familiar and unfamiliar people, responding more positively to the primary caregiver.

3. Discriminate Attachment

At this point, from about 7 to 11 months of age, infants show a strong attachment and preference for one specific individual. They will protest when separated from the primary attachment figure (separation anxiety), and begin to display anxiety around strangers (stranger anxiety).

4. Multiple Attachments

After approximately 9 months of age, children begin to form strong emotional bonds with other caregivers beyond the primary attachment figure. This often includes the father, older siblings, and grandparents.

What happens later?

Several research has shown that lacking to form secure attachments during infancy has a long-lasting negative effect on the child’s behaviors in later childhood and even throughout life. For instance, disorders such as oppositional defiant disorder (ODD), conduct disorder (CD), and post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are often diagnosed in children who frequently display attachment problems. These attachment issues can possibly be due to neglect, abuse, or trauma. Some clinicians have suggested that adoption of children beyond age 6 is considered a risk factor for the development of attachment problems.

Not all attachment styles which are seen in infancy are similarly displayed in adulthood. However, early attachments dictate the path for later relationships, and has a very significant impact on self-esteem and self-reliance. Studies have indicated that those with a secure attachment tend to have positive self-esteem, strong romantic relationships, and successful social relationships. In addition, these children perform better in school and are less exposed to depression and anxiety. All 3 insecure attachments play as risk factors to the development of mood disorders and anxiety disorders.


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