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Attachment Theory and Styles

Attachment Theory and Styles

Author: Erick Taggart

Identify the different ways that attachment can occur during development.

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Source: baby monkey: public domain;

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Hello, class. So in the 1960s a psychologist named Harry Harlow embarked on a series of somewhat controversial experiments that showed the importance of forming attachments of love and affection towards some kind of parental figure.

What Harlow did was he took baby rhesus monkeys away from their mothers and put them in a room with surrogate mothers of different qualities. So one was made of wire, even though it had food attached to it. A bottle to provide milk. And one was made of terry cloth. So it felt a bit more like a mother monkey.

What he found with these experiments is that the baby monkeys tended to gravitate more towards the mothers that were covered with terry cloth. And this was why he postulated that they needed a certain contact comfort. Which is a pleasant reassuring feeling that the monkeys got from touching or clinging to something that was soft and warm, which is usually their mother. But in this case was the surrogate mother covered in terry cloth.

When fear stimuli were introduced, in other words, when something frightening was put into the cage with it, he found that the baby monkeys would cling to the mothers and wouldn't explore the room or wouldn't move away from the mothers even, when there wasn't anything frightening around. They tended to stay close to them. So this led to the idea, or it expanded on the idea, that attachment was an important role, or played an important role in early development.

So what is attachment? Well attachment is a close emotional bond that an infant forms with either a parent or caregiver of some sort. So there's a sensitive period during that first year of life when a child needs to form certain attachments. They begin to prefer their mother over other people very early on in life. But they start to establish those close emotional bonds with the mother as well as the father very early on. Essentially the mother or the father, any kind of caregiver, acts as a sort of home base. A place where they feel safe and secure and from which they can go out and explore the rest of the world.

Now a normal sign that attachment has occurred is something called separation anxiety, which is a certain distress that a child displays when their caregiver is taken away. When they're separated from their parents or their caregiver. This is something like they might start crying or flailing or showing signs of fear. Things like this. So this is a normal thing and it shows that attachment, in the correct way, is occurring.

Now the psychologist, Mary Ainsworth, around 1967 published an article which told about different qualities of attachment that children can develop. One of these styles of attachment is a successful one. Whereas the other two were unsuccessful ones.

So let's explore attachment a bit more and see what the different categories are. So the first and the best style of attachment the Ainsworth recognized is called secure attachment. Which is a healthy emotional bond where the parent and the child successfully form a positive relationship with each other. This means that the child will use the parent as a sort of home base. A place from which they'll go to explore the rest of their environment around them.

The child also shows separation anxiety when the parent or the caregiver leaves the room. As well as showing relief and desire to reunite with the parent or caregiver when they return back to the room.

To form a secure attachment requires the parent to show an appropriate, as well as a consistent, which is to say over time continually to showing this kinds of attention, a sensitivity and responsiveness to the needs of the child themselves. This means that if the child cries out because they want something, the parent doesn't ignore those cries. They respond to it. But in an appropriate way. Not overly or in a smaller sort of way.

Now on the other hand we have our other two styles of attachment. The first is insecure-avoidant attachment, which is a anxious emotional bond. It's marked by the tendency for the child to ignore the parent when they return from being away. Which is to say that they don't necessarily show any kind of separation anxiety when the parent or the caregiver leaves the room. As well as no desire to get back with them.

They don't show any kind of affection when they're playing or being held by the parents. And they tend to treat the parent as a stranger. There's no kinds of distress when the caregiver leaves the room as well. So this style of attachment is caused by a little or no responsiveness by the parent to the child's needs. So if they're calling out or crying because they need something, the parent just generally ignores them. And this is often caused by parents who are trying to encourage independence in their children. They're trying to let them develop on their own. And as a result, they develop a negative attachment.

And the final style of attachment is insecure-ambivalent, which is an unsuccessful emotional bond between the parent and the child where the parent shows, or the child shows some distress when the parent leaves the room. But when the parent actually returns, they don't really show any kind of desire to be reunited with them. They don't try to come back to the parent when they come back. So as you see it's a bit of hot and cold with the child responses to the parents.

So the child might be constantly preoccupied with the caretaker's availability, making sure that they're there for them. And they try to seek some kind of contact with them. However, they can also show that they're a bit uncaring towards the parents as well. And it can take time to warm back up to them when the parent returns to the room.

And this style of attachment is caused by inconsistent responses by the parent as well. So you can see how those two relate to each other. So the parent might sometimes respond to the child when they're in distress and sometimes not. So it's difficult for the child to figure out the parent in this style. And this covers all the different styles of attachment that Ainsworth recognized.

Terms to Know
Insecure-Avoidant Attachment

Don’t show distress when the caregiver leaves, when the caregiver comes back the child continues to play instead of seeking out the caregiver.

Secure Attachment

Stable bond, infants who use their parent as a safe home base from which they can explore their environments.

Separation Anxiety

Signs of distress displayed by infants when they are separated from their parents or caregivers, i.e. crying, flailing.