Attachment is a deep and long-lasting emotional tie that connects one person with another.
Bowlby’s theory of attachment suggests that despite forming multiple attachments with significant others in our life (e.g., with parents, children, siblings, friends, romantic partners, etc), early parent-children attachment from infancy is the most crucial form of attachment that sets the tone for our subsequent cognitive, social and emotional development. Besides that, the theory also highlights that there is a critical period between 6 to 9 months from birth for the development of attachment to parents. If attachment were not formed during this critical period, it would be difficult to develop later and cause irreversible negative consequences at the later stages of life.
Stages of attachment
Schaffer and Emerson (1964) conducted a longitudinal study and outlined 4 main stages of attachment development. These stages are:
- 0 to 6 weeks old
- Infants at a very early age are unable to discriminate between social and inanimate objects. They produce similar reactions such as smiling at both the caregiver (social figure) and their toys (asocial figure).
- 6 weeks old to 7 months old
- Infants start to show a preference for the human company over inanimate objects. They tend to smile when looking at familiar faces than non-familiar faces. However, infants still have not shown any specific attachment to a particular person at this stage.
- 7 months old to 9 months old
- Specific attachment is formed when the infants show a particular preference for a single person. They start to experience separation anxiety (e.g., protesting when their primary caregiver leave) and stranger anxiety (e.g., feeling distressed when faced with strangers)
- 10 months old onwards
- In addition to the specific attachment figure that the infants preferred in the previous stage, the infants start to form multiple attachments with other people such as their secondary caregivers and less likely to experience separation anxiety as well as stranger anxiety.
Types of attachment styles
To explore a variety of mother-infant attachment styles, Mary Ainsworth designed an experiment known as the “Strange Situation”. In the experiment, the mother and the baby were first in the room. Later, a stranger came to join them. The mother then left the room, leaving the baby with the stranger alone. After that, the mother returned to reunite with the baby. Based on the responses displayed by the baby at each instance, different types of attachment styles were identified:
In the presence of their mother, the babies explored the room freely and were friendly towards the stranger. However, they felt distressed upon their mother’s departure and avoided the stranger when left with the stranger alone. When the mother returned, the infants welcomed their mother happily. It seems like the mother was treated as a safe base for the babies to venture into the unfamiliar surroundings.
The babies tend to be clingy towards their mother and did not explore much around the unfamiliar environment. Similar to the babies with secure attachment style, the babies in this category experienced distress when the mother left them and tried to avoid the stranger in the room. Upon the reunion with their mother, the babies approached the mother for comfort but resisted contact when offered by the mother.
The babies were aloof with the presence of their mother and tended to run away from her. They exhibited no signs of distress when their mother left them and did not show any anxiety to the stranger. On their mother’s return, they failed to greet their mother.
How is attachment developed?
One might think that attachment is developed between the infant and the person whom he or she spends the most time with. However, research showed that this is not necessarily true. Instead, attachment is more likely to be formed between the person that is most sensitive and responsive to the infants’ verbal and non-verbal signals such as their sounds or facial expressions.
During the past few decades, the understanding of attachment was largely dominated by the behaviorists’ viewpoints that the provision of food is the basis of attachment such that infants are attached to their mother because the mother is the one who usually feeds them. However, this prevailing view was challenged later.
In Harlow’s (1958) experiment, rhesus monkeys were isolated from their mother and placed with two inanimate surrogate mothers which were made by wire: one covered with cloth (“cloth-mother”) but one without (“wire-mother”). Although the food was placed with the “wire mother”, the rhesus monkeys spent the most time with the “cloth-mother” that provided comfort but only swapped over to the “wire mother” for food when they were hungry. Therefore, physical tactile contact is also essential for the development of parents-infant attachment and the infant-parent relationship is more than just the fulfillment of the physiological need for food.
The attachment styles of the children are based on how the parents interact and respond to their children. Parents who are sensitive to their child’s needs and provide responses such as appropriate emotional feedback and physical comfort are likely to raise a child with a secure attachment style. Conversely, children experiencing maternal deprivation who do not get appropriate care from their parents and those who are often verbally criticised by their parents since young are likely to be insecurely attached to their parents.
What are the important implications of early attachment in later life?
The Internal Working Model suggests that the early attachment with parents forms a prototype that guides the way that we perceive ourselves, evaluate others, and form relationships with others. Children who are securely attached are more likely to see themselves as worthy human-being and are able to establish trust in others. Thus, they are more capable of maintaining a stable relationship in the later stages of their life. On the other hand, children with insecure-resistant attachment have low self-confidence and are dependent on their primary caregivers. They also tend to avoid forming any form of relationship as they like to isolate themselves from others. Children with insecure-avoidant attachment styles are less capable of stress management. They are more likely to give up on challenging activities and resist seeking help from others. Furthermore, antisocial behaviors and aggression are often displayed in children with this type of attachment style which makes it difficult for them to form a good relationship with others.
Take home message
In this article, attachment is illustrated as an enduring emotional bond between children and their parents. Although the attachment is not limited to a parent-children relationship, it is the fundamental basis for the healthy development of relationships with others. Therefore, parents need to understand how attachment develops and be sensitive, supportive, and responsive to their children to promote a decent parent-child relationship.
Ackerman, C. (2020). What is Attachment Theory? Bowlby’s 4 Stages Explained. Retrieved 21 July 2020, from https://positivepsychology.com/attachment-theory/
Ainsworth, M. D. (1973). The development of infant-mother attachment. Review of child development research, 3.
Bowlby J. (1969). Attachment. Attachment and loss: Vol. 1. Loss. New York: Basic Books.
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McLeod, S. A. (2017, February 05). Attachment theory. Simply Psychology. https://www.simplypsychology.org/attachment.html
Mitchell, P., & Ziegler, F. (2013). Fundamentals of developmental psychology (2nd ed.). Hove: Psychology Press.
Harlow, H. F. (1958). The nature of love. American psychologist, 13(12), 673.
Schaffer, H. R., & Emerson, P. E. (1964). The development of social attachments in infancy. Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development, 1-77.