The nature and quality of the interactions that an infant has with his or her caregiver is crucial in determining the emotional and social development of a child. This is accordance to the attachment theory which traces its roots to John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth. The theory was pioneered and formulated by Bowlby but it is Ainsworth innovativeness that would expound and test the major tenets outlined by Bowlby. This theory has focused on the importance of a good relationship and responsiveness of the caregiver to the child, giving her a sense of security that will go a long way in molding its thoughts and personality in the adult life.
Bowlby (1973) defined attachment as “any form of behavior that results in a person attaining or retaining proximity to some other differentiated and preferred individuals, usually conceived as stronger/or wiser.” It is an instinctual attachment that grows between a child and a caregiver aimed at enhancing its survival. Should this attachment be severed due to separation, the child goes through a distressful phase as he frantically searches for the caregiver. It is important to point out that this attachment is not developed immediately but it takes months to nurture. Such an attachment may be with several individuals depending on the level of their responsiveness, mostly though, a stronger attachment is developed with the principal caregiver. Although the primary caregiver is usually the mother, it is not necessarily so as sometimes it maybe with another close individual, this depends on the level of synchronicity and responsiveness.
The conclusions that forms the basis of the attachment theory found out that attachment is principally as a result of proximity, infants identify with certain caregivers to survive through stressful circumstances. They are attached to those caregivers that are responsive to their social interaction needs and those that are attentive to them in the first two years of age. Infants, with time, learn to attach certain cues to certain expectations. When a particular cue is given, the infant is aware that he or she is supposed to behave in a certain way. Likewise, the caregiver learns to respond to certain behaviors exhibited by the child. It is this responsiveness that leads to the development of internal working models in the child; this means that the child places certain expectations on the responsiveness of the caregivers. This helps to the infant and the caregiver to predict each other’s behavior which is crucial in accomplishing relational goals. At the end of two years, children will have established the attachment figures as a base turning to them when they feel insecure. It is the nature of a parent’s responsiveness and the infant’s patterns of attachment that will determine the child’s feelings, personality and attitudes to interpersonal relationships in the adult life. As has been established, lack of proper parenting may result to attachment disorders in later life (Bee, 2000).
Bowlby’s attachment theory would have been incomplete without the input of Mary Ainsworth, a renowned psychologist. She took the theory further by introducing additional concepts that shed a light on the patterns and styles of attachment. Ainsworth carried out an elaborate experiment referred to as the strange situation. This is an experiment that involved a close observation of an infant’s behavior when the parent was around, when not around, when a stranger was around together with the mother and when only the stranger was present. According to the conclusion reached in the experiment, when the parent was absent, the child developed an anxious distress due to the separation. The intensity of this distress, as was observed, differed from one child to another and is likely to be a function of the strength of the responsiveness and the attachment that the child had with the parent. A child’s behavior is dependent on the mothers or the caregivers responsiveness; “infants whose mothers provided attuned responsiveness during the first three months cried less later on and sought less contact at ten to twelve moths, however, when contact did occur, it was more satisfying and affectionate.” (Jerrold & Shoshanna 48)
Ainsworth used the findings of this Strange Situation Protocol to establish the nature of different attachment styles that children have with their caregivers. Secure attachments arise when infants have caregivers that are responsive to their needs. This attachment, Peter refers to it as “representational systems where the attachment figure is seen as accessible and responsive when needed.” (2001, 12) Children that were securely attached to their caregivers had established a secure base from which they could explore the surrounding environment with some measure of separation anxiety but which would be immediately alleviated upon the return to the caregiver. Avoidant attachment was exhibited when the child indicated minimal level of separation anxiety in the absence of the caregiver and no enthusiasm at the prospect of resuming contacts with them. These infants are mostly distant and avoid having contact with the parent or the caregiver. They exhibit minimal or no anxiety when the parent is not around and similarly no positive response when such a caretaker returns to the scene. The third established attachment pattern is referred to as the anxious- ambivalent attachment. This is a form of attachment observed in infants of caregivers who indicate inconsistencies in their responsiveness to the children. Such infants exhibit immense separation anxiety when the caregiver leaves and also great hesitancy or irritation when they are present. Such children tend to warm to strangers when the caregiver is absent and exhibit unwillingness to warm towards the caregiver when he or she returns. The fourth type of attachment that has been identified in later years is disorganized attachment. This is where an infant develops an extreme avoidant behavior viewing the caregiver as a source of possible danger and security. This may lead to relational disorders in the adult life (Davenport, 1994).
The focus of Bowlby and Ainsworth has been on the psychosocial development of a child and how the initial care of an infant can go along way in influencing a child’s personality, thoughts and attitudes towards interpersonal relationships in the adult life. Erickson, in his theory of psychosocial development holds similar views on the effect that the primary care giving of a child has on the development of a personality. Core to this theory is the formation of the ego identity. Ego identity according to Erickson is a subconscious self that formed through interpersonal interactions. A persons competence in later is determined by the level of the ego or what he refers to as ego quality. This is derived and developed in the early stages of childhood. Erikson has outlined two stages of psychosocial development. The first stage spans from birth to one year and he terms it as the most crucial in human development. Like Bowlby and Ainsworth in the attachment theory, Erikson reiterates the need to develop a responsive relationship between the caregiver and the infant. At this age, a child depends on the caregiver for everything and hence there is a need to develop trust. If such trust is established, it imbues a sense of safety and security. Consistent responsiveness of the caregiver towards the infant aids in the development of a good personality and confidence in adult life. Emotional detachment and inconsistency results into fear and inadequacies in life.
The second stage still is in the early stages of childhood and is aimed at imbuing a sense of control of how the body functions. This stage sees a child develop independence by being handling various body functions on his or her own. He develops a sense of choice depending on preferences. A successful completion of this stage see children grow into an independent and confident adult that has confidence in what he or she does. On the other hand, those that fail to fail to have a sense of control grow up with inadequacies and insecurities in life (James & Charles).
Indeed the proper psychosocial development of a child is a product of the quality that he or she receives from the primary caregiver. As Bowlby’s attachment theory observes, infants tend to identify with their attachment figures for security and survival. It is the nature of the caregiver’s responsiveness that leads to the development of the various styles of attachment as outlined by Ainsworth. A secure infant is as a result of consistent responsiveness from the caregiver while avoidant infant receives inconsistent responses from the caregiver. To Erikson, this initial care giving is crucial as it impacts on an individuals self confidence and feeling of security in future undertakings. Children that have established a feeling of trust with the caregiver develop a sense of self security and confidence in their adult life and vice versa.
Bowlby, John (1988). A Secure Base, Routledge, London
Davenport, G. C., (1994) An introduction to child development, Collins Educational, London
Bee, Helen (2000) The Developing Child Allyn and Bacon, London
Jerrold R. B., Shoshana R. (2007) Attachment and Dynamic Practice: An Integrative Guide for Social Workers and Other Clinicians. Columbia University Press.
James E. C.Charles G. L. (2002) Identity Formation, Agency, and Culture: A Social Psychological Synthesis. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Peter, Fonagy (2001) Attachment theory and psychoanalysis. Other Press, LLC.