Beginnings Out of the meeting of psychoanalytic theory, World War II, and ethology was born what we now know as attachment theory. Because John Bowlby, a British psychoanalyst was “uneasy about the reliability of our observations, the obscurity of any of our hypotheses and, above all, the absence of any tradition which demands that hypotheses be tested (1979, p. 36), he sought to bring greater scientific discipline into his field.
Bowlby was already working with maladapted and delinquent children but his interest in this population was increased by wartime events involving separation of young children from familiar people such as the evacuation of children from London to keep them safe from air raids. Bowlby was further influenced by the work of ethologists like Harlow, Tinbergen, and Lorenz. Lorenz had already observed and described imprinting behavior among many animal species during critical time periods, thus showing that social bond formation need not be linked to feeding.
Harlow’s work showed that separation had a profoundly negative effect on infant moneys’ psychological well-being. All this plus his growing interest in the link between maternal deprivation and later personality development eventually led Bowlby to formulate his tenets of attachment theory. His views were initially ignored or condemned by his peers, but ultimately became, “The dominant approach to understanding early social development, and has given rise to a great surge of empirical research into the formation of children’s close relationships” (Shaffer, 2007). The Theory
Attachment theory believes that the earliest bonds formed by children with their caregivers have a tremendous impact that continues throughout life. According to Bowlby, infants develop attachments to caregivers–primarily mothers–in order to ensure infant survival. Attachment is a special emotional relationship that involves an exchange of comfort, care, and pleasure. Bowlby describes it as, “lasting psychological connectedness between human beings” (1969, p. 194). He believed that, “the infant and young child should experience a warm, intimate, and continuous relationship ith his mother (or permanent substitute) in which both find satisfaction and enjoyment. ” There are four key components of attachment. The child always has a safe haven to which he or she can return to for comfort and soothing. The caregiver provides a secure and dependable base for the child to explore the world. The child strives to stay near the caregiver, thus keeping the child safe; this is referred to as proximity maintenance. When separated from the caregiver, the child becomes distressed(Cherry).
Mary Ainsworth expanded on Bowlby’s work and created the “Strange Situation” experiments which documented a series of separations and reunions between mothers and their toddlers in a controlled setting. This allowed much empirical research to accumulate. Based on her observations and inferences about the quality of the attachment of the pairs, she concluded that there were three types of attachment relationships: secure, insecure-avoidance, and insecure-ambivalent, later researchers added the fourth type of disorganized-insecure (Ainsworth & Bowlby, 1991).
These experiments enabled the elusive quality of mother-child emotions to now be measured and demonstrated that infants were not passive recipients of oral gratification as Freud has believed; rather they actively sought contact with the caregiver and strongly protested when it was denied (Wylie & Turner). There is substantial research Some of the major strengths of Attachment theory are that it is robust, derived from scientific theories of human development and is generative of much research.
Since the 1980s, attachment theory has spurred a tremendous amount of research in developmental psychology and its clinical and social policy implications have been recognized (Cox, 2006). Attachment theory also enjoys a compatibility with findings from neuroscience about the way the brain processes emotion (Wylie & Turner). Attachment Theory has predictive power. For example, Matas, Arend, and Sroufe (1978) found there was a link between quality of attachment in infancy and the quality of play and problem solving in later childhood. They rgue that a secure attachment fosters intrapersonal qualities such as confidence, self-efficacy, social skills, and the ability to explore the environment competently, which then fosters mutually gratifying interpersonal relationships. Culture and Gender Hundreds of studies of infants, toddlers, and preschoolers have reported no sex differences in frequencies of insecure attachment or in the effect of different attachment patterns in adolescents and adulthood. Secure, ambivalent and avoidant attachments are about equally common in boys and girls in infancy (Colin 1991).
Perhaps in part because it acknowledges cultures influences, attachment theory has enjoyed relatively few accusations of ethnocentrism that have plagued other theories. For example, psychoanalysis and object relations have been criticized for their emphasis on separation and individuation. These types of criticisms have also been aimed at family systems theory because of its emphasis on differentiation (Rothbaum, 2000). Because attachment theory is grounded in evolutionary biology, one of its core assumptions is that infant-caregiver attachment is a universal phenomenon.
Indeed, the foundation of our current understanding of infant-mother attachment behaviors is built mainly from the cross-cultural observations of Mary Ainsworth (Ainsworth & Bowlby, 1991) who completed her first studies in Uganda. Her next study of American babies replicated her findings about patterns of attachment that she observed with the Uganda babies. She found that the attachment relationship was applicable to these two very different groups, although some of the specific attachment behaviors differed (e. . American children hugged and kissed whereas the Uganda children clapped when their caregiver returned).
A meta-analysis of Strange Situation studies by van IJzendoorn and Kroonenberg (1988) showed that samples from one country resembled those of other countries more than they resembled other within-country samples. The differences between the distributions of the non-U. S. and U. S. samples were nearly zero. They concluded that, given that the Strange Situation is a alid instrument for measuring attachment quality in the United States, there is no reason to doubt its cross-cultural validity. However, not everyone is convinced of the significance of attachment theory. Salvador Minuchin, a family therapy pioneer, claims that attachment theory ignores too much. He believes it to be important but says, “Focusing so much attention on attachment issues can make compelling social and racial issues simply disappear… as well as obscure our understanding of the context in which they grew up (Wylie & Turner).
While there are many studies showing that the number of children who develop a secure type of attachment is proportionately similar across cultures, about two-thirds, some question if the term “secure” means the same thing across cultures. In the West, secure means becoming ultimately autonomous, independent, and less anxious about gaining acceptance from others. In Japan, for example, an assertive, autonomous person is seen as immature and uncultivated. Dependence (interdependence), acceptance and union seeking are more likely to be associated with competence and security.
For this and many other reasons, Rothbaum et al. (2000) call into question the universality of the core tenets of attachment theory. Even while critiquing it, however, they are still admiring of attachment theory’s generativity and its clearly articulated hypotheses. They do argue for more research that is specfically attuned to ways in which the process is tied to the cultural context in which it is embedded, perhaps by using indigenous psychologists and more locally generated observations and measures. Feminist Critique
Feminists have found a few elements of attachment theory to criticize. They see the theory as having a huge potential for mother-blaming and remind us of the paternalistic practices in place during the time that Bowlby was developing his ideas. They also question the validity of the attachment measures, the emphasis on early versus later life influences, and the potential problem with making ethical judgments by scrutinizing mothering. The quality of care a mother can provide her infant is directly related to factors like social support, her own childhood history, preparation for otherhood, work and family factors (Cox, 2006). If we are to blame mothers, then we must also blame all of their mothers before them, plus the culture that created them. Bowlby himself, writing on this issue, called on society to provide for parents: “if a community values its children, it must cherish their parents” (1951, p. 84). However, this aspect of his thinking never gets much attention or repetition. Clinical Applications Though not a clinical methodology, attachment theory has justified a whole range of therapeutic perspectives and practices.
While Bowlby placed much emphasis on the power of the early attachments in forming the individual’s personality, he was also optimistic that the adult could get beyond the limits of those early experiences; he believed it was never too late to change. The attachment therapist needs to provide what was missing: “ a safe, dependable, empathetic, and attuned presence that would enable the client to do some of the growing up he couldn’t afford to do in the unsafe early environment” (Wylie & Turner).
Since it is believed that a client’s current difficulties have their origin in real-life experiences, rather than in fantasies, the clinician will guide the client’s explorations toward earlier, painful interactions with caretakers. The client will be helped to see that their expectations about current relationships are derived from the internal working models of self and attachment figures that have resulted. Together they will consider how these models, perhaps appropriate to the earlier situation, may be giving rise to feelings and actions inappropriate in the present.
This review of past experiences will hopefully lead to a reevaluation of them, a revision of working models, and gradually, to improved relationships in the here and now (Bowlby, 1988). Conclusion Attachment theory is alive and well and still generating much research. It also has the advantage of being easily understood (unlike certain other overly complicated intra-psychic theories)! This theory clearly resonates the most with me personally which is no surprise given that my favorite word, in regard to thinking about people, is connection.
I would love to see changes enacted based on attachment theory such as training teachers to deal constructively with non-secure styles, and adding extra adults in classrooms to allow for the multiple connections that seem to benefit kids who are anxiously attached (It is when children feel disconnected from others that they “misbehave” and “act out”), and above all, giving greater support to families. Attachment theory is not perfect, but it is the most in tune with my personality and perspectives; I plan to learn more about it and incorporate it into my clinical work.
References Ainsworth, Mary D. , Bowlby, J. (1991). An Ethological Approach to Personality Development. American Psychologist, 46(4), 333-341. Bowlby, J. (1951). Maternal care and mental health.
Organization Monograph Bowlby, J. (1969), Attachment and loss, Vol. 1: Attachment. New York, NY: Basic Books. Bowlby. J, (1979). The Making and Breaking of Affectional Bonds. New York, NY:Routledge. Bowlby, J. (1988). A Secure Base: Parent–Child Attachment and Healthy Human Development. New York, NY: Basic Books.
Cherry, Kendra. Attachment Theory An Overview of Attachment Theory About. com article http://psychology. about. com/od/loveandattraction/a/attachment01. htm Colin, V. (1991) U. S. Department of Health and Human Services Infant Attachment: What We Know Now. Retrieved from http://aspe. hhs. gov/daltcp/reports/inatrpt. htm Cox, S. (2006). Bridging Attachment Theory and Attachment Parenting with Feminist Methods of Inquiry. Journal of the Association for Research on Mothering, 8 (1,2) 83-95. Matas, L. Arend, R. & Sroufe, A. (1978). Continuity of Adaptation in the Second Year: The Relationship Between Quality of Attachment and Later Competence. Child Development, 49, 547-556. Schaffer R. (2007). Introducing Child Psychology. Oxford: Blackwell. pp. 83–121. van IJzendoorn, M. & Kroonenberg, P. (1988). Cross-cultural patterns of Attachment: A Meta-Analysis of the Strange Situation. Child Development, 59, 147-156. Wylie M. & Turner L. (N. D. ) The Attuned Therapist: Does Attachment Theory Really Matter?