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Attachment Theory

“..Intimate attachments to other human beings are the hub around which a person’s life revolves, not only when he is an infant or a toddler or a schoolchild but through his adolescence and his years of maturity and on into old age.” (Bowlby, Attachment and Loss, 1980, p.442).

I've been sharing some posts on social media about attachment, and I thought I'd draw my thoughts together here on the blog. First of all, let me introduce you to John Bowlby, the British psychologist who pioneered work on attachment. I love this quote - that attachment matters not just when we are an infant, but all throughout our lives.

But look, it gets better...

"..From these intimate attachments a person draws his strength and enjoyment of life and, through what he contributes, he gives strength and enjoyment to others."

Remind you of something? Adler (the psychologist behind Positive Discipline) teaches us that all human beings are looking for two things - belonging and significance. We want to be a part of community (family/society) and we want to contribute to that community. And the way we can do that best is by having strong, deep intimate relationships, with a small group of people.

From what I read, it seemed like attachment was a bit black and white for Bowlby, you had it or you didn't (please feel free to correct me in the comment section). I went on in my reading, from Bowlby to Erik Erikson. He wrote about 8 stages of development (as opposites). So the first one is trust vs mistrust (from birth to about 1 year/18 months). Erikson believed when a child was fed when it was supposed to be fed, comforted when it needed comforting, and love when it needed love, the child would develop trust (Sharkey, 1997).

In an infant's life, trust evolves around food (will they feed me), and helps to develop 'hope'. The infant's major question is 'Can I trust the people around me, my primary caregivers'.. Children who have found trustworthiness have a sense of confidence in themselves and others - they'll feel safe and secure in the world, with a strong attachment to their primary caregivers that allows them to then step out and trust others. The caregiver who consistently meets these needs instills a sense of trust or the belief that the world is a trustworthy place. At this young age, the caregiver doesn't need to worry about over indulging a child’s need for comfort, contact or stimulation. (ie we can respond to all our young infant's demands and needs, without worrying if we're going to have a 'spoilt' child..

If an infant has difficulty in establishing trust (ie the 'mistrust') then Erikson believed this mistrust could contaminate all aspects of one’s life and deprive the individual of love and fellowship with others.

Here are all his stages, along with the 'virtue' that he believed was being developed in each stage.

  1. Trust vs. Mistrust (hope) 0 - 1½

  2. Autonomy vs. Shame (Will) 1½ - 3

  3. Initiative vs. Guilt (Purpose) 3 - 5

  4. Industry vs. Inferiority (Competency) 5 - 12

  5. Identity vs. Role Confusion (Fidelity) 12 - 18

  6. Intimacy vs. Isolation (Love) 18 - 40

  7. Generativity vs. Stagnation (Care) 40 - 65

  8. Ego Integrity vs. Despair (Wisdom) 65+

And from this she defined three different attachment styles, which she called A, B and C. About 70% of infants in the study showed secure attachment (B). The parents displayed a high level of warmth and were sensitive to their children's needs. Children who are securely attached learn that they can depend on their caregivers for comfort and support. If separated, they do not become unduly anxious as they are confident of their caregiver’s return. Type A (20%), the Insecure-avoidant infants, tended to have caregivers who were largely unresponsive to their needs. So the infant tended not to seek out their caregiver, or show signs of distress. Type C (10%) Insecure-resistant infants, tended to have caregivers who were inconsistent in responding to their needs. So the infant was very clingy, and as the same time resisted the adult's efforts to console them.

Ainsworth's study certainly wasn't perfect, we may well find it unethical (leaving a baby with a stranger for the purpose of an experiment). But it did help inform parenting manuals, education, family therapy, even the courts, where the child's attachment to their caregivers was taken more into consideration..

Okay, it's all very well learning about attachment, but what should we do with it? One very practical resource I've found helpful is Circle of Security International, and their explanations of what is going on in the lives of our smallest family members. They talk about the child moving around this 'circle' in their happy and then scared moments (a new experience may startle them), and explain the role of adults in providing a safe space. More in a future blog post, but meanwhile, you can read on here...

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