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Attachment in children

Main article: Attachment theory

Attachment in children deals with the theory of attachment between children and their caregivers, and particularly with behaviors and emotions that children direct toward familiar adults. It is primarily an evolutionary and ethological theory, whereby infants seek proximity to a specified attachment figure in situations of distress or alarm for the purpose of survival. [1]

Attachment theory has led to a new understanding of child development. Children develop different styles of attachment based on experiences and interactions with their caregivers. Four different attachment styles have been identified in children: secure, anxious-ambivalent, anxious-avoidant, and disorganized. Attachment theory has become the dominant theory used today in the study of infant and toddler behavior and in the fields of infant mental health, treatment of children, and related fields.


Attachment Theory and Children

Attachment theory led not only to increased attention to attachments as a psychosocial process, it also led to a new understanding of child development. Freudian theory suggests that as libidinal drives fixes on different objects, former attachments will be broken; failure to break an attachment effectively will constitute a sort of trauma that can lead to later mental illness. Attachment theory, however, suggests that growing children do not break former attachments, but rather (1) learn to become more active (or sovereign) within previously established attachments, and (2) add new attachments, which do not necessarily require a break with (and are not necessarily substitutes for) previous attachments.

Attachment theory assumes that humans are social beings; they do not just use other people to satisfy their drives. In this way, attachment theory is similar to object relations theory.

Attachment styles in children

On the basis of their behaviours, children can be categorized into four groups. Each of these groups reflects a different kind of attachment relationship with the mother. It should be noted that Bowlby believed that mothers were the primary attachment figure in children's lives, but subsequent research has confirmed that children form attachments to both their mothers and their fathers. A child may have a different type of attachment to each parent as well as to unrelated caregivers. Attachment style is thus not so much a part of the child's thinking, but is characteristic of a specific relationship. However, after about age four the child exhibits one primary consistent pattern of attachment in relationships [2]

The most researched method for assessing an older infant or toddler's style of attachment with a care giver is the Strange Situation Protocol, developed by Mary Ainsworth (see Patterns of Attachment). Assessment of attachment in infants younger than about 8 months, or children older than about three years, is not possible with this protocol. A new form of assessment, the Interesting-but-Scary paradigm developed by Forbes et al., provides categorization that is similar to the Strange situation. In addition, the Attachment Story Completion test and several other protocols exist to assess the pattern of attachment among children and teenagers Adults' pattern of attachment can be assessed with the Adult Attachment Interview[3].

Bowlby, like many of his colleagues at the time, infused the gender norms of the day into otherwise unbiased scientific research. Modern studies use a variety of standardized interviews, questionnaires, and tests to identify attachment styles. See also: Allomother theory [4] [5] [6] [7] [8] The most commonly used procedures for children are the Strange Situation Protocol and various narrative approaches and structured observational methods. [9] [10]

A frequently used method of assessing attachment styles in adults is the Adult Attachment Interview developed by Mary Main and Erik Hesse. [11] Attachment styles in adults can also be assessed using a questionnaire developed by Shaver and colleagues. All of these methods can be used to classify people into the classic attachment styles described below.

Readers curious about their own attachment style can take the questionnaire developed by Shaver and colleagues at this page.

Secure attachment

A toddler who is securely attached to its parent (or other familiar caregiver) will explore freely while the parent is present, will engage with strangers, will be visibly upset when the parent departs, and happy to see the parent return. The extent of exploration and of distress are affected by the child's temperamental make-up and by situational factors as well as by attachment status, however.

In the traditional Ainsworth et al. (1978)[12] coding of the Strange Situation, secure infants are denoted as "Group B" infants and they are further subclassified as B1, B2, B3, and B4. Although these subgroupings refer to different stylistic responses to the comings and goings of the caregiver, they were not given specific labels by Ainsworth and colleagues, although their descriptive behaviors led others (including students of Ainsworth) to devise a relatively 'loose' terminology for these subgroups. B1's have been referred to as 'secure-reserved', B2's as 'secure-inhibited', B3's as 'secure balanced,' and B4's as 'secure-reactive.' In academic publications however, the classification of infants (if subgroups are denoted) is typically simply "B1" or "B2" although more theoretical and review-oriented papers surrounding attachment theory may use the above terminology.

Securely attached children are best able to explore when they have the knowledge of a secure base to return to in times of need. When assistance is given, this bolsters the sense of security and also, assuming the parent's assistance is helpful, educates the child in how to cope with the same problem in the future. Therefore, secure attachment can be seen as the most adaptive attachment style. According to some psychological researchers, a child becomes securely attached when the parent is available and able to meet the needs of the child in a responsive and appropriate manner. Others have pointed out that there are also other determinants of the child's attachment, and that behavior of the parent may in turn be influenced by the child's behavior.

Anxious-resistant insecure attachment

A child with an anxious-resistant attachment style is anxious of exploration and of strangers, even when the parent is present. When the mother departs, the child is extremely distressed. The child will be ambivalent when she returns - seeking to remain close to the parent but resentful, and also resistant when the parent initiates attention.

According to some psychological researchers, this style develops from a parenting style which is engaged but on the parent's own terms. That is, sometimes the child's needs are ignored until some other activity is completed and that attention is sometimes given to the child more through the needs of the parent than from the child's initiation.

Anxious-avoidant insecure attachment

A child with an anxious-avoidant attachment style will avoid or ignore the parent - showing little emotion when the parent departs or returns. The child will not explore very much regardless of who is there. Strangers will not be treated much differently from the parent. There is not much emotional range displayed regardless of who is in the room or if it is empty.

This style of attachment develops from a parenting style which is more disengaged. The child's needs are frequently not met and the child comes to believe that communication of needs has no influence on the parent.

Disorganized attachment

A fourth category termed disorganized attachment (Main & Solomon, 1990) [13] is actually the lack of a coherent style or pattern for coping. While ambivalent and avoidant styles are not totally effective, they are organized strategies for dealing with the world. Evidence from Main et al. has suggested that children with disorganized attachment may experience their caregivers as either frightening or frightened. A frightened caregiver is alarming to the child, who uses social referencing techniques such as checking the adult's facial expression to ascertain whether a situation is safe. A frightening caregiver is usually so via aggressive behaviors towards the child (either mild or direct physical/sexual behaviors) and puts the child in a dilemma which Main and colleagues have called 'fear without solution.' In other words, the caregiver is both the source of the child's alarm as well as the child's haven of safety. Through parental behaviors that are frightening, the caregiver puts the child in an irresolvable paradox of approach-avoidance. This paradox, in fact, may be one explanation for some of the 'stilling' and 'freezing' behaviors observed in children judged to be disorganized. Human interactions are experienced as erratic, thus children cannot form a coherent, organized interactive template. If the child uses the caregiver as a mirror to understand the self, the disorganized child is looking into a mirror broken into a thousand pieces. It is more severe than learned helplessness as it is the model of the self rather than of a situation. It is important to note that when a child is judged disorganized, he or she is given a secondary best-fitting 'organized' (i.e., secure, ambivalent, avoidant) classification as well. This reflects the fact that attachment disorganization is thought to be a breakdown of an inchoate organized attachment strategy. The degree to which the organized strategy is fragmented however is often different in degree across infants judged to receive a primary 'disorganized' classification.

This was not one of Ainsworth's initial three categories, but identified by Mary Main and Judith Solomon (see earlier reference) in research following the original tripartite system developed by Ainsworth et al. (1978). [12]

Attachment and Treatment

Main articles: Child therapy and Attachment therapy

Attachment theory has become the dominant theory used today in the study of infant and toddler behavior and in the fields of infant mental health, treatment of children, and related fields. Several evidence-based and effective treatments are based on attachment theory. Nearly all mainstream programs for the prevention and treatment of disorders of attachment use attachment theory. Various organizations have adopted standards against the use of coercive interventions. See attachment therapy.


  1. ^ Tronick, Morelli, & Ivey, 1992, p.568. "Until recently, scientific accounts ... of the infant's early social experiences converged on the view that the infant progresses from a primary relationship with one individual... to relationships with a growing number of people... This is an epigenetic, hierarchical view of social development. We have labeled this dominant view the continuous care and contact model (CCC...). The CCC model developed from the writings of Spitz..., Bowlby..., and Provence and Lipton... on institutionalized children and is represented in the psychological views of Bowlby...[and others]. Common to the different conceptual frameworks is the belief that parenting practices and the infant's capacity for social engagement are biologically based and conform to a prototypical form. Supporters of the CCC model generally recognize that the infant and caregiver are able to adjust to a range of conditions, but they consider the adjustments observed to reflect biological variation. However, more extreme views (e.g., maternal bonding) consider certain variants as nonadaptive and as compromising the child's psychological development. Bowlby's concept of monotropism is an exemplar of the CCC perspective..." (Tronick, Morelli, & Ivey, 1992, p. 568).
  2. ^ J. Cassidy & P. Shaver, (1999) Handbook of Attachment, NY:Guilford
  3. ^ Hesse, E., (1999) Adult Attachment Interview in J. Cassidy & P. Shaver, (Eds.) Handbook of Attachment NY:Guilford Press
  4. ^ Bartholomew, K., & Horowitz, L. M. (1991). Attachment styles among young adults: A test of a four-category model. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 61, 226-244.
  5. ^ Bartholomew, K., & Shaver, P. R. (1998). Measures of attachment: Do they converge? In J. A. Simpson & W. S. Rholes (Eds.), Attachment theory and close relationships (pp. 25-45). New York: Guilford Press.
  6. ^ Brennan, K. A., Clark, C. L., & Shaver, P. R. (1998). Self-report measurement of adult romantic attachment: An integrative overview. In J. A. Simpson & W. S. Rholes (Eds.), Attachment theory and close relationships (pp. 46-76). New York: Guilford Press.
  7. ^ Crowell, J. A., & Treboux, D. (1995). A review of adult attachment measures: Implications for theory and research. Social Development, 4, 294-327.
  8. ^ Fraley, R. C., Waller, N. G., & Brennan, K. A. (2000). An item-response theory analysis of self-report measures of adult attachment. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 78, 350-365.
  9. ^ Ainsworth, M., Blehar, M., Waters, E., & Wall, S., (1978). Patterns of Attachment. Lawrence Erlbaum Assoc., Hillsdale, NJ., 1978.
  10. ^ Forbes, L.M., Evans, E.M., Moran, G., & Pederson, D.R. (2007). Change in atypical maternal behavior predicts change in attachment disorganization from 12 to 24 months in a high-risk sample. Child development, 78(3), 955-971.
  11. ^ Hesse, E., (1999). The Adult Attachment Interview in Jude Cassidy & Phillip Shaver (Eds.) Handbook of Attachment: Theory, Research, and Clinical Applications. Guilford Press, NY pp. 395-433.
  12. ^ a b Ainsworth, M.D.S., Blehar, M. C., Waters, E., & Wall, S. (1978). Patterns of attachment: A psychological study of the strange situation. Hillsdale, NJ: Earlbaum.
  13. ^ Main, M & Solomon, J., (1990). In Greenberg, M. T., Cicchetti, D., & Cummings, M. (Eds.),. Attachment in the preschool years: Theory, research, and intervention (pp. 121-160). The University of Chicago Press: Chicago.

See also

Recommended Reading

  • Cassidy, J., & Shaver, P., (Eds). (1999) Handbook of Attachment: Theory, Research, and Clinical Applications. Guilford Press, NY.
  • Greenberg, MT, Cicchetti, D., & Cummings, EM., (Eds) (1990) Attachment in the Preschool Years: Theory, Research and Intervention University of Chicago, Chicago.
  • Greenspan, S. (1993) Infancy and Early Childhood. Madison, CT: International Universities Press. ISBN 0-8236-2633-4.
  • Holmes, J. (1993) John Bowlby and Attachment Theory. Routledge. ISBN 0-415-07730-3.
  • Holmes, J. (2001) The Search for the Secure Base: Attachment Theory and Psychotherapy. London: Brunner-Routledge. ISBN 1-58391-152-9.
  • Karen R (1998) Becoming Attached: First Relationships and How They Shape Our Capacity to Love. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-511501-5.
  • Zeanah, C., (1993) Handbook of Infant Mental Health. Guilford, NY.
  • Parkes, CM, Stevenson-Hinde, J., Marris, P., (Eds.) (1991) Attachment Across The Life Cycle Routledge. NY. ISBN 0-415-05651-9
  • Siegler R., DeLoache, J. & Eisenberg, N. (2003) How Children develop. New York: Worth. ISBN 1-57259-249-4.
  • Bausch, Karl Heinz (2002) Treating Attachment Disorders NY: Guilford Press.
  • Mercer, J. Understanding Attachment, Praeger 2005.
This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article "Attachment_in_children". A list of authors is available in Wikipedia.
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