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Chapter: Psychology: Development

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Differences in Attachment - Socioemotional Development in Infancy and Childhood

Many aspects of the attachment process are similar for all children.



Many aspects of the attachment process are similar for all children. But we also need to acknowledge that children differ in their patterns of attachment. To study these differences, Mary Ainsworth and her colleagues developed a procedure for assessing attachment—the so-called strange situation (Figure 14.24; Ainsworth & Bell, 1970; Ainsworth, Blehar, Waters, & Wall, 1978). In this procedure, the 12-month-old child is brought into an unfamiliar room that contains many toys and is allowed to explore and play with the mother present. After a while, an unfamiliar woman enters, talks to the mother, and then approaches the child. The next step is a brief separation—the mother leaves the child alone with the stranger. After a few minutes, the mother returns and the stranger leaves.


This setting is mildly stressful for most children, and by observing how the child handles the stress, Ainsworth argued that we can determine the nature of the child’s attachment. Specifically, Ainsworth and subsequent researchers argued that children’s behavior in this setting will fall into one of four categories. First, children who are securely attached will explore, play with the toys, and even make wary overtures to thestranger, so long as the mother is present. When the mother leaves, these infants will show minor distress. When she returns, they greet her with great enthusiasm.


Other children show patterns that Ainsworth regarded as signs of insecure attachment. Some of these children are described as anxious/resistant. They do not explore, even in the mother’s presence, and become quite upset when she leaves. Upon reunion, they act ambivalent, crying and running to her to be picked up, but then kick-ing or slapping her and struggling to get down. Still other children show the third pattern, called anxious/avoidant. They are distant and aloof while the mother is present,and, although they sometimes search for her in her absence, they typi-cally ignore her when she returns.

Children in the fourth category show an attachment pattern called disorganized (Main & Solomon, 1990). Children in this group seem tolack any organized way for dealing with the stress they experience. In the strange situation, they sometimes look dazed or confused. They show inconsistent behaviors—for example, crying loudly while trying to climb into their mothers’ laps. They seem distressed by their moth-ers’ absence, but sometimes move away from her when she returns.


In healthy, middle-class families, roughly 60% of the infants tested are categorized as “secure,” 10% as “anxious / resistant,” 15% as “anxious /avoidant,” and 15% as “disorganized” (van Ijzendoorn, Schuengel, & Bakermans-Kranenburg, 1999). The proportion of chil-dren showing “secure” attachment is lower in lower-income families and families in which there are psychological or medical problems affecting either the parents or the children. One study, for example, assessed children who were chronically undernourished; only 7% of these were “securely attached” (Valenzuela, 1990, 1997). Likewise, mothers who are depressed, neurotic, or anxious are less likely to have securely attached infants (NICHD Early Child Care Research Network, 1997).

Many theorists argue that a child’s attachment status shapes his social world in important ways. In part, this claim derives from the notion of a secure base: A securely attached child feels safe, confident,


and willing to take initiative in a wide range of circumstances, and these traits will open a path to new experiences and new learning opportunities. Moreover, securely attached children usually have a more harmonious relationship with their caregivers and are therefore better able to learn from them; this, too, can lead to numerous advantages in months and years to come (cf. Bretherton, 1990).


In addition, Bowlby argued that the attachment relationship provides the child with an internal working model of the social world. This model includes a set of beliefs about how people behave in social relationships, guidelines for interpreting others’ actions, and habitual responses to make in social settings. This model grows out of the child’s relationship with a caregiver, and according to Bowlby, it provides a template that sets the pattern for other relationships, including friendships and even romances. Thus, for example, if the child’s attachment figure is available and responsive, the child expects future relationships to be similarly gratifying. If the child’s attachment figure is unavailable and insensitive, then the child develops low expectations for future relationships.


A number of studies have demonstrated that these working models of attachment do seem to have important consequences. For example, children who are securely attached at 1 year of age are more attractive to other toddlers as playmates in comparison to chil-dren who were insecurely attached (B. Fagot, 1997; Vondra, Shaw, Swearingen, Cohen,


Owens, 2001; also B. Schneider, Atkinson, & Tardif, 2001; R. A. Thompson, 1998, 1999). Likewise, children who were securely attached show more helping and concern for peers (van IJzendoorn, 1997; also see DeMulder, Denham, Schmidt, & Mitchell, 2000). Even more impressive, children who were securely attached as infants are more likely, as teenagers, to have close friends (Englund, Levy, Hyson, & Sroufe, 2000; Feeney & Collins, 2001; Shulman, Elicker, & Sroufe, 1994) and are less likely to suffer from anxiety disorders in childhood and adolescence (Warren, Huston, Egeland, & Sroufe, 1997).

Unmistakably, then, a child’s attachment pattern when he is 1 year old is a powerful predictor of things to come in that child’s life. But what is the mechanism behind this linkage? Bowlby argued that secure attachment leads to an internal working model that helps the child in subsequent relation-ships. If this is right, then secure attachment is associated with later positive outcomes because the attachment is what produces these outcomes, as depicted in Figure 14.25A. However, other interpretations of the data are possible. Imagine, for example, that a child has a sensitive and supportive caregiver. This could lead both to secure attachment and to better adjustment later on. In this case, too, we would expect secure attachment to be associated with good adjustment later in life— but not because the attachment caused the later adjustment; instead, they could be two different effects of a single cause (Figure 14.25B).


The cause-and-effect story is further complicated by the fact that someone’s attach-ment pattern can change. Overall, attachment patterns tend to be consistent from infancy all the way to adulthood (Fraley, 2002)—and so, for example, a child who seems securely attached when first tested is likely to be classified the same way when assessed months (or even years) later. Even so, they may change, especially if there is an important change in the child’s circumstances, like a parent losing a job or becoming ill. Thus, even if the 1-year-old’s attachment pattern does create a trajectory likely to shape the child’s life, there is nothing inevitable about that trajectory, and this, too, must be acknowledged when we try to think through how (or whether) a young child’s attach-ment will shape life events in years to come (R. A. Thompson, 2000, 2006).


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