What factors will influence whether a child?s first attachments are secure or insecure?

This is an essay will critically evaluate the factors that affect the development of an attachment between a caregiver and an infant. The works of Bowlby, Ainsworth and Harlow were a foundation to all leading attachment theories consideration to those and more recent studies will be examined. With particular attention given to the secure and insecure attachment categories

Attachment has been classified by many as an emotional tie that develops between two people. Bowlby (1969) described Attachment and exploration experiences as complementary systems that provided data to make generalisations about people and the world. He believed that exploration and learning are enabled only if the parent becomes a safe or secure base to return to, (Bowlby, 1969). Bowlby analyzed studies on the effects of institutionalization on child development. He drew from sources such as Ren? Spitz?s and his own surveys on children raised in a variety of settings. His report demonstrated the importance of the primary caregiver for infants.

Bowlby rejected the notion that the mother's role in feeding is a basis for the strength of their attachment. This caused much contention which led to Harlow?s classic experiment with the baby rhesus monkeys. Two conditions were ran to compare; the first group had a terrycloth mother which provided no food and a wire mother which provided milk. In the second group, a terry-clothed mother provided milk and the wire mother did not. It was found that the young monkeys predominantly clung on the terrycloth mother regardless of whether it provided them with food, and that the young monkeys chose the wire surrogate only when it provided food. If and when a frightening stimulus was presented into the cage in order to test the monkey?s reaction, they found that each time that the monkeys ran to the cloth mother for protection and comfort, Harlow suggested that the need for contact comfort was stronger than the need to explore.

In 1978 Mary Ainsworth developed experiment to find out what types of attachment children had; a strange situation. She hypothesised that children use caregivers as a base to explore their environment and it became a highly validated experiment. During the experiment an infant and caregiver was observed which at the time was the mother. Ideally they would play in a room for 20 minutes then a stranger would join them, the stranger would eventually approach the child with a toy and then the mother would leave the room. The stranger who was still in the room left the infant playing unless the child was unresponsive if so the stranger would encourage the child to play. The mother would then return and the researchers would observe how the child responded to the mother. This was then followed by the stranger leaving, if and when the infant settled the mother would then leave and the child would be left alone. After a few minutes the stranger would then return to the room and try to entertain the child with a toy. The final step was for the mothers return again to see how the child responded. The key behaviours that are measured are the amount the child explores and engages with the novel environment and the reaction of the infant when reunited with the carer.

Ainsworth concluded that different types of attachment existed and later categorised them into two brackets; secure and unsecure. Children with a secure attachment were able to use their caregivers as a secure base and leave their side to explore the environment with confidence but would return when threatened. When the caregiver left the room the infant would cry but would be comforted quickly by their return. A similar result occurred when the child would be left with the stranger, the child would cry at times but a noticeable difference could be seen when observing the mother and child against the stranger and child. An infant who is securely attached to its mother may attempt to engage with the stranger but would clearly be upset when the mother departs and would not engage with stranger if mother was not in the room. Again it would be expected for a secure attachment for the child to be easily comforted and calmed by the mothers return.

The second category; insecure was split into three subsections, the first being anxious-avoidant attachment style; the infants in this category typically avoided or ignored the mother and they were unresponsive when the mother departed or at the reunion. The child did not explore very much regardless of who was there and there was indifference between the stranger and the mother. A child with an anxious-resistant attachment style, another insecure attachment would typically be anxious of exploring the environment and meeting new people regardless of whether the mother is present. When the mother left, the children in this category would be distraught. The child will be hesitant when she returns but would want to be close to the mother but at the same time would display signs of resentfulness, and also resistant when the mother starts to give them her attention. The final and sometime worst attachment is disorganised/disorientated, this category is characterised with continuous avoidance of eyes contact with caregiver, particularly when being held and when looking at caregiver the infant produces a sad or depressed look on their face. The infant might have cried during separation but avoided the mother at the reunion stage. Hesse (1990) found that most of the mothers of these children had suffered major losses or other trauma shortly before or after the birth of the infant and had reacted by becoming severely depressed.

This experiment in its self can be beneficial for it exposes children to situations that would occur in everyday life without putting them in physical danger. It also proved invaluable to developmental research for infants under 1 years of age. This was because it demonstrated characteristics and patterns that can be observed and used as predictors for attachment styles. Unfortunately the strange situation is not effective in older children as their reactions change as they grew up so other methods were devised to test attachment style.

For an attachment to develop the opportunity must be presented; Rene Spitz 1946 observed institutionalised infants who were given up between the ages of 2-12 months. These infants shared a caregiver with a ratio of sometimes 10:1. It was observed and noted that these children became withdrawn, depressed and lost weight. Rutter 1968 suggested that the children were prevented from forming attachments with one or more adults which was why they began experiencing difficulties. This was further supported by Tizard and Rees 1975 but their study looked at better child to caregiver ratio and a rich selection of books and toys but the turnover was high and the infants were again prevented from forming an attachment with one person or more and some children did not make any bonds till they were 5-6 years of age. It was inferred some time after the studies that these children were likely to have had emotional and social interaction deficits with few social ties, (Hodges and Tinzard 1989)

Another important contribution in developing an attachment is the quality and sensitivity of the care giving; it determines the strength of the bond. When a care giver can respond promptly and accurately to the infants need it is often referred to as interaction synchrony. This is being sensitively in tuned to the infants needs, (Atkinson et al 2009). The infant?s reaction too should be mutually rewarding if the caregiver is fluent and rhythmic (Isabella & Belsky 1991). Parents of children who are anxious avoidant style are often impatient, unresponsive to the children?s needs and sometimes angry. Smith and Pederson (1988), observed behaviours whilst carrying out a replication of a strange situation, they categorised the children into attachment styles based on the mother and child?s behaviours. They placed children whose mothers were not affectionate, self controlled and lacking in maternal sensitivity into the insecure categories and found that 94% were correctly classified based purely on a sensitivity rating. So although having the opportunity to have a long term caregiver it is clear that the quality of the care giving is central to the attachment outcome. A clear predictor to a secure attachment would be high levels of maternal sensitivity and low levels of rejection. Isabelle (1993) found that resistant attachments were correlated with quality of interaction and changes in maternal behaviours whereas avoidant attachments were mainly linked to rejection. This notion of maternal behaviour has been criticised for not being consistent in the literature due to variability in the measures as well as failing to investigate any attachments the infants had with their fathers, (Rosen & Rothbaum 1993)

Infant characteristics influence how easily a relationship builds between two partners which results in an attachment being developed. These are things that can affect the initial bond such as premature birth or complications, trauma and long term health conditions. However a vast number of reports show that special needs children can develop a secure attachment if the caregiver is patient, caring and has a positive outlook on the infant?s condition, (Pederson & Moran 1995). Other developmental researchers such as Kagan (1998) believe that ill-natured or irritable babies may suffer from separation anxiety regardless of care-giving sensitivity. In accordance with this Seifel et al (1996) confers that emotionally reactive infants are at a greater risk of developing insecure attachments, ( citedM?a). However many opposed this notion and claimed that temperament was only a small factor because if was a main indicator then similar types of adults would have the same types of attachments and a clear pattern would emerge.

Family circumstances play an important factor in attachment development. Thompson 1998 proposed that a baby?s sense of security could be affected by exposure to violent or aggressive adults and unfavourable childcare arrangements. This was supported by Owen & Cox (1997) when they showed examples of infants who had a new sibling join the family. The less stressful environments had secure attachments, this was due to good social support between the caregivers (usually mother and father), (cited jehsefhs;).

Parents internal working models is the final contribution that has been brought to light. According to Bowlby (1969) an internal working model will start to develop as soon as a child is born and will continue throughout their life. Because of their extreme vulnerability, children need care and nurture to maintain physical well-being and to ensure their healthy development. Infants are genetically predisposed to behave in ways that will elicit contact and nurture from their parents and depending on how their needs are met will reflect in how they will meet the needs of their children as parents. This can be seen in Benoit & Parkers stability of attachment across generations. Three types of internal models were developed, the first being the secure, autonomous and balanced, these parents had securely attached children. The second internal model was dismissed/detached model and lastly the preoccupied. An adult?s perspective of their own child can affect the way attachments are formed. This is seen when mothers show objectivity and balance when reminiscing about their childhood then they tend to develop secure attachments, they neither feel angry or romanticize their past so they focus on the present and their child?s needs, (Benoit & Parker 1994) this is demonstrated by Cromwell and Feldman 1991 found that there was a clear link to internal mental models and behaviours displayed by the mother during the strange situation procedure. They identified that secure mothers were helpful and affectionate trying to prepare the child for the experiment, the mothers who were classed as dismissing did not prepare the children as well as the secure but did seem concerned but were more distant to their children whereas the mothers had preoccupied were inaccessible and anxious.

Attachment is an emotional bond that forms between two people, it is claimed that early attachment bonds can affect how each generation acts as a parent, this is a phenomena that can be broken to stop insecure attachments from developing; for if a caregiver can learn more positive ways to engage with their child then it is possible to change behaviour and stop the cycle. Developmental theories in psychology brought to light secure and insecure attachments, which can also effect behaviour later on in life. Research shows that there are certain characteristics that contribute to whether an attachment develops as secure or in secure. With the opportunity to develop an attachment with a primary care giver, time, sensitivity and affection are crucial for a positive secure attachment. The combination of patience, sensitive parenting techniques and a positive internal working memory have been shown to support secure attachment styles. However family circumstances can be detrimental to family bonds like in abusive or frightening lifestyles.


  • Main, M and Hesse, E (1990). "Parents' unresolved traumatic experiences are related to infant disorganised attachment status". M.T. Greenberg, D. Cicchetti and E.M. Cummings (eds) Attachment in the Preschool Years. Chicago, University of Chicago Press. p

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