Every parent hopes that they have strong bond with their child. Luckily, science has spent several decades developing ways of measuring how secure attachments are between parents and kids. But what exactly is attachment theory?
Origins of Attachment Theory
Attachment theory was the brainchild of British psychologist John Bowlby. Bowlby had studied the work of earlier behaviorists who believed that the bond between child and caregiver was mainly a function of the child looking to the parent for food.
However, Bowlby observed that, when a child was separated from their parent, feedings given by anyone person other than the parent did little to calm them down. Only reunion with the parent would consistently placate the child. Bowlby theorized that these behaviors arose from an evolutionary process where children with deep attachments to caregivers were more likely to survive, thanks to the caregiver’s protection and nourishment.
The “Strange Situation”
Building on Bowlby’s research, psychologist Mary Ainsworth developed a procedure for observing and classifying parent-child attachment. Called the “Strange Situation,” Ainsworth’s experiments study the reactions of children between 12 and 18 months old through a series of separations and reunions with their parent. Ainsworth would classify the pattern of each child’s attachment according to how they behaved when their parents left and returned.
Through the “Strange Situation,” Ainsworth was able to identify three patterns of attachment:
Secure Attachment: The child was distressed at separation, happy at reunion, and acted assured that their caregiver would eventually return.
Ambivalent-Insecure Attachment: The child was distressed when the parent left, but had no reaction to their return. Also known as insecure-resistant.
Avoidant-Insecure Attachment: The child avoids all parents and caregivers and doesn’t have a preference for parents over strangers.
Later research by psychologist Mary Main and Judith Solomon added a fourth category, disorganized-insecure, which involves a mix of disoriented, dazed, and confused behavior.
The Development of Attachment
Meanwhile, researchers Rudolph Schaffer and Peggy Emerson formulated a schedule for when and how attachments develop in young children. They were able to identify four phases: first comes the pre-attachment stage at 0-3 months. During this time, babies have no particular attachment to any one person, parent or otherwise. They signal for attention (crying, etc.) but are pleased wherever the attention comes from.
Next is the indiscriminate attachment phase, occurring roughly between six weeks and seven months of age. In this stage, a child develops a preference for positive and secondary caregivers and an ability to distinguish strangers.
Next comes the discriminate attachment phase. During this time at 7 to 11 months old, a child develops a strong preference for one specific caregiver. They protest and exhibit anxious behavior when separated from their preferred caregiver.
Finally, at about nine months, the baby starts to form multiple attachments. Where in the previous stage they only wanted to see one caregiver, they have now started feeling comfortable around secondary caregivers like siblings or grandparents.
The Risks of Insecure Attachment Patterns
Researchers have noted that insecure attachment patterns in children often coincide with problems later in life. For example, subjects who exhibited insecure attachment to their parents early in life are less likely to display agreeableness and conscientiousness as adults.
Children who were adopted after the age of 6 months have a higher risk of attachment issues, having missed the early window to establish attachment with parents. In addition, kids with oppositional defiant disorder (ODD), conduct disorder (CD) or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are more likely to have had attachment issues early in life.
Kids who develop healthy attachment patterns tend to have higher self-esteem, enabling them to engage in healthier relationships with others. Healthy attachments also lead to higher self-reliance, better performance in school, and reduced rates of depression and anxiety.