“Strong emotional tie that develops over time between an infant and its primary caregiver(s). Describes the special, specific affective/emotional relationship normally observed between an infant and primary caregivers”.

Attachment is the term used by developmental psychologists to refer to the relationship between the child and a primary care-giver and to the child’s behaviour towards that primary care-giver.  Specifically:

  • An insistent interest in being close to the primary caregiver
  • The tendency to use these individuals as a secure base for exploration of unfamiliar environments
  • Flight to the attachment figure as a haven of safety in times of stress, danger, or alarm.

Attachment has several important characteristics:

  • It is directly linked to all aspects of a child’s development- physical health, affect regulation, self-esteem, relationship capacity and resulting adult personality and functioning
  • Once established, it is largely resistant to change, but is by no means static- and can be influenced by circumstances of the relationship

Attachment is important because it can affect adult (and child) relationships, social functioning, mental health, personality traits etc.

Patterns of attachment

Secure attachment

Children seek their mothers (or primary caregivers) when distressed and seem confident of her ability.  They are upset when she leaves, eagerly greet her on return and are usually warmly accepted and comforted by the mother.

  • The mother/primary caregiver is warm, sensitively attuned and consistent.  Quickly responds to baby’s cries.
  • Baby readily explores, using mother as a secure base.  Cries least (compared with other groups), most easily soothed.
  • In a strange situation test, the child actively seeks mother when distressed and maintains contact after reunion- readily comforted.

These children will often make friends easily at pre-school and are able to cope with mildly stressful situations.

Anxious (Avoidant) attachment

Children seem less dependent on mother as a secure base.  They might seem aggressive towards their mother and/or seem far more ‘clingy’ and demanding at home.  Although they can be upset by their mother’s departure in the SST, they can show little or no interest on her return.

  • Mother is often emotionally unavailable or rejecting.  Dislikes ‘neediness’ and may applaud and reinforce independence.
  • Baby seeks little physical contact with mother by the end of their 1st year; randomly angry with her and can be relatively unresponsive to being held, although are often upset to being put down
  • In the SST- avoids mother when distressed and appears ‘blasé’.  Following stress they do not tend to go back to the primary caregiver as a base for comfort.

In pre-school, these children may be angry/aggressive/defiant and may have difficulty interacting with their peers (they may lack empathy or be emotionally distant), but may hang around teachers (increased reliance on teachers).  However, teachers may not always react well and can get angry and controlling.

Ambivalent (resistant) attachment

Children tend to be over-anxious and, like avoidant children, they can be ‘clingy’ and demanding at home.  In the SST, they are often upset when mother leaves, and are often persistantly so.  However, when she returns, they can be difficult to soothe and can often show some anger.

  • Mother is often unpredictable or chaotic.  Often attentive but out of synchronisation with the baby.  Most tuned into baby’s fear.
  • Baby cries a lot, is clingy and demanding, often angry and upset by small separations.  Chronically anxious in relation to mother and limited in exploration.
  • SST- difficult to soothe after separation- angry and seeking comfort simultaneously.  Show marked focus on the caregiver and often seek unremitting contact when stressed or may be unable to alleviate distress.

These children may be fretful and easily overwhelmed in pre-school.  They can be immature, overly dependent on teachers and easily frustrated.  Teachers may indulge, excuse and infantilise them.

Stages of attachment

  1. Asocial stage (0-6wks)
  2. Indiscriminate attachments (6wks-6/7months)
  3. Specific attachments (around 7 months)
  4. Multiple attachments (around 8 months)

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