At work, I use attachment theory to guide my clinical practice, and in my new work as a mother, I have been observing this every day, so I thought it was about time that I wrote about it.
Attachment, in child psychiatry, refers to a quality of the relationship beytween an infant and her mother (I’ll say mother as that is the usual attachment figure, but it could be the father or other primary caregiver). John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth are the two people most associated with this.
Bowlby studied juvenile delinquents in the early 1950s and believed that delinquency (antisocial/psychopathic traits) was associated with maternal deprivation, or being separated from their mothers at an early age. He also looked to work that had been done in the animal kingdom such as baby animals following adult animals around to ensure survival (imprinting). He concluded that infants have an inbuilt attachment system — activated at times of stress — to ensure that they stay close to their mother for physical survival.
The idea is that the mother’s response to an infant gives the baby an internal working model of relationships. It’s as if they file away the expectation of what will happen when they are distressed and how their mother will respond. A mother who is warm, empathic and responsive to her baby’s cries teaches that baby trust and security.
Mary Ainsworth worked under Bowlby, mainly at the Tavistock clinic, and developed a laboratory ‘test’ called the strange situation to categorise attachment styles. This involves a room with video cameras, a 12 month old infant, her mother, and a ‘stranger’. The infant is exposed to increasingly stressful situations while being filmed, eg being left alone with the stranger. The child’s reaction to this stress, and behaviour on reunion with their mother, is analysed to put them into one of 3 categories:
The infant gets upset when mum leaves the room, seeks comfort when they are reunited, settles quickly with mum, and goes back to play.
Insecure – avoidant
The infant doesn’t show she’s upset when mum leaves the room, is distant when mum comes back in and doesn’t cling to her.
Insecure – ambivalent
This infant is often anxious even before mum leaves, and becomes very upset when she goes and doesn’t settle. When they are reunited, the child is angry yet clingy and difficult to console.
What is the significance of this?
Studies have shown that the attachment style at 12 months is predictive of the attachment relationship throughout childhood and into adulthood. Our own attachment style generally predicts the attachment relationship that we will have with our own children. Insecurely attached children/adults have higher rates of mental health disturbance and social and emotional difficulties; a secure attachment is protective.
At the moment, I can’t leave the room without A crying, crawling after me and clinging to my leg. Last week, we went to dinner at a friend’s house. When we first got there, A took a look around and cried while clinging to me. AFter 5 or 10 minutes, she settled and started to explore, though if she became too stressed, she’d crawl back over to me for some reassurance. When A cries, and I respond, I know that I am teaching her that I am a secure base for her. Sadly, in our society, we seem to value children who don’t cry or protest – those with avoidant attachment styles. How many times have you heard “Oh, she’s a good baby – she’ll go to anyone, she hardly cries!” It is normal and desirable for babies to cry, and they should be clingy and wary of strangers. This is the way they have been designed so that they can survive. This is attachment at work.