Bowlbys Theories On Attachment Psychology Essay

Attachment is typically defined as ‘a close, reciprocal, emotional relationship between two persons, characterised by mutual affection and a desire to maintain proximity’ Schaffer (1993). In respect of forming a close attachment with a caregiver human attachment promotes on-going survival as this ensures a child will be fed, protected, educated etc.

Bowlby’s believed that attachment is a basic component of human nature and that we inherit the need to form attachments, describing it as as a “lasting psychological connectedness between human beings.” Bowlby proposed that an attachment promotes survival in three ways: proximity maintenance; attachment keeps mother/child close to each other, safe haven; a child will eagerly explore safe in the knowledge that the attachment figure can be returned to, separation distress; anxiety that can occur in the absence of the attachment figure. He argued that the need to form an attachment is innate and adaptive and that it most likely to develop in the sensitive period from approximately six months to three years of age.

Bowlby shared psychoanalytic views that early experiences in childhood influence development and behaviours later in life. Bowlby’s ‘internal working model’ (1969) proposed that early attachments form a schema that provide the child with the basic mechanisms of what a relationship is and this information is then used in future years to develop other relationships; also particularly important in determining parenting skills in later life. 

Bowlby’s theories have been influential in many areas and widely applied in practical situations such as care homes, hospitals etc. Critiques do note that that Bowlby appears, on the face of it, to concentrate on the role of the mother while neglecting the father. Lamb (1983) suggests that young children view mothers as providers of basic needs and in contrast view their fathers as providers of fun, excitement, and play that is noisy, emotional, boisterous, physical, and spontaneous. Bowlby also appears to overlook the influential relationships formed with siblings which Schaffer describes as horizontal as opposed to the vertical relationships formed with parents and other adults

Similarly, Bowlby’s internal working model has come under critisism. Zimmerman et al (2000) concluded from a longitudinal study that early attachment style is not necessarily a good predictor of later relationships. They suggest that life events, such as divorce, had a far greater impact. (Rutter & Quinton 1988) have shown that a negative experience early in life can actually be overcome by positive experiences through school and with good relationships with other adults.

Schaffer and Emerson (1964) conducted a study within a working class area of Glasgow involving sixty babies, observing them every four weeks for the first year and then again at eighteen months to find the age at which attachments start and to observe the intensity of the attachment. They measured separation anxiety by seeing how distressed the child became when separated from the main caregiver and stranger anxiety by the distress shown when the child was left alone with an unfamiliar person. They concluded that human attachments develop in three distinct stages. The asocial stage occurs between nought and six weeks where attention seeking behaviour (cooing, smiling and crying) occurs but is not directed to any one person; this suggests attachments could be made with anyone. The indiscriminate attachment period is between six weeks and six months where preferences are shown to familiar faces but the child will seek and be happy to receive attention from anyone. Specific attachments follow when a child become primarily attached to the main caregiver. In their studies they found that half of all the children showed their first specific attachment at the age of six to eight months followed by a fear of strangers a month later. Once the specific attachment had been made they found that if separated the child became distressed and wary of strangers. Attachment to other key figures quickly followed the initial specific attachment, usually the mother. As the babies were observed in their natural environment this gives a good indication that the study is valid ecologically and the findings could therefore be generalised to the real world. However part of the data was collected by parents keeping daily diaries and that could be questioned as inaccurate as reflective information and may show bias.  

Ainsworth and Bell (1970) further expanded Bowlby’s work with their Strange Situation study. They observed children between the ages of twelve and eighteen months responding to a situation in which they were briefly left alone and then reunited with their mother. The observers looked at four particular behaviours: separation anxiety, infant’s willingness to explore, stranger anxiety and reunion behaviour. Results showed that 66% of infants were securely attached and rest were classified as insecurely attached showing two types of distinct characteristic. 22% of the sample were avoidant insecure children and 12% were resistant insecure. Concluded three major styles of attachment: secure attachment, ambivalent-insecure attachment, and avoidant-insecure attachment. Main and Solomon (1986) added a fourth attachment style known as disorganized-insecure attachment.

Securely attached children generally become visibly upset when their carer leaves and happy when they return. When frightened they seek comfort from parent or carer. Contact initiated by a parent is readily accepted and they greet the return of a parent with positive behavior. While these children can be comforted to some extent by other people in the absence of a parent or caregiver, they prefer parents to strangers. Parents of securely attached children tend to play more with their children, react more quickly and responsive to needs than parents of insecurely attached children. Studies have shown that securely attached children are more empathetic during later stages of childhood and these children are also described as less disruptive, less aggressive, and more mature than children with ambivalent or avoidant attachment styles. Long term they tend to have trusting, long-term relationships as adults. Hazen and Shaver (1987) found that as adults they tend to believe that romantic love is enduring and Mccarthy (1999) found that women with a secure attachment style had more positive feelings about their adult romantic relationships. Other key characteristics of securely attached individuals include having high self-esteem, enjoying intimate relationships, seeking out social support, and an ability to share feelings with other people.

Ambivalent attached children tend to be suspicious of stranger and display considerable distress when separated from a parent or carer but do not seem reassured or comforted by their return. In some cases they can reject the parent by refusing comfort and may display direct aggression toward them. Cassidy and Berlin (1994) found ambivalent attachment to be relatively uncommon (7% to 15% of infants in the United States displaying this attachment style). Observational research consistently links ambivalent-insecure attachment to low maternal availability and as these children grow older, teachers often describe them as clingy and over-dependent. As adults they often feel reluctant about becoming close to others and worry partners don’t reciprocate feelings which can lead to frequent breakups. Hazen and Shaver (1987) reported adults fall in love often. Research by Cassidy and Berlin also identified a pathological pattern where ambivalently attached adults cling to young children as a source of security.

Avoidant attachment children tend to avoid parents and carers which becomes especially pronounced after a period of absence. While they not reject attention from a parent neither do they seek attention. Children with an avoidant attachment show no preference between a parent and stranger. As adults they tend to have difficulty with intimacy and close relationships with an inability to share feelings, thoughts and emotions. Research has also shown that adults with an avoidant attachment style are more accepting and likely to engage in casual sex (Feeney, J., Noller, and Patty 1993) while Hazen and Shaver (1987) found that they describe love as rare and temporary.

Disorganized-insecure attachment children show a lack of clear attachment behavior. Actions and responses to parents and carers are often a mixture of behaviors, including avoidance or resistance. Child can show dazed behaviors, seeming either confused or apprehensive in the presence of a carer. Main and Solomon (1986) proposed that inconsistent behavior on the part of parents might be a contributing factor in this style of attachment while Main and Hesse (1990) added that parents who act as figures of both fear and reassurance to a child contribute to a disorganized-insecure attachment child as the child feels both comforted and frightened by the parent and is often confused.

However, long term, the attachment styles formed in infancy are not necessarily identical to those demonstrated in adulthood. Those described as ambivalent or avoidant in infancy can become securely attached as adults, while those with a secure attachment in childhood can show insecure attachment styles in adulthood. Basic temperament is also thought to play a partial role in attachment and intervening experiences also play a large role in adult attachment styles (Kagan 1984).

According to behaviourists, behaviour is not innate but learned. This can be due to several inputs: associations being made through conditioning, behaviour being altered by patterns of reward and punishment (operant conditioning), or by simply watching others. Behaviourist explanations do take complex human behaviour and tries to explain them in the simplest terms possible and does not consider internal processes, complex relationships or the emotional nature of attachments but simply how they arise as behaviours. 

Social Learning Theory (SLT) is similar in some respects. SLT demonstrated that an action that is rewarded is more likely to be repeated; it also emphasises the role of imitation. A child will watch others and if they are rewarded for their behaviour they are likely to copy. Hay and Vespo (1988) suggests that attachments develop after a parent has teached their child to love them which is achieved in three ways: through modelling where a child will replicate the affectionate behaviour that they see between parents, through direct instruction where parents teach a child to be affectionate and through social facilitation where parents observe their children and encourage appropriate behaviours.

Dollard and Miller (1950) suggest that hunger and cold are strong motivators for a child, driving the child to satisfy its need by eating or seeking warmth; known as drive reduction. Obtaining food or warmth results in drive reduction which in itself provides reward. Attachment occurs with the person providing the food and warmth. Classical conditioning can offer an explanation for food producing the attachment. A child simply associates food and mother together and at birth is a neutral stimulus with no response but as the mother is continually paired with food she slowly becomes associated with it until eventually mother alone can produce pleasure and she and a conditioned response. However, contradictins to this have been found in other studies. Schaffer and Emerson found 39% of the Glasgow babies formed their first attachment with someone other than the person who fed them which suggests food is not a requirement for forming attachments. Main and Weston (1981) also found that children behaved differently for the male/female parent which suggests attachment type is not consistent.  

Thomas (1998) concluded a child benefits from a variety of attachments and all similarly important to the child. For example, an attachment to a father figure will provide benefits to the child that a mother alone could not provide. In Schaffer and Emerson’s Glasgow babies nearly a third had five or more attachments by the age of 18 months. 

Much of the research considers similarities but we also need to consider why and in which way behaviours differ. For example, individuals in the same high level environment can vary quite considerable in the types of attachments formed. Bowlby believed that the need to form an attachment was genetic and as a result experienced by the infants of every culture. Ainsworth carried out most of her research in the United States and others have taken this around the world imposing this blueprint on other countriesl. Van Ijzendoorn and Kroonenberg (1988) concluded that it is wrong to think of everyone in a culture having the same practices following a meta-analysis from a variety of studies performed in various countries. Within a culture there may be many sub-cultures; child rearing practices may be ethnically or racially based but also may be class specific.

Thomas and Chess (1977) suggested children are born with personality types that fall into three main categories: easy, difficult and slow to warm up. Belsky and Rovine (1987) found physiological characterisitcs in the first few days of life that seemed to match later attachment styles, for example, calm babies were more likely to develop secure attachments a few months later. 

Deprivation or separation between the child and the primary attachment can have short and long term effects. Robertson and Bowlby (1952) proposed a model of the short-term effects of separation involving three stages: protest, despair and detachment called the PDD model. Short term is defined as deprivation lasting over weeks or months, rather than years, for example hospitalisation. The research was conducted using children aged between one and four and found that during the protest stage a child will panic, cry and call out for its mother with the stage lasting anything from a few hours up to a few weeks. This is followed by the despair stage where a child will becomes apathetic; they will occasionally cry and call for their mother. Finally, the child enters the detachment stage where a child cries less and is more interested in surroundings. When the mother returns initially the child shows little interest and may even be angry and rejecting. However, the attachment is soon rebuilt.

Robertson and Robertson (1971) found that if steps are taken to minimise the separation, for example discussing the reasons for the separation with the child and keeping to familiar routines, the effects can be minimised. This study, alogn with others of a similar vein, have played a significant role in modernising attitudes and adjusting how people deal with separation. Hospitals are now very reluctant to allow even brief periods of separation but if unavoidable, then they are carefully prepared and organised.

From this studies Bowlby also developed his maternal deprivation hypothesis on long term separation claiming that if bonds are broken early in life this can lead to problems in later life that are permanent and irreversible. ADDIDDAS is the mnemonic for characristics displayed meaning; aggression, delinquency, dwarfism, intellectual retardation, depression, dependency, affectionless and social maladjustment.

There have been several studies that supported this hypothesis. Spitz (1945) studied orphanages in South America and found children showed very few displays of affection. Goldfarb (1947) found children who had spent three years at the orphanage had lower IQ’s, were less social and more likely to be aggressive. We must, however, consider that children reared in institutions at the time of these studies were probably kept in relatively poor conditions that could have impacted on behaviour. Similar to short term deprivation, studies have found that many of the effects of early deprivation can be overcome and may not be as permanent or irreversible as Bowlby appears to assume. 

In recent years the number of children using day care has risen drastically, mainly due to changing family sutiations and in particular the changing role of the mother, for example, much more women work full type in contract to the 1950’s or 60’s. However, if we took the headline grabbing information on day care the picture may be very different. In 1994 Violata and Russell reviewed the findings of 88 studies and concluded that regular day care for more than 20 hours a week had an ‘unmistakeably negative effect on socio-emotional development, behaviour and attachment of young children.’

However, in contrast, studies have also suggested no detrimental effect on attachment or social and cognitive development. Clarke-Stewart et al (1994) in a study of 500 children found that those receiving up to 30 hours a week of day care were no more distressed than others attending for less hours of day care when separated from parents. Comparisons have also been done between infants up to twelve months attending day care and those who had remained at home and found no difference in attachment with their mother, Roggman et al (1994).  

Evidence supports the idea that early opportunities to mix with lots of other children help develop peer relationships. Shea (1981) compared the behaviours of those attending day care for different lengths of time and found that children who attended more regularly were more active and more social suggesting a correlation between time spent in day care and sociability. Clarke-Stewart et al (1994) also found that increased time in day care seemed to speed up social development and that social skills were developed earlier.

In contract, a number of studies have found that long periods of time in day care during the first five years can lead to an increase of aggressive behaviour later in childhood (Vandell and Corasaniti 1990, Belsky 1999). However, as always, things aren’t quite so clear cut.  Borge et al (2004) compared children in day care to children reared at home and found that children kept at home appeared to be more aggressive. It could be that poverty caused the aggressive behaviour in this study as the children kept at home were generally from disadvantaged backgrounds so it is difficult to see if the cause is day care or poverty. Critiques also argue that much of the research into aggression fail to distinguish or define the difference between assertiveness and aggression and fail to be consistant with these in different studies.

The conclusions from studies need to be carefully considered for a number of reasons. The types of day care used differ and can be: childminders, nursery, playgroups etc. Dependant on the form this can vary through the adult-child ratio, qualifications and training of the staff and the number of peers present; all of which will impact on a child’s behaviour. The personality traits of the children also have a contributing affect on the chlds behaviour and the response to attachment separation.

The NICHD (National Institute of Child Health and Human Development) are carrying out a longitudinal study of the effects of day care which aims to take many of the variables mentioned (plus many more) into account. This ongoing study began in 1991 with some results already published: more time in day care results in more assertive in children aged five, non-compliant and aggressive behaviours were three times more likely with behavioural problems such as tantrums, lying and arguing when children are in full-time day care. Even the latest results from this study Jay Belsky (2007) confirm this as they still found a link between extended day care and aggressiveness in children at twelve years old. On a positive note, high quality day care is associated with higher levels of cognitive development. NICHD also confirm that the home environment and the sensitivity of the mother is a much better indicator of social competence and aggression than actual time spent in day care as the more sensitive mothers were far more likely to be producing children with fewer social problems. 

Campbell, Lamb and Hwang (2000) is a further longitudinal study, this time specifically with Swedish children. Initial findings are that children who had spent long days in day care were found to be less socially competent than those who spent shorter periods but many times a week in day care. However, the quality of care provided is crucial; those attending good quality day care before the age of three had increased social competence. They have also found a high correlation between social competence aged three and age fifteen which suggests that social abilities are formed at an early age and once developed are unlikely to change in later life. 

Separation anxiety is the fear children have of being parted from their parents or carers and is very common and normal among babies and toddlers. By pre-school age most children are beginning to understand the intentions of others and can often cognitively understand that a parent will return, however, a small number of pre-schoolers and school-age children will develop separation anxiety disorder. When this does occur the child’s behaviour often cause despair and anxiety for the parent.


Some of the behaviours that children may exhibit are: crying and clinging at drop off time as well as transition times throughout the day, such as outside time or nap time; carrying a security item throughout the day; and sometimes crying at pick up time because it reminds them of how they felt when the parent dropped them off. This can last for as short as a few minutes with a transition into participatory behaviours or can last for hours for as long as the parent is away. In addition, children may become withdrawn or avoidant and they may also exhibit symptoms after they are returned to their parent. It is not uncommon for parents to observe some anger or distance from their children after they return, as if to punish them for leaving them. .

An observational study provides an ideal opportunity to study behaviours that could not be created ethically in any other way. It’s a huge psychological challenge for a child to attend nursery and often marks the first ventures into a wider world.. Going to nursery or school is a real change and children cope very differently. Psychologically, the healthiest form of attachment is securely attached where the children will actively seek it out social interaction and will be relatively confident in going to nursery or school because they know their carer will return to collect them. Children with separation anxiety can be difficult for both the mother and child to handle and possibly disruptive to other children.

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