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It wasn’t until the combined efforts of John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth that the world discovered the instinctual, evolutionary, and marginally distinctive behaviors exhibiting the need for healthy attachment between children and their parental figures to survive and thrive in adult relationships.

A Brief History Of Attachment Theory

According to R. Chris Fraley of the University of Illinois, John Bowlby was, “a British psychoanalyst who [attempted] to understand the intense distress experienced by infants who [are] separated from their parents.” He postulated in the 1900s that this distress response children exhibit when separated from their parental figure was not a weakness in their undeveloped, emotional abilities but, rather, an instinctual response that aided them in surviving from an evolutionary standpoint.

Mary Ainsworth, an assistant to Bowlby, developed a remarkable experiment that took Bowlby’s attachment behavioral system theory to the next level. This experiment, called the strange situation, was used to examine the variable behaviors of numerous children who became physically separated from their primary caregiver. Her conclusion was, in short, that there are, at minimum, three different attachment styles children use to attach to their caregivers and that these behaviors are learned within their first twelve months of life.

She labeled these attachment styles secure, anxious-resistant, and avoidant.

  • Securely attached children exhibit healthy emotional behaviors.
  • Anxious-resistant attached children are hard to console when a caregiver returns to their presence and they even try to penalize their caregiver.
  • Avoidant children almost completely ignore their parent and shut down on them for causing them distress by leaving their presence.

Attached is a basic overview of how these attachment styles work for reference:

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How Do Children Develop Attachment Styles?

Using That First Year Wisely

The first year of a child’s life is crucial in developing this attachment style in children. To a parental figure, this can be incredibly frightening to think that their responses to their children in their first year of life will determine the way in which these children will attach to others, and particularly to romantic interests, throughout their entire lives.

Inconsistent Scientific Findings

Before we jump off the deep end, it is important to recognize that scientists who study children as they age and monitor their attachment styles from birth to their current age have vastly different opinions on the duration and endurance of these attachment styles as they age. Some postulate that these attachment styles fade away and are replaced as they form new relationships with various individuals. Others suspect that these attachment styles impact how these people will attach to others for the duration of their lives.

To Cover Your Bases, Secure Attachments Are The Way To Go

Whether these attachment styles are carried over from childhood to the rest of their lives or not, what this boils down to is that is important to raise children who have secure attachment styles. If they don’t carry over their attachment style from childhood, they will have a more difficult time transitioning to a secure attachment style as they grow and make new connections. The children that do, however, will have a much easier time attaching to others in a safe and confident manner for all time to come.

Either way, raising a child to have a secure attachment style is a win-win situation.

Children Learn By Interacting With Caregivers. Children develop attachment styles based on how their caregivers respond to their needs and desires. If parents are consistently attentive and provide for their child’s needs, the child tends to develop a secure attachment style. If the parents are inconsistently attentive, the child tends to develop an anxious-resistant or avoidant attachment style.

Children Learn By Observing Caregivers With Others. It is also important to note that children tend to develop their attachment styles based on how their caregivers react to others. If a parent, for example, shuts down on someone trying to confront them to re-establish an intimate relationship of any kind, the child will pick up on this and be more likely to develop an avoidant attachment style.

Next month, look for Part Two of this blog series where I go into more detail about how you can raise securely attached children.