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Posted: September 7th, 2023

Attachment and its role in child development

Attachment and its role in child development:

Attachment is one of the most important aspects of child development. The attachment relationship that forms between a child and their primary caregiver in the early years has a profound impact on the child’s social-emotional development, ability to cope with stress, and future relationships. This article will explore attachment theory and the different types of attachment that can develop, as well as how attachment influences various domains of child development.
Attachment Theory
Attachment theory was first proposed by British psychologist John Bowlby in the 1950s. Bowlby argued that infants have an innate need to form strong emotional bonds with their primary caregivers for survival. These bonds, or attachments, allow infants to feel safe exploring their environment knowing that their caregiver will be nearby to provide protection and comfort when needed (Bowlby, 1969).
Mary Ainsworth further developed Bowlby’s theory through her “Strange Situation” experiments in the 1970s. In these experiments, Ainsworth observed how infants reacted when separated from and reunited with their mothers. She identified three main patterns of attachment that develop by one year of age: secure attachment, anxious-ambivalent attachment, and avoidant attachment (Ainsworth et al., 1978).
Secure attachment is the healthiest type of attachment where infants use their caregiver as a secure base to explore from. When distressed, securely attached infants will seek proximity to their caregiver for comfort and will be easily soothed upon reunion. Anxious-ambivalent attachment develops when caregivers are inconsistently available to meet the infant’s needs. Infants with this type of attachment tend to be distressed both during separation and reunion from their caregiver. Avoidant attachment occurs when caregivers consistently reject or are unavailable to meet the infant’s needs. Infants with avoidant attachment avoid or ignore their caregiver upon reunion and do not seek comfort when distressed (Ainsworth et al., 1978).
Subtitle: Attachment and Social-Emotional Development
A child’s early attachment relationship has a profound impact on their social-emotional development. Securely attached children tend to have healthier social skills and relationships as they grow. They are more confident exploring their environment, have better emotional regulation skills, and are able to balance independence with seeking help from caregivers when needed (Sroufe, 2005).
Insecurely attached children face more challenges. Children with anxious-ambivalent attachment often have difficulty trusting others and regulating their emotions. They may become overly dependent on caregivers. Avoidantly attached children suppress their emotions and needs for closeness due to past rejection. They tend to have difficulty forming close relationships and asking for help (Sroufe, 2005). Early insecure attachments also increase the risk for mental health issues like anxiety and depression later in life if left unaddressed (Bifulco et al., 2006).
Subtitle: Attachment and the Ability to Cope with Stress
A child’s attachment relationship with their primary caregiver shapes how their stress response system develops. Securely attached children learn that their caregiver is a safe haven to turn to during times of stress or fear. This allows their stress response systems to develop healthily. They can effectively regulate their emotions and physiological arousal when distressed (Gunnar & Quevedo, 2007).
In contrast, insecurely attached children’s stress response systems may become dysregulated due to inconsistent or rejecting caregiving. Anxious-ambivalently attached children struggle to self-soothe and their stress levels remain elevated for longer periods. Avoidantly attached children suppress the outward display of stress but experience heightened physiological arousal, making them more vulnerable to stress-related health issues later in life (Gunnar & Quevedo, 2007). Effectively addressing insecure attachments can help children develop healthier stress coping abilities.
Subtitle: Attachment and Future Relationships
A child’s early attachment experiences also influence the types of relationships they form as adults. Adults who had secure attachments as children tend to have more satisfying romantic relationships characterized by trust, communication and emotional intimacy (Collins & Read, 1990). They are also better able to balance independence with closeness.
Insecure attachments increase the risk for relationship difficulties. Adults with past anxious-ambivalent attachments often become overly dependent on partners or fear abandonment. They may struggle to trust in relationships. Adults with avoidant attachments from childhood continue suppressing intimacy needs and may have difficulty being emotionally vulnerable with partners (Collins & Read, 1990).
However, it is important to note that early attachments are not destiny. With the right support and interventions, even children who form insecure attachments can go on to develop secure attachments later and form healthy relationships. Therapies focused on strengthening the parent-child bond, such as attachment-based family therapy, have shown success in improving attachment security over time (Diamond et al., 2016).
In summary, a child’s early attachment relationship with their primary caregiver plays a profound role in their development. Secure attachments provide children with a strong foundation for healthy social-emotional skills, stress coping abilities and future relationships. Insecure attachments increase vulnerability for challenges but can be addressed through therapeutic interventions. Continued research on attachment theory enhances understanding of child development and informs strategies to support optimal outcomes.
Ainsworth, M. D., Blehar, M. C., Waters, E., & Wall, S. (1978). Patterns of attachment: A psychological study of the strange situation. Psychology Press.
Bifulco, A., Moran, P. M., Ball, C., & Bernazzani, O. (2002). Adult attachment style. I: Its relationship to clinical depression. Social psychiatry and psychiatric epidemiology, 37(2), 50-59.
Bowlby, J. (1969). Attachment and loss: Vol. 1. Attachment. New York: Basic Books
Collins, N. L., & Read, S. J. (1990). Adult attachment, working models, and relationship quality in dating couples. Journal of personality and social psychology, 58(4), 644.
Diamond, G. S., Diamond, G. M., & Levy, S. A. (2014). Attachment-based family therapy for depressed adolescents. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
Gunnar, M. R., & Quevedo, K. (2007). The neurobiology of stress and development. Annual review of psychology, 58, 145-173.
Sroufe, L. A. (2005). Attachment and development: A prospective, longitudinal study from birth to adulthood. Attachment & human development, 7(4), 349-367.

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