by Argentina Ciaramella
What is Attachment Theory?
The ability to form behavioral attachments is a skill that can be seen in anyone who maintains a closeness or intimacy with another person (the object of attachment). Being able to form strong attachments is key in allowing people to face the world in a healthy, well-adjusted way.
When a baby is uncomfortable and crying, the parent’s natural instinct to hold and cuddle the child is the most appropriate response, according to John Bowlby, a British psychologist who worked in the mid 1900s. Bowlby rejected Freud’s famed developmental model, which claimed that a child moves in psychosexual stages from oral to anal to genital. Instead, according to Bowlby, the mother-child bond is not based solely on the baby’s need for nourishment, but on its need for emotional recognition.
Attachment plays a central role in human relationships, according to Bowlby, and is a theme that accompanies us from cradle to coffin.
Through his studies, Bowlby demonstrated how the development of a healthy personality depends on adequate attachment to a maternal figure or caregiver.
Bowlby’s theory was inspired by ethological studies by Konrad Lorenz and Harry Harlow. Lorenz had observed that ducklings, when deprived of a natural maternal figure, would instead follow a human being (or other object), developing a strong bond that went far beyond the simple requirement of providing nutrition.
Harlow, for his part, experimented with baby monkeys, showing how the babies, when removed from their real mothers, could become attached to a “puppet mother”—clearly preferring a surrogate covered with a soft, spongy fabric to a cold metal surrogate, even when the metal “mother” held a bottle of milk for the babies.
THE FOUR STAGES OF ATTACHMENT DEVELOPMENT
Bowlby identifies four stages through which the attachment bond develops:
– From birth to 8-12 weeks: the child cannot discriminate between the people around him, despite being able to recognize the smell and voice of his own mother. As time passes, the child starts to sort out his relationships, especially with his mother.
– 6-7 months: The child becomes increasingly able to discriminate between people in his life.
– 9 months and beyond: The child’s attachment with its caregiver becomes stable and visible. The child actively tries to catch the attention of the caregiver and uses that attention as a base for exploring the environment, always seeking protection and guidance.
– This last stage in the child’s attachment behavior remains stable up to 3 years of age, at which time the child acquires an ability to maintain a feeling of security and safety in unknown environments, even when in the company of secondary reference figures; the child feels secure because he knows the primary caregiver will always return soon.
The child develops a sense of security when he feels that his caregiver provides protection, a sense of safety, and affection. Or the child can develop an insecure personality when the caregiver relationship is ruled by excessive caution, dependence, and fear of abandonment.
But are emotional bonds essential to survival?
Let’s find out together in our second installment, looking further into the fascinating world of childhood emotional development.