A Los Angeles reporter asked Andrew Macias, 4, if he was excited to start pre-school. With a nice polo and combed hair, the young boy hesitantly said “yes” to the reporter. The following question, however, left little Macias in tears, as the reporter asked, “Are you gonna miss you’re mom?” Macias at first says “no,” but the video catches Macias have a moment of realization that his mom would not be with him at pre-school. This led Macias to break into tears as the fear of leaving his mom finally set in.
The video of Macias has since gone viral, which may be in part due to the cuteness factor, but also in part because Macias displays a universal emotion. The feeling of attachment and fear as a young child is a strong force that each human experiences. It is an attachment towards a child’s mother figure, that is to say the figure does not have to be a biological mother for a young child to form attachment. The main concept of attachment theory is that while an infant, the child forms attachment to at least one primary caregiver. The type of attachment is dependent on the type of caregiving the child receives, and attachment theory goes on to explain how different forms of attachment can effect people into adulthood.
Brief Background of Attachment Theory
John Bowlby is cited as a founder of Attachment theory dating back to the 1930’s; however, this theory remains prevalent in the field of developmental psychology, informing counseling work with children. Attachment theory is based off the idea that human beings are adaptive, so that the behavior of attachment allows for better survival of a person’s reproductive line. In modern terms, adaptive refers to a child’s ability to develop social behaviors that will allow them to age emotionally healthy and become a high functioning adult. Another important concept of Attachment theory is the establishment of a sensitive period. A great deal of research has focused on explicitly setting a sensitive period, which is an age range in which the child is especially sensitive to the type of caregiving they receive. Furthermore, the sensitive period can have life long effects on the child’s later development of relationships. Recent research has broadened the sensitive period to general infancy up to early school age. Additionally, research has demonstrated the effects of caregiving during this time, while impactful, can be reversed later in life through other life experiences (Slade, 1999). Bowlby’s original concept was that the outcome of the sensitive period was irreversible.
Famous ‘Strange Situation’ Study
One of the most widely know studies in the field of psychology is the Strange Situation study that helped define different forms of attachment in children. This Strange Situation study design is still used and researched as psychologists refine attachment theory. The general idea of the Strange Situation involves a primary caregiver and a young child playing in a room (which is under observation). A “stranger” then enters the room, but does not interact with anyone. After a few minutes,the primary caregiver leaves the room. The response of the child left with the “stranger” is observed and documented as data. The primary caregiver then returns, and the child’s reaction to his or her primary caregiver is also documented. The “stranger” then leaves the primary caregiver and child alone together for a few minutes. The primary caregiver then exits the room, leaving the child completely alone in the room. During the next few minutes alone, the child is observed. The “stranger” then enter and remains with the child for a few minutes and leaves. Finally, the primary caregiver enters again and the child’s reaction to their return is documented.
The main source of data that helps to identify which type of attachment the child falls into is the child’s reaction the the return of the primary caregiver. It was this part of the Strange Situation that allowed research to develop the four main types of attachment.
One of the attachment styles is the anxious-resistant insecure attachment, which is defined as the child being anxious to explore the room no matter who is present. When the “stranger” comes in the child remains unsure and hesitant, even with his or her primary caregiver present. Finally, when the primary caregiver leaves, the child demonstrates great distress and anxiety, yet when the primary caregiver returns, the child seems ambivalent towards the primary caregiver.
A second type of attachment defined by the Strange Situation is the anxious-avoidant insecure attachment, in which the child shows little to no emotion at the leaving or returning of the primary caregiver. More recent research has measured the heart rates of the children in the Strange Situation, and those classified as anxious-avoidant demonstrate increased heart rate when their primary caregiver leaves. This insinuates that the child does in fact feel anxious with the absence of his or her primary caregiver; however, the child’s way of coping with this is to mask the fear with indifference.
The secure attachment is the type described as the child playing without any anxiety while the primary caregiver is present. A child described as securely attached will be somewhat wary of the “stranger,” but will check in with the primary caregiver, and often remains playing. There are some misconceptions that securely attached children do not get upset when their primary caregiver is not around; however, a defining piece of secure attachment is that the child does get visible upset (crying or tearful) at the exit of their primary caregiver. The difference from secure attachment and the two insecure types is the child is instantly happy to see their caregiver when they return. The child will often hug and kiss his or her primary caregiver and immediately return to playing.
The final type is the disorganized or disoriented attachment was developed later on as researchers could not always classify a child into one of the above three types of attachments. The children placed in the disorganized type would exhibit distress in their body movements, and often express opposite emotions within the same time. For example, the child would seem upset, but quickly change motion and play with a toy.
There have been numerous critiques and debates over Attachment theory, and since the early findings, there have been many modifications and additions to the theory. However, despite the debates, research continues to give some validity to the types of attachment discussed and the impact these classifications can have as a child forms relationships during school.
Ainsworth, M. D. S., Blehar, M. C., Waters, E., & Wall, S. (2014). Patterns of attachment: A psychological study of the strange situation. Psychology Press.
Ainsworth, M. D.; Bell, S. M. (1970). "Attachment, exploration, and separation: Illustrated by the behavior of one-year-olds in a strange situation". Child Development 41: 49–67. doi:10.1111/j.1467-8624.1970.tb00975.x.
Slade, A. (1999). Attachment theory and research: Implications for the theory and practice of individual psychotherapy with adults.