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Attachment is an imperative part of a child’s survival and is the foundation for all future relationships. There are many factors that affect the attachment style of each infant, however, this paper will focus on the “clear-cut” attachment time period and how the absence of a caregiver affects an infant’s desire to explore their environment in an unfamiliar situation with a stranger. Children with a secure attachment style were comfortable in their novel environment and displayed several explorative behaviors while their mothers were present. However, with the departure of their safety base, infants display far less exploratory behaviors and are likely to increase in attachment prior to reuniting, especially in the event of multiple departures. A healthy, secure attachment style is the best foundation for a child’s development and is mostly characterized by the quality of care and parenting styles. Children with early, stable, loving caregivers are likely to develop secure attachment styles, characterized with a trust in self and environment.
Strange Situation Review Paper
Attachment serves several imperative functions for babies and children, human and non-human alike. Not only is attachment seen as a biological necessity for survival, it is also a foundation for a child’s personality development, temperament, and future relationships (Berk, 2018). Ainsworth & Bell define attachment as “an affectional tie that one person or animal forms between himself and another specific one – a tie that binds them together in space and endures over time” (1970, p.50) and their goal for this study was the illustrate the ever-changing relationship between the ethological-evolutionary attachment style and children’s desire to explore. This ethological-evolutionary attachment style consists of an attachment in which a child desires to stay close to the object of attachment (in this case, the child’s mother) and will display attachment behaviors, such as following, clinging to, calling out to, or crying for their mother (Ainsworth & Bell, 1970). The ethological-evolutionary attachment style comprises many natural, instinctual reflexes that babies display from birth in order to survive, however, this paper will focus on the purpose of attachment in terms of the internal working model, the basis of personality which serves as the foundation for all future relationships (Berk, 2018, p. 197).
The study conducted by Ainsworth & Bell (1970) provided substantial evidence for their views on attachment, specifically, the delicate relationship between attachment styles and their effect on a child’s reactions in strange situations or with unfamiliar people. Consisting of 56 middle class, Caucasian infants ranging from ages 49-51 weeks, each trial was divided into 8 episodes designed to produce natural responses to a novel yet normal, everyday life experience of meeting a stranger in a new place. Each stranger interacted with the child slowly and each episode became increasingly more “disturbing” as the study progressed, but not so disturbing as to distress the child or arouse fear. Each episode was meticulously constructed and in summary consisted of the mother taking the child into the observation room, putting the child down to engage in 3 minutes of solo play, unless otherwise engaged with by the child. At this point, an unfamiliar person entered the room and sat quietly for 1 minute, followed by conversing with the mother for 1 minute and making initial contact with the child with a reinforcing object (a toy). Then, the mother exited the room without notifying the child, and the stranger did not interact with them unless the infant was inactive or distressed by the mother’s absence. Next, after a max of 3 minutes, the mother re-entered the room but stopped at the doorway in order to observe the infant’s natural response to the mother’s return. The stranger then left, along with the mother after the infant was once again engaged in play. At this point, the mother exited with a verbal prompt of “bye-bye” and the child was left alone for a maximum of 3 minutes. The stranger then returned and interacted with the child as they did previously, only if they were inactive or distressed. Finally, the mother returned, the stranger departed, and the reunion was observed.
The children in the study were initially open to exploring their environment, despite its unfamiliarity, so long as their mother was present and visible. This is a view consistent with Erikson’s theory of basic trust versus mistrust; children who’s needs are met can trust in self and environment to explore versus a child whose basic needs are not met (Berk, 2018, p. 184). As the study continued, each time the mother was absent, exploration behaviors decreased substantially. However, when the mother returned in episode 5, the children were able to recover from distress in conjunction with attempts to console from their mother only, when approached and consoled by a stranger, who would not be viewed as an object of attachment, their attempts were futile and did little to comfort the child. This is consistent with Bowlby’s Ethological Theory, specifically the “clear-cut” attachment phase, which consists of a clear, defined attachment to a caregiver and takes place between 6-8 months and lasts until 18-24 months (Berk, 2018, p. 197).
The “clear-cut” attachment phase was indeed illustrated in the study, as this time period consists of many proximity-seeking and contact-maintaining behaviors. According to Berk (2018), this stage in the ethological theory of attachment can also contain instances of separation anxiety and can be defined with an infant’s reluctancy to be separated from their caregivers and engaging in proximity-maintaining behaviors such as climbing on, shadowing, and displaying preference to their caregiver over others. This timeframe is also characterized as a time in which the caregiver is seen as a secure base, allowing the infant to confidently explore their surroundings. These are all characteristics of a secure attachment style and were illustrated in the strange situation. Ainsworth & Bell (1970) found that interaction with the mothers in the first few episodes was minimal and exploratory behaviors were at their highest, a characteristic of a secure attachment. However, when the mothers left the room, proximity-seeking behaviors dramatically increased and intensified, as well as the sharp decline in exploratory behaviors. In addition, contact-maintaining behaviors increased after the first separation, and increased sharply after the second separation. This is also a component of a secure attachment, especially when children are easily consoled upon their mother’s return (Berk, 2018, p. 198).
There were also instances in the study that were consistent with an insecure-resistant attachment style, one that consists of distress when a caregiver leaves, but is typically ambivalent upon their return and may continue to be distressed despite efforts to console (Berk, 2018). Ainsworth & Bell (1970) found that one third of the children displayed contact-resistant conduct upon their mother’s return, and one half after their mother’s second return. These behaviors consisted of wanting to be near their mother, but at the same time being displeased with their mother’s second departure and resistant to contact. However, after this initial displeasure, the period after the reunion increased a child’s attachment to their mother and decreased their likelihood to explore or interact with other people or their environment (Ainsworth & Bell, 1970).
There are several ways to ensure a secure attachment style is being developed when child rearing, and fortunately, healthy attachment styles can still form even if they are not present in a child’s life initially. One major factor affecting attachment style is the early presence of a reliable caregiver. As Berk (2018) states, children can form a strong first attachment as late as 4-6 years of age, suggesting that adoptive children who are unable to find homes initially can still form a close, secure attachment with a caregiver. However, these children are more at risk for an insecure-resistant attachment, as well as emotional and personal issues. One factor to ensure a close, secure attachment is formed is to focus on the quality of the relationship between the caregiver and the child and the quality of care provided to the child. Many studies show that sensitive caregiving, which consists of being in tune with the infants need, ensuring their needs are met promptly and with love, and frequent discussion of the child’s thoughts and feelings (Berk, 2018, p. 200).
Lastly, other environmental factors play a major role in the development of attachment styles, to include specific individual characteristics of both the caregiver and the child, as well as the collective characteristics seen in the family unit. One reading that was particularly interesting was the Parental Depression and Child Development, which summarized that infants of depressed parents sleep less, are far less interactive with their environment, and display delays in cognitive functioning, emotional issues, and behavioral problems (Berk, 2018, p.187). This ultimately boils down to the quality of parenting the child is receiving and how depression can negatively affect a child’s attachment style. Further, individual characteristics of the infant can put them at risk to developing an insecure attachment style. However, these children born with complications or prematurely can still build a secure attachment with patient parents and quality caregiving. Family circumstances also contribute to a child’s attachment style. Unfortunately, sometimes families break apart, either due to divorce or the unfortunate loss of a parent. Still, these factors are also related to the quality of care. The driving force of family circumstances that affect attachment are directly related to the emotional stress felt by the child either through parental stress, lack of communication, or the absence routine (Berk, 2018, p.200).
It is evident that attachment style profoundly affects a child’s ability to survive and grow into a healthy, secure human being. Ainsworth & Bell’s (1970) work illustrates the importance of a secure attachment and the detrimental effects the lack of attachment can have on their future relationships with others and self! It is apparent that the importance of a stable, quality caregiver early on in an infant’s life and that there is a shifting change between exploration behaviors in children and their attachment styles.
- 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, (1), 49-67. https://doi.org/10.2307/1127388
- Berk, L.E. (2018). Development through the lifespan, 7th Ed. Hoboken, NJ: Pearson.
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