Influence of parental attachment on the self concept

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The main founders of the Attachment Theory are John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth. According to Bowlby ‘Attachment theory regards the propensity to make intimate emotional bonds to particular individuals as a basic component of human nature, already present in germinal form in the neonate and continuing through adult life into old age.’ (Bowlby 1988, 120:121) He presented us with this new way of thinking starting between the bond of a child and his/her parents or caregivers longing for protection, support and comfort, continuing through a health adolescent years and adult life. Ainsworth on the other hand not only interpreted the views of this theory through empirical findings but also continued to develop on the theory itself.

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These empirical studies emphasized the infant’s need for a special figure who is emotionally and physically available and thereby facilitates exploration of the environment (secure base), whose sensitive responsiveness in stressful or alarming situations provides reassurance, comfort, and protection (secure haven), whose departure arouses anxiety and whose return is generally welcomed with relief and pleasure ( Ainsworth, Blehar, Waters,’ (Bretherton, and Biringen 1991, 1)

Therefore, in this chapter, a résumé of relevant aspects of Attachment Theory will be given as follows. We will begin with a description of attachment theory and its’ developmental processes relevant to attachment in infancy. Furthermore we will take in consideration the lifelong interpersonal relationships that may engage in warmth bonds in the youths’ existence. These include the bonds between youth and self, parent and youth, bond between other relatives, bond with friends and even sexual partners. ‘These classes of bond differ from one another in regard to the role played by the attachment system and its interplay with other basic behavioral systems.’ (Ainsworth, 1993:33) This is the framework for the present thesis.

2.2 Origins of Attachment

According to Cassidy and Shaver (1999) John Bowlby started working on his attachment theory shortly soon after his graduation when he came across two boys who both have suffered unsettling relationships with their mothers, whilst working at a home for estranged boys. These relationships made an impact on him and this was shown through his publications and various other observations. ‘Bowlby’s observations led not only to his belief that the relationship with the mother is important for later functioning, but also to a belief that this relationship is of critical immediate importance to the child.’ (Cassidy and Shaver 1999, 3) Nowadays, Attachment Theory is one of the most conventional theories used to explicate and examine the disposition and effects between the human relationships across the life span. As argued by Bowlby (1969) in Thompson (2004) attachment depends on the responsiveness and consistency of a primary caregiver. The security of attachment in the first few years of a child’s life influences the manner he/she construes the social world and in the way he/she interrelates with other individuals. According also to Cassidy and Shaver (1999) children with secure attachment have positive expectations regarding their parent’s availability and responsiveness, whereas insecurely attached children have negative expectations in which case this may reflect upon their reflection on self recognition and social cognition. This theoretical framework which was originally focussed on defining the bond between the mother and child has developed in a sense to help understand other forms of attachments beyond infancy; such as in this thesis we are going to explore the bond between the self recognition and social cognition from infancy through adolescence.

Parents as a Secure Base

A vital aspect in the Attachment Theory is the role played by the parent in securing the development of the child. ‘There is today impressive and mounting evidence that the pattern of attachment that an individual develops during the years of immaturity — infancy, childhood, and adolescence — is profoundly influenced by the way his parents (or other parent figures) treat him’ (Bowlby, 1988:123-124).

Three Principal Attachment Types

Bowlby (1988) consented with Ainsworth that there are three principal types of attachments; the Secure Attachment, Resistant Attachment and Anxious Avoidant Attachment.

Secure Attachment is when the individual is at ease that the parent or caregiver will be present and helpful when encountering undesirable or frightening situations. With this assurance the individual feels protected and encouraged to explore the world. This pattern has a tendency of being presented by the parents or primary caregivers, mostly in particular the mother by being available, responsive to the child’s signals and loving when she feels there is the need for protection and comfort. When a secured attached child is confronted by a stranger he/she will without a doubt show preference for the parent or care giver by protest and crying.

An Anxious Resistant Attachment is caused when an individual is not certain that the parent will be present and helpful when needed. Because of this the individual will be inclined to separation anxiety. The individual tends to clingy, over dependant and anxious to explore the world. This attachment pattern is encouraged when a parent is not always present, helpful and by separation. This child when presented to a stranger will usually treat him/her the same as the parents or primary caregivers.

An Anxious Avoidant Attachment is when an individual has no assurance that when there is the need for help and assistance the parents not only does not come but believes he/she will be rejected. Usually these individuals try to live their lives without support and love from others. This pattern is mostly apparent when the mother rejects the child repetitively when he/she approaches her for security and reassure. This will lead the individual to attempt to become emotional self sufficient. When a stranger approaches this child he/she will not be easily calmed.

In view of his studies Bowlby (1988) so aptly argued that, children who showed a secure pattern with their mother are more inclined to be considerate, creative and more popular with other children. Those who proved to be an anxious avoidant pattern are associated more with attention seeking, aggressive and anti social. Ultimately those who were proved to the anxious resistant pattern are likely to be portrayed also as attention seeking, easily get irritated, spontaneous if not submissive and vulnerable. He further continues to discuss that the pattern of attachment assessed at a young age is establish to be exceedingly prognostic also of the patterns of interaction later on in the youths’ life. This is proven in two cross-sectional studies ‘of young adults show that the features of personality characteristic of each pattern during the early years are also to be found in young adults’ (Kobak and Sceery 1988; Cassidy and Kobak 1988; Hazan and Shaver 1987)'(Bowlby, 1988:129). In time only the exceptional cases where there have been considerable changes in the family relations, they have been there continuously.

Internal Working Models

The key hypothesis of the attachment theory is that human beings form close emotional bonds for a healthy survival. These bonds smooth the progress for development and protection of the internal representation. Internal representation of what has been perceived, discovered, or learned of the self, others, or the internal working models. The internal working models start being built as soon as from the few years of the child’s existence. These models are formed during the day to day child’s interaction with the parents. Consequently the models the child build reflects also the image his parents have of him/her. These models then take it to the next level and oversee how he feels towards each parent about himself/herself, how he/she anticipates each of the parents to get him/her treated, and the preparation how he/she has to behave towards them. ‘Once built, evidence suggests, these models of a parent and self in interaction tend to persist and are so taken for granted that they come to operate at an unconscious level.'(Bowlby, 1988: 130)

Bowlby (1988) consents with Sigmund Freud when he highlights that the influence of how an individual feel, behave and think are wielded through his/her internal representation of the world. Hence, parents or caregivers are a fundamental link to help the development of patterns of attachment; these will eventually lead into internal working models. These will guide the individual to perceive, discover and structure the events and situations in later relationships. ‘Evidence that happenings within the family during childhood and adolescence play a major role in determining whether a person grows up to be mentally healthy or not is now formidable, and a review of the important epidemiological findings has recently appeared ( Rutter 1985).’ (Bowlby, 1988:59)

2.3.3 Why a Healthy Attachment?

A healthy attachment is one of the core strengths in forming part of a healthy emotional development. Through the journey of our life every individual will form part of hundreds of relationships but the first and most important of all relationships are the attachment bonds that are created thorough interactions from our parents or caregivers. This is stated by Bowlby (1988) when he claims that during infancy and childhood bonds are with parents or caregivers who are looked to for protection, comfort, and support. These primary relationships help the individual to identify the capability for attachment and set the attitude for all other future relationships. Furthermore, in view of this fact Grossmann and Waters (2005) were also able to demonstrate that ‘young adults’ thoughts and feelings about close relationships are powerfully influenced by their early as well as their later relationships with mother and father.’ (Grossmann, Grossmann, and Waters, 2005: 98)

When an individual of any age is feeling secure he/she will likely to explore the surroundings away from the attachment person. At the early stages of the childhood the exploration is very limited in time and space. The more the individual feels secure more trust is build and hence the exploration increases in both time and distance away. Bowlby (1988) stated that as an individual grows into adolescence these ventures will increase into weeks or even months but a secure base is crucial for a most advantageous functioning and mental health.

Main and Cassidy (in press) commented on the study of Ainsworth (1978) Strange Situation that, securely attached adolescence treat their parents in a relaxed and friendly way and engages in free flowing conversation. Anxious resistant show a combination of insecurity such as sadness, fear, self conscious and hostility towards intimacy. They try to show off by maybe being particularly charming as though they are constantly expecting a negative response from their parents. Anxious Avoidant are inclined to keep the parents at a distance. Their greetings tent to be formal and their conversation stay impersonal. They keep themselves busy with other activities and pay no attention or even show indifference of their parent’s initiatives.

Consequently, through the capacity of a normally developed attachment, the adolescent needs to mature his/her trust by exploring and getting pleasure from interacting with other social and emotional interactions with other people tend their trusted caregivers. As an individual starts to go through adolescence he/she starts to spend less and less time the parents and more time with peers and other adults. In the initial stages of childhood the bond with friends will be more of an acquaintanceship but over the years this will form into friendship. This will serve as an opportunity to develop an emotional bond. The same process happens when an adolescent has a strong connection with someone of his opposite sex. This is argument is enforced by Bowlby (1988) when he stated that ‘during healthy adolescence and adult life these bonds persist, but are complemented by new bonds, commonly of a heterosexual nature.’ (Bowlby, 1988:121) I do agree with Bowlby that the acquaintance, the friend, and the individual from the opposite sex all provide diverse and balanced social and emotional opportunities that help the youths’ attachment capabilities to mature.

The Role of Parental Rearing in providing a Safety Haven

As mentioned previously, parental rearing assumes a key role in the formation of attachment during early childhood that may influence adolescent-parental relationship. This necessarily brings about changes in the family climate and dynamics. Shaw et al. (1996) identified that lack of positive relationship with parents, insecure attachment, lack of control and lack of participation with adolescents’ leads to an enhanced threat for behavioural and emotional problems. On the contrary as recognised by Ainsworth and Rutter (1979) when there is interaction between the parents and adolescents in ways that are warm, approachable and supportive a positive relationship is established.

Psychologists have been trying to identify parenting aspects that encourage social development in adolescents. According to a research psychologist Diana Baumrind, ‘who believe that parents should be neither punitive nor aloof from their adolescents, but rather should develop rules and be affectionate with them’ (Santrock, 2007:280) has identified four main parenting styles, namely Authoritarian, Authoritative, Neglectful and Indulgent. Bowlby (1977) is also of the same opinion because he suggested two key distinctive parenting features that are care and control. Research (Steinberg, 1996) indicates that in such families parents are often friendlier to the adolescent children, more permissive and less argumentative. The lower level of parental control is worth mentioning even more so when Bowlby (1977) contends again and mentions that by fostering autonomy prepare the pathway for the maturity and control of the adolescents environment.

Although we must acknowledge that it is not always easy for parents to demonstrate affection to their children through spending quality time with them and outwardly expressing their love, particularly if youngsters are already involved with peers, school, and their own activities. But as Clapp (2000) argues, parents are very much like a reserve bank account to young people of all ages. When all is well with the world, a reserve bank account may go unnoticed and have no noticeable influence on day-to-day activities. However, it provides a safety net that allows its owner to explore and enjoy new horizons without the threat of danger looming ahead. However, when disaster does strike, the reserve account can take on enormous significance and could mean the difference between the survival or else downfall of the youths’ way of life.

Self Identity and Young People

Through the research I have come to the understanding that the attachment theory goes beyond influencing the relationship between the parent and child but its consequence goes on influencing other factors. A relationship that can be affected is the self. ‘In the working model of the self that anyone builds, a key feature is his notion of how acceptable or unacceptable he himself is in the eyes of his attachment figures. (Bowlby, 1973:203)

Self Identity

‘Interpersonal relationships have been viewed by investigators as a primary means through which people develop identity and positive self-image throughout the life-span (Youniss, 1980; O’Donnell, 1976).’ (O’Koon 1997) The process of developing an identity begins with the child’s discovery of the self, continues throughout childhood, and becomes the focal point of adolescence. Bowlby (1982) contents with O’Koon (1997) and adjoins also that the concept of interpersonal relationship from the point of view of attachment relationship begins in infancy to the primary caregivers. The sense of security with the attachment figure seems to encourage the positive self image in which an individual feels good about him or herself. Adolescents carry with them a sense of who they are and what make them different from everyone else. This sense of self identity is completely internal.

Santrock (2007) highlights that Marcia (1980, 1994) expanded on Erikson’s (1968) work on identity development and categorised a 4 statuses based on exploration and commitment that help resolve the identity crisis. These are identity achievement, moratorium, identity foreclosure, and identity diffusion.

Achievement is based on a period of exploration and then commitment to particular realms such as ideological that is religion, work and political views and interpersonal that is leisure, dating, sex roles and friendships. Adolescents have gone to an identity crisis and made a commitment. Moratorium is when an adolescents is in the middle of an identity crisis. It is the exploration phase where no commitments have been made yet but the adolescent is still exploring options. Foreclosure describes adolescents who made a commitment without undergoing and identity crisis. The commitments made are typically to roles and ideologies held by their parents without the adequate opportunities to explore different approaches. Diffusion is both the lack of exploration and the lack of commitment, where adolescents have not yet experienced an identity crisis.

Bartle-Haring et al. (2002) commented that several investigators have examined the relationship between adolescent attachment and identity and, for the most part, found a positive relationship between a secure attachment and identity development.

Through the literature review that has been priory discussed form part of the various stages of formation for an identity development. Barber’s Model (1997) of parenting identifies with these three crucial dimensions. The first is a secure attachment provides a consistency of positive emotions and warmth from the parents or primary caregivers and is related to the development of social skills as well as the sense that the world is a safe and predictable place. This leads to a sense of security that is vital for the exploration in identity formation. Next is the parental regulation of behaviour. Through carefully monitoring adolescents’ behaviour it provides an initiation into the norms and conformity of a society. As a secure attachment tends to build a relationship of open communication between adolescent and parent it has a major impact on the development of the adolescent.

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‘For a relationship between any two individuals to proceed harmoniously each must be aware of the other’s point-of-view, his goals, feelings, and intentions, and each must so adjust his own behaviour that some alignment of goals is negotiated. This requires that each should have reasonably accurate models of self and other which are regularly up-dated by free communication between them. It is here that the mothers of the securely attached children excel and those of the insecure are markedly deficient.’ (Bowlby, 1988:131)

The last dimension in Barber’s Model is psychological autonomy. In a healthy parent-adolescent relationships, ‘parents provide structure with enough flexibility that adolescents can securely engage in identity exploration, and adolescents reciprocate by establishing autonomy without sacrificing relatedness (Allen, Hauser, Bell,’ (Sartor and Youniss, 2002) Hence, parents are significant figures in an adolescent’s search for identity in this individualisation process. For a secure attachment it works more as a supportive venture where the adolescent is affirming and parents are allowing independence but at the same time maintaining the connection.

Finally, it needs to be pointed out that identity will not be constant through the remainder of one’s life. ‘An individual who develops a healthy identity is flexible and adaptive, open to changes in society, in relationships, and in careers (Adams, Gulotta, & Montemayour, 1992) (Santrock, 2007:152).

Social Self Efficacy

‘Social self efficacy refers to individual’s beliefs that they are capable of initiating social contact and develop new friendships’. (Gecas, 1989) (Meifen et al. 2005) Research on attachment and self efficacy suggests a predictive relationship. There is a link between the quality of the relationship that the parent or caregiver with the attachment relationship and the later social and emotional outcome. ‘Malinckrodt (1992) demonstrated that paternal and maternal responsiveness were positively related to social self-efficacy.’ (M Engels, Dekovic, and Meeus, 2002)

According to Ainsworth (1978) significant life changes or transitions are likely to activate the attachment system and trigger attachment insecurity. This is further argued that the increased amount of stress in adapting into new situations may negatively influence an adolescent’s self efficacy. This could lead adolescents to underestimate their social capabilities, making it difficult for them to grow, expand their skills and making them believe that develop new friendships are harder than they actually are. ‘In the adolescent years, it becomes important to have the ability to establish and maintain friendships. Youngsters who lack the skills required for the formation of social contacts are less accepted by peers and have fewer affiliations (Furman” (M Engels, Dekovic, and Meeus, 2002). Over a certain amount of time, these abilities and beliefs may be extensively damaging, thus, adolescents who regard themselves as socially inefficacious withdraw socially, perceive low acceptance by their peers and have a low sense of self-worth.

However, as cited in Meifen et al. (2005) the initial efficacy experiences are centred within the family and securely attached adolescents should experience a higher level of social competency and lower levels of stress during these periods of transitions since ‘having positive and warm family relationships stands out as one of the most powerful predictions and correlates of healthy psychosocial growth during the adolescent years’ (Steinberg, 1996:136).

Close Relationships and Young People

Other forms of young people’s relationships that are going to be discussed in this thesis are the close relationships relatively to the attachment theory. It is a key characteristic in this research to illustrate the powerful role that these affectional bonds can play in safeguarding them from severe and prolonged stress related to attachment patterns.

‘During infancy and childhood bonds are with parents (or parent substitutes) who are looked to for protection, comfort, and support. During healthy adolescence and adult life these bonds persist, but are complemented by new bonds, commonly of a heterosexual nature.’ (Bowlby, 1988:121)

Affectional bonds differ from relationships in three ways. To begin with relationships between two individuals have the power to influence one another; whereas the affectional bonds are an internal representation of the individual. Relationships may be long lived or transitory where as affectional bonds are by definition long lasting. Finally a relationship grows with the interaction of the two individuals. These interactions tend to be varied. ‘Thus a relationship is likely to have a number of components, some of which may be irrelevant to what makes for an attachment or indeed any kind of affectional bond.’ (Ainsworth 1993, 37) For example parents can relate with their adolescents as caregivers, guidance person and friends. As appropriately argued by Ainsworth (1993) all of these aspects signify that relationships are made up of different mechanisms, but only the aspect of care giving is through related to the caring function that is alleged to be liable for attachment having progressed.

Weiss (1974) has identified that a relationship has six different classes. Attachment relationships provide a sense of security and belonging, without we feel lonely. Relationships of the social network provide the possibility to share experiences and a sense of companionship. Care giving relationships grant a sense of being indispensable. Other forms of relationships offer a sense of significance and ability such as social groups. Family connections present a sense association and the opportunity of further support if needed. Still there are other relationships that are of the essence, in particular situations through the life cycle, such as traumatic circumstances because they offer direction. This could be a counsellor or teacher in an adolescent’s life. It can not be generalised but most of these relationships are recognised as bringing about an affectional bond.

‘An ‘attachment’ is an affectional bond, and hence an attachment figure is never wholly interchangeable with or replaceable by another, even though there be others to whom one is also attached.’ (Ainsworth, 1993:38)

Youths’ Social Network or Peer Groups

‘It seems certain that another major shift takes place with the onset of adolescence, ushered in by hormonal changes. This shift is universally recognized as marking the onset of physical maturity – at least the achievement of reproductive capacity – and in this sense the coming of adulthood. The young person becomes increasingly concerned with a search for a partnership with an age peer, usually of the opposite sex – a relationship in which the reproductive system as well as the caregiving and attachment systems are likely to be involved.’ (Ainsworth 1993, 34)

Engels et al (2002) and Grossman et al. (2005) are of the same belief that ‘the ways in which young people move around in friendships are affected by aspects within the parent-child relationship.’ (M Engels, Dekovic, and Meeus, 2002) It is important for adolescents to come in contact with new friends so that they can enhance their existing bonds. ‘In this way, they get reflections on their own opinions, ideas and emotions (Brown, 1990).’ (M Engels, Dekovic, and Meeus, 2002) ‘Adolescent friendships become more intimate and personal by more frequent disclosure of fee dyadiclings and thoughts and by provision of emotional support (Buhrmester’ (M Engels, Dekovic, and Meeus, 2002) Though despite the fact that adolescents become more peer focused and start spending less time with parents and more time with friends, the presence of the parents is still relevant. According to Parke et al. (1992) parents impact and maintain significant influence on the social functioning of their offspring in adolescence.

Ainsworth (1993) states that in Western societies numerous friendships are formed in adventurous and hazardous environments, many of these though are short lived or context specific. Nonetheless, there are also those that are enduring regardless of the difficult conditions. This is depends on the individual’s capability to sustain a bond over time and distance.

A study by Youniss (1980) interviewed children from three different age groups about their views on friendship. The youngest of the group were aged from six to eight. These emphasised more on the playmate and sharing. The second group aged from nine to eleven gave more attention to the aspect of reciprocity in mutual attachment relationships; that kind of help those friends can give to each other, dependency and companionship when they are feeling lonely. The third and last group aged from twelve to fourteen thought of close relationships. These discussed about aspects of cooperation, reciprocity and reliance. In this age group the need of discussion, negotiation on differences and being understood has been felt.

‘Indeed, close friendships formed at any age may be lasting, with the partners able to pick up the threads after long and untroubled absences, with both feeling they can depend on each other for understanding, reassurance, and help when needed.’ (Ainsworth, 1993:46)

2.5.2 Romantic Relationships

In many cultures sexual attraction is a fundamental aspect to start a relationship, however those that solely depend on the sexual aspect are likely to be short lived. As the relationship progresses the care giving and attachment aspects tend to become pillars in sustaining the bond even in cases which the sexual desire has diminished.

There is now an increasing amount of research that suggests that romantic relationships function in ways that are similar to infant-caregiver relationships. In a relationship there are three decisive propositions. To begin with if adolescents’ romantic relationships are attachment relationships, then we should predict the same kind if individual variations that Ainsworth (1993) discussed in infant and caregiver relationships. We may have adolescents that are securely attached in their relationships. They feel secure in their relationship because they feel they could depend and are confident in their partners. There can also be adolescents who are insecure in their relationships. These may be anxious resistant, they are concerned that their partners does not truly love them, hence they can be easily discouraged or irritated when their attachment needs are not addressed. There is also the avoidant type. An anxious avoidant adolescent appears not to care about close relationships. The adolescent has no assurance that when there is the need for security and comfort the partners not only does not help but believes he/she will be rejected. Usually these individuals try to live their lives without support and love from others. This will lead the adolescent to attempt to become emotional self sufficient.

The second, if romantic relationships are attachment relationships, then the way in which these relationships work should be similar to the infant caregiver relationship. This links with what Weiss (1974) discussed as one fundamental aspect of attachment, that is not essentially present in other affectional bonds is the search to obtain an experience of security and comfort is the relationships with the partner. ‘If and when such security and comfort is available, the individual is able to move off from the secure base provided by the partner, with confidence to engage in other activities.’ (Ainsworth, 1993:38) These are the kind of factors that adolescents should find attractive in their romantic partners. Having said this we can not generalise because the differences each individual has in attachment can be of influence on both the personal and relation wise functioning in the same way they do in childhood.

The last proposition is that if an adolescent is secure or insecure in his/her close relationship is influenced by his/her experiences with their parents or primary caregivers. Bowlby (1988) believes that the influence of how an individual feel, behave and think are the representation of the internal working model. The parents or caregivers are a primary vital source in the developing of these models through the patterns of attachment. Once these models are built they persist through the life course and work on an unconscious level.

‘This means that the patterns of interaction to which the models lead, having become habitual, generalized, and largely unconscious, persist in a more or less uncorrected and unchanged state even when the individual in later life is dealing with persons who treat him in ways entirely unlike those that his parents adopted when he was a child.” (Bowlby 1988, 130)

Hence if we assume that close relationships are attachment relationships, it is possible that children who had a secure attachment whilst growing up they will be secure in their romantic relationships.

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