What is Bonding? What is Attachment?
by Linda M. Ikeda, R.N., MFT
Attachment is a reciprocal process in which an emotional connection develops between an infant and their primary caretaker (most often the mother). Attachment influences the infant’s physical, cognitive, and psychological development and becomes the basis for the development of basic trust (or mistrust). Attachment shapes how the child will relate to the world around her, how she will learn in school, and form relationships throughout life. Attachment actually affects the way the brain develops … or does not develop. Healthy attachment occurs when the infant experiences a primary caretaker as consistently providing emotional essentials such as love, touch, playful interaction, comfort, emotional regulation, prizing and mirroring, as well as the attuned meeting of physical needs (food, shelter, movement, etc.).
Attachment begins in the womb between a mother and her baby. The infant becomes familiar with the mother’s heartbeat and other body sounds, as well as the sound of the mother’s voice. She learns what kind of music her mother listens to and senses when she is upset. When the child is born, the attachment is meant to continue with the biological mother with whom the infant is already familiar. As the mother looks into her newborn’s eyes and prizes the infant with her looks of unconditional love, acceptance, and her pure delight, the attachment gets stronger and the infant learns to mirror her mother’s love and internalize that, as her first sense of self, the beginning of what we call self esteem. This forms a kind of feedback loop between mother and baby, both responding to one another, either positively or negatively. The feeling of closeness that the mother feels toward her baby is called “bonding.”
There are many possible disruptions to this process, and if attachment goes awry, the infant may not develop the secure base necessary to support all future healthy development. For example, when a baby is relinquished at birth for adoption there is a great disruption in attachment which affects all future brain development, and therefore, can negatively influence the way she “sees” and “experiences” the world.
I. Attachment Theory –
Let’s turn now to attachment theory and the early pioneers in the field.
John Bowlby, a British psychoanalyst and psychiatrist, is considered by many to have laid the foundation for understanding the nature and importance of attachment. He focused on the moment-by-moment, day-to-day interactions between mother and infant in describing how the infant’s attachment to the mother develops. He also studied children, separated from their parents in a TB sanitarium and coined the term “separation anxiety” with its three distinct phases of protest, despair, and disengagement.
Mary Ainsworth, a Professor of Developmental Psychology at University of Virginia, collaborated with Bowlby in the 50’s and authored The Strange Situation Experiment which led to the first three categories of attachment styles. Ainsworth had studied mother-infant interactions over the first year of life in the home setting. Then the dyad was brought to the laboratory, which was a playroom, and over a twenty-minute time frame the infant was observed through a one-way mirror during four different situations. The infant:
- With the mother in the lab,
- With the mother and a “stranger” (usually a research assistant),
- With only the “stranger,” and then
- Alone, for up to 3 minutes.
The idea was that in separating a one year old from her attachment figure within a strange environment and at times with a stranger should activate the infant’s attachment system. The attachment system could then be studied both at separation and at reunion. Eventually it was determined that the most useful data came at the reunion end of the paradigm where Ainsworth determined that infants’ behavior at reunion fell into specific patterns of responding which actually correlated to the independently performed home observation ratings from the previous year.
The three patterns identified were:
- Secure – Infant explores room and toys with interest in pre-separation episodes; show signs of missing parent during separation; often crying by the second separation; obvious preference for parent over stranger; actively greets parent often initiating physical contact with usually some contact maintaining by second reunion, but then settling in and returning to play
- Avoidant – Infant fails to cry on separation from parent; actively avoids and ignores parent on reunion (that is, moving away, turning away, or leaning out of arms when picked up); little or no proximity or contact seeking; no distress, and no anger; response to parent appears unemotional; focuses on toys or environment throughout procedure
- Ambivalent (resistant) – May be wary or distressed even prior to separation; little exploration; preoccupied with parent throughout; may seem angry or passive; fails to settle and take comfort in parent on reunion
Later Mary Main and Judith Solomon suggested a 4th attachment style:
- Disorganized – The infant displays disorganized and/or disoriented behaviors in the parent’s presence suggesting a temporary collapse of behavioral strategies. The infant may freeze or may rise at parent’s entrance and then fall prone and huddled on the floor; or may cling while crying hard and leaning away with gaze averted; i.e., no consistent strategy for dealing with the separation and reunion
The Strange Situation classifications at one year of age have been associated with similar findings as children grow into adolescence. However, they are not prescriptive of all later attachment behavior since parents and other caregivers influence children throughout childhood. Although patterns established early in life have a major impact on functioning, the individual’s experiences continue to influence the internal model of attachment. (This is good news for those of us who have not had secure attachments to their parents.)
Mary Main was a graduate student of Mary Ainsworth in Baltimore and currently Professor Emeritus at the University of California at Berkeley. She moved the field of attachment beyond the study of infants. She asked parents in her studies about their recollections of their own childhood experiences and what she found was that a parent’s pattern of narrating the story of their early family life within the semi-structured setting of an adult interview, could be correlated with the Strange Situation classification of that parent’s child. She developed the Adult Attachment Interview (AAI) a narrative assessment of an adult’s state of mind with respect to attachment. The AAI actually offers a unique perspective on the relationships among attachment, memory, and narrative and has been found to be the most robust predictor of how infants become attached to their parents (and can predict EVEN before a child is born and can generally predict up to two decades later, the AAI classifications for the now grown children!). (Some deviations from these predictions seem to be related to adverse life events such as trauma and loss during the later years of childhood and adolescence.) These findings support the view of childhood attachment as relationship-based.
Even though the word “attachment” is used here in the work of Mary Ainsworth and Main, they are talking more about attachment behaviors in the majority of children, not those who have suffered abuse and neglect. Point of interest: one of my colleagues at Hope Counseling Center, Dr. Ardel Payne, did her doctoral dissertation on adult attachment behavior and how it influences parenting style.
Coming next installment! Neurobiology and Attachment
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