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Attachment and Separation Essay

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In the absence of human ties, those mental qualities that we call human will fail to develop or will be grafted upon a personality that cannot nourish them, so that at best they will be imitations of virtues, personality facades. “2 2Selma Fraiberg, The Magic Years (New York: Charles Scribner & Sons, 1959), p. 300. The term “attachment” was coined in the 1960s by British psychiatrist John Bowlby Bowlby and Ainsworth were struck by the depth of the children’s attachment and their despair upon separation. The process of developing healthy attachments can be disrupted by…

Abuse, neglect, abandonment, multiple changes in caregivers, foster care, adoption, painful illness, exposure to alcohol/drugs in utero, maternal depression, inconsistent day care. No variables have more far-reaching effects on personality development than a child’s experiences within the family. Starting during his first months in his relation to both parents, he builds up working models of how attachment figures are likely to behave towards him in any of a variety of situations, and on all those models are based all his expectations, and therefore all his plans, for the rest of his life.

Attachment and Loss (1973, p. 369) The activation of attachment behaviours depends on the infant’s evaluation of a range of environmental signals which results in the subjective experience of security or insecurity. The experience of security is the goal of the attachment system, which is thus first and foremost a regulator of emotional experience (Sroufe, 1996). In this sense it lies at the heart of many forms of mental disorder and the entire psychotherapeutic enterprise.

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Secure explore readily in the presence of the primary caregiver, are anxious in the presence of the stranger and avoid her, are distressed by their caregivers’ brief absence, rapidly seek contact with the caregiver afterwards, and are reassured by this. The infant returns to exploration. Some infants, who appear to be made less anxious by separation, may not seek proximity with the caregiver following separation, and may not prefer the caregiver over the stranger; these infants are designated ‘Anxious/Avoidant’.

A third category, ‘Anxious/Resistant’ infants show limited exploration and play, tend to be highly distressed by the separation, but have great difficulty in settling afterwards, showing struggling, stiffness, continued crying, or fuss in a passive way. The caregiver’s presence or attempts at comforting fail to reassure, and the infant’s anxiety and anger appear to prevent them from deriving comfort from proximity. Secure infants’ behaviour is based on the experience of well co-ordinated, sensitive interactions where the caregiver is rarely over-arousing and is able to restabilise the child’s disorganising emotional responses.

Therefore, they remain relatively organised in stressful situations. Negative emotions feel less threatening, and can be experienced as meaningful and communicative (Grossman, Grossmann, & Schwan, 1986; Sroufe, 1979; Sroufe, 1996). Anxious/Avoidantly attached children are presumed to have had experiences where their emotional arousal was not restabilised by the caregiver, or where they were over aroused through intrusive parenting; therefore they over-regulate their affect and avoid situations that are likely to be distressing.

Anxious/Resistantly attached children under-regulate, heightening their expression of distress possibly in an effort to elicit the expectable response of the caregiver. There is a low threshold for threat, and the child becomes preoccupied with having contact with the caregiver, but frustrated even when it is available (Sroufe, 1996). A fourth group of infants exhibits seemingly undirected behaviour, giving the impression of disorganisation and disorientation (Main & Solomon, 1990).

Infants who manifest freezing, hand clapping, head-banging, the wish to escape the situation even in the presence of the caregiver, are referred to as ‘Disorganised/Disoriented’. It is generally held that for such infants the caregiver has served as a source of both fear and reassurance, thus arousal of the attachment behavioural system produces strong conflicting motivations. Not surprisingly, a history of severe neglect or physical or sexual abuse is often associated with this pattern (Cicchetti & Beeghly, 1987; Main & Hesse, 1990).

I would like to consider this group in much greater detail, this afternoon. The infant’s behaviour by the end of the first year is purposeful, and apparently based on specific expectations. His past experiences with the caregiver are aggregated into representational systems which Bowlby (1973) termed ‘internal working models’. Thus, the attachment system is an open bio-social homeostatic regulatory system. Bowlby proposed that internal working models of the self and others provide prototypes for all later relationships. Such models are relatively stable across the lifespan (Collins & Read, 1994).

Early experiences of flexible access to feelings are regarded as formative by attachment theorists. The autonomous sense of self emerges fully from secure parent-infant relationships (Emde & Buchsbaum, 1990; Fonagy et al. , 1995a; Lieberman & Pawl, 1990). Most importantly the increased control of the secure child permits him to move toward the ownership of inner experience, and toward understanding self and others as intentional beings whose behaviour is organised by mental states, thoughts, feelings, beliefs and desires (Fonagy et al. , 1995a; Sroufe, 1990).

Consistent with this, prospective longitudinal research has demonstrated that children with a history of secure attachment are independently rated as more resilient, self-reliant, socially oriented (Sroufe, 1983; Waters, Wippman, & Sroufe, 1979), empathic to distress (Kestenbaum, Farber, & Sroufe, 1989), with deeper relationships (Sroufe, 1983; Sroufe, Egeland, & Kreutzer, 1990).

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