Mother enters, greets baby, then picks up baby. Meanwhile, stranger leaves unobtrusively. As a group, babies explored the playroom and the toys more enthusiastically when the mother was present than either after the stranger entered or when the mother was absent. However, Ainsworth was interested in the unexpected variety of reunion behaviours. This is because these behaviours form an important part of the baby’s attachment to the mother. These behaviours were classified in terms of 3 types of attachment:
These children typically ignored the mother and showed indifference towards her. Their play was unaltered by whether she was present or not. They showed few signs of stress when the mother left the room and actively ignored her or even avoided her when she returned. They reacted to the mother and stranger in similar ways. They were most distressed when left on their own.
They became very upset when mother left, and their play was seriously disrupted. When she returned they wanted immediate comfort from her. They then quickly calmed down and continued playing. They also treated the mother and stranger differently.
Ainsworth found that the most important factor that determines the quality of a child’s attachment to their mother is the mother’s sensitivity.
A sensitive mother sees things from her child’s point of view, she would interpret it’s signals correctly and respond to its needs. She is accessible, comforting, understanding and accepting. It is sensitive mothers who have securely attached children, and insensitive mothers who have insecurely attached children. According to Lamb et al. (1985), the Strange Situation is “… the most powerful and useful procedure ever available for the study of socioemotional development in infancy”. Ainsworth et al.’s classification system is generally regarded as very reliable and has been used in a large number of studies in which attachment has been the major dependent variable.
A child’s attachment style my change though as shown by Vaughn et al (1979). These are not the only attachment types that have been identified. Main (1991) found that in a series of more recent studies (for example Main et al. 1985), many children proved to be unclassifiable in terms of type A, B and C, they showed a mixture of disorientated and disorganised behaviours. This type was classified as type D behaviour called – insecure-disorganised/disorientated (Main, 1991).
One interpretation of attachment type (which is based on the Strange Situation) is that it measures a fixed characteristic of the child. But if the family circumstances change, for example mothers stress levels rise, this child may be classed differently. This couldn’t happen if attachment types were a permanent characteristic. Similarly, attachments to mothers and fathers are independent. So one child could be securely attached to its mother, but insecurely attached to its father. This shows that attachment patterns derived from the Strange Situation reflect qualities of distinct relationships, rather than characteristics of the child.
Cross-cultural studies have also revealed important differences both within and between cultures. In an early study which didn’t include the Strange Situation, Ainsworth found very similar patterns of infant distress on separation from the mother among the Ganda people of Uganda and among American infants. Van Ijzendoorn and Kroonenberg (1998) carried out a major review of 32 worldwide studies using the strange situation, involving over 2000 infants. They found that;
An example of this is that Japanese children are rarely separated from their mothers, so that her departure is the most distressing episode, while for the children raised in Israel kibbutzim it is the entrance of the stranger which is the main source of distress. Also some studies have not always used the same identical, standard procedure, as when episodes 3 and 5 were missed out in one Japanese study as the mothers were so uneasy (Durkin, 1995). The strange situation is the most widely used method for assessing infant attachment to a caregiver.
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