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Psychology on Early Childhood Attachments

With reference to the findings of Psychologists and some Sociologists, it has been argued that early childhood ‘Attachments’ are of paramount importance, and that a good early attachment is crucial for a child’s’ long term development. An Attachment, in this sense, can be described as a bond formed by infants and a caregiver; a strong bond of emotion.

Many psychologists have studied the topic of attachments. Early research demonstrating the importance of attachments in animals and how they happen was put forward by Konrad Lorenz in 1950.

In his study of animals in their natural environment, Lorenz became particularly interested in the way goslings and young ducks followed their parents around soon after they were hatched. From further laboratory studies, Lorenz concluded that goslings had an innate tendency to develop a relationship soon after hatching, with the first large moving object that they came across. Lorenz termed this process of rapid attachment as a result of following, ‘imprinting’. Lorenz believed the imprinting was irreversible and occurred during a genetically determined time period, which he called the ‘critical period’.

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However, many other researchers have shown that young birds can imprint after the critical period if kept in isolation, or in an unstimulating environment. Researcher, Slukin (1965) coined the term ‘sensitive period’ and Dworetzy in 1981 defined the ‘critical’ or ‘sensitive’ period as ‘….times in our life when we are genetically primed to respond to certain influences, when at other times those influences would have little or no effect’ (in Gross, 1987). Lorenz and other researchers induced goslings to imprint on many different objects including boxes, balls and watering cans.

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A further animal study involving eight separated monkeys, conducted by H.F.Harlow in 1959, produced surprising results. In each case the mother monkey was replaced in a heated enclosure by two wire ‘surrogate mothers’, one covered with a soft cloth, the other supporting a bottle containing food. All eight monkeys developed an attachment to the ‘cloth mother’, only going to the ‘food mother’ when they were hungry. Harlow’s results proved therefore, that an attachment does not form simply by the mother providing food or warmth, rather that the infants were showing a need for ‘tactile comfort’. Whilst all eight monkeys were healthy at the time of the experiment, three years later Harlow reported that the monkeys were very timid and had problems relating to other monkeys. When they reached adulthood they experienced difficulty mating and the few females that had succeeded in giving birth were inadequate mothers, unable to cope with their offspring. Harlow thus concluded that the monkeys had suffered ‘social deprivation’- that they had been denied the ‘critical period’ in which they needed to form attachments with others of their kind. He also believed that his findings could be directly related to human infants, and that they too could grow up emotionally damaged if they were unable to form an attachment within a certain period of time.

These findings, amongst others, heightened interest in attachments and as a result many studies were carried out. Researcher John Bowlby who worked from the 1940s up to the 1980s, believed that if a child were deprived of a mother (maternal deprivation) in the early years of life and unable to form an attachment or bond, it would develop ‘affectionless psychopathy’, an inability to feel much emotion for anybody else and a lack of interest in anyone else’s’ welfare. His findings were based on a study of 44 juvenile thieves, of which 17 had suffered separation from their mothers for more than six months during the first five years of their life.

His work was greatly influenced by Freudian theory – that the first five years of life are the most important in a persons’ development, and that the loss or separation from a parent is the major cause of psychological trauma. His theory led him to prepare a paper for the World Health Organisation in 1951, suggesting that maternal deprivation could be a major cause of many social, emotional and intellectual disorders (Heyes, Hardy, 1994) However, only two of the maternally deprived delinquents showed an inability to form emotional relationships with others. Bowlbys’ theory has thus been greatly criticised by other researchers who state that his studies were retrospective and relied on the memories of the boys to reiterate what had happened to them in the first few years; also the majority of the juvenile thieves had not been maternally deprived.

Bowlby also felt the ethologists’ idea of imprinting could be applied to human infants. In 1958 he wrote that the critical period in which for a child to form an attachment to it’s mother were within the first two years from birth. He felt that if an emotional attachment between child and mother were not formed within this period, the child would suffer throughout life both socially and emotionally. Bowlby felt that the attachment between a mother and her child was a very special one, unlike any attachment the child may form with other family members or significant others. This kind of attachment Bowlby termed as ‘monotropy’. Bowlbys’ ideas were criticised by many researchers who did not agree with his idea of ‘monotropy’. In 1964, Rudolph Schaffer and Peggy Emerson provided evidence from their studies, which directly contradicted his theory. By looking at families where other members shared in the child rearing tasks, they found that the infants main attachment could be to somebody who was not the primary caregiver, such as the father or an older brother or sister. The infant appeared to ‘attach’ to people who were most sensitive to its demands.

Psychological research therefore suggests that infants differ in the type of attachment they form with the caregiver. In an attempt to measure more attachment behaviour, Ainsworth (1967) conducted an experiment known as ‘strange situation’. This experiment involved observing the infants reactions when he/she is separated from the parent, and observing how the infant reacts to a stranger and how, on the parents return, the infants then responded to their parents.

In conclusion Ainsworth identified three different types of attachments

  1. Secure Attachment; the infant is happy to explore when the parent is present; the infant is happy when the parent returns,
  2. Avoidant Attachment; the infant ignores the parent and avoids contact with the parent when the parent returns and
  3. Ambivalent Attachment; the infant may initially cling to the parent when the parent returns but then pushes the parent away.

In one study of American infants, Ainsworth recorded the percentage of infants with each type of attachment. The results concluded that whilst 65% fell within the category of ‘Secure Attachment’, the remaining 35% fell within the other two ‘less positive’ categories. It must be acknowledged however, that the mother’s behaviour toward her infant would have an effect on the infant’s behaviour and that also, this experiment took place in a laboratory setting previously unknown to the infant, which could inhibit an infants ‘normal’ behaviour.

In addition to Ainsworths three categories of attachment behaviour in ‘strange situation’, another psychologist, Main, introduced a forth category, Avoidant and Ambivalent Attachment. Infants that fall into this category display only mechanical attachment to the caregiver and are disorganised and disruptive.

Another critic of Bowlby, Michael Rutter, published a report on the subject of maternal deprivation amongst other research in 1972. He concluded that delinquency and disturbance were most commonly found in children who had left unhappy homes, regardless of whether the home was ‘broken’ or whether the children had suffered from maternal deprivation (Rutter, 1972). He argued that the juveniles that Bowlby had used in his study had never been looked after by their families and that nothing had been taken away from them therefore, they could not be seen as ‘deprived’. Rutter pointed out that it was important not to mix up ‘privation’ and ‘deprivation’ and that ‘privation’ is when you never had that something in the first place, in this instance, a lack of opportunity to form an attachment.

Bowlbys’ statement regarding long-term psychological and emotional damage to children who did not form an attachment during the first three years of their lives, was further challenged by the results of a longitudal study conducted by Barbara Tizard and Jill Hodges in 1978. These psychologists studied 65 children who had been placed in a residential nursery before they were four months old. The nursery provided for all the infants needs, but due to a high turnover of staff the infants were likely to have come across 25 different carers by the time they were two, thus, in Bowlbys’ opinion, unable to form any strong emotional attachments. His theory of attachment was contradicted by the findings of Tizard and Hodges in their study of a proportion of the group that had been adopted at the age of four. These children had developed very strong emotional attachments to their adoptive parents however, the adopted children were further studied at the age of eight and Tizard described them at this age to be ‘over affectionate’ in their family relationship and at school they were described as ‘restless, irritable and quarrelsome, and having problems making friends’.

Continuing on the theme of children placed in residential care, it is now widely recognised that these children need to have special attention as ‘…many of these children may already have been disadvantaged socially, economically or emotionally’ (Bebbington and Miles, 1989 in Davies et al 2001) The article expresses that the negative outcomes associated with family breakdown and subsequent severment of emotional attachments, can be positively negated by placing a child within an appropriate setting. There is now a written requirement for the local authority to take into account our multicultural society in the provision of day care and in recruiting foster parents.

‘Where a local authority is ‘looking after’ a child, there is a requirement before making any decisions in respect of that child to give due consideration to the child’s religious persuasion, racial origin and cultural and linguistic background’. (Children Act 1989, section 22(5) (c)). This written statement provides clear guidance to any Social Worker seeking an appropriate child placement setting.

It is important to consider that the majority of these studies focused on the exclusive relationship between mother and infant. It has now been recognised in psychological literature that children can and do form multiple attachments however, evidence in relation to ‘fatherhood’ attachment is difficult to find.

‘Numerous studies have established beyond a doubt that infants form close attachment bonds with their fathers and that this occurs at the same time that they form attachments to their mothers. Although father and mother usually play different roles in their child’s life, “different” does not mean more or less important.’ (Internet Resource; The Custody Revolution, Richard Warshak, Poseidon Press, 1992.)

In another related article it was suggested that too few studies consider the role of fathers and that this situation could only be changed by asking funding agencies to ‘withhold support from research that only considers mothers as caregivers’. (Conference Proceedings: Quotes from the Research; Fathers Are Still Important: The Role of Men in Children’s Lives. 1994. The WWW Virtual Library)

During the latter half of the twentieth century, much sociological and psychological debate took place regarding the child rearing practices of those children bought up by a ‘single parent’ or by couples of the same sex. In 1990, one in six families were headed by a single parent, over ninety percent of which were women, and the number of lesbian and homosexual led families was ‘…small, but increasing’ (O’Donnell, 1992). Whilst there appears to be a continued amount of interest, particularly in the media, concerning the children of those who appear not to fall within the category of ‘normal’ it is imperative to consider that ‘single parent’, ‘lesbian’ and ‘gay’ or ‘homosexual’ are ‘labels’ which have been socially constructed, and bear little or no effect on their ability to form emotional attachments to their offspring. Indeed, it would appear that, as with all caregivers, a degree of sociological factors can act as barriers to forming attachments, and the negative ‘stigma’ of media coverage, which causes persistent hostility to those considered as outside of ‘the norm’, could be seen as a major contributor in this instance.

It could be said that the society in which we live today acts against the interests of forming secure early childhood attachments. Given the need and demand for paid labour, one is left wondering why a situation of inadequate childcare provision still persists. In the United States of America, over two-thirds of mothers of preschool children now hold jobs. Some researchers found evidence that childcare outside the home weakened an infant’s attachment to the mother. Although later research failed to confirm this, conservatives used the findings to attack maternal employment and day care in general. This debate distracts attention from two important issues: parental leave policies and the quality of childcare. The United States was the last industrial country to adopt a national parental leave, and its twelve-week unpaid leave is less generous than the paid leaves of Western European countries. Those countries have also moved further in the direction of educational programs for children up to the age of six. The United States and to a certain extent, the United Kingdom, relies more on the market to provide childcare, but the market cannot easily provide quality care at a price that most parents can afford.

In summing up the relevance of attachment theory today, it would appear that Bowlby may have been mistaken when he proposed a ‘critical period for human infants to form attachments. Examining children reared in an institution and then adopted, Barbara Tizard was unable to find any ‘gross pathology’ in their behaviour, even though they had formed their attachments well after the critical period. Bowlby was not able to show whether all people who suffered maternal deprivation later became delinquents. In the studies that link maternal deprivation and delinquency, maternal deprivation is only one factor amongst many others.

Childhood experiences that span Bowlbys’ critical years do not necessarily produce irreversible detrimental effects however, the miscellaneous clinical experiences of psychiatrists suggest that the inability to form an attachment may socially and emotionally disadvantage an individual throughout their life. Whilst there does appear to be some agreement in the tides of thought about the importance of attachments within individual psychological thinking over the past 50 years, it could be argued that the lack of support, socially, acts against the long term psychological interests of the child and, if we are to accept Bowlbys’ theory of affectionless psychopathy- society in general.

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Psychology on Early Childhood Attachments. (2020, Jun 01). Retrieved from http://studymoose.com/psychology-on-early-childhood-attachments-essay

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