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How Does Attachment Affect Early Childhood Development?

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Published: 9th Dec 2019

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Tagged: ChildcarePsychology

How does attachment affect early childhood development?

Attachment is defined as connecting people beyond distance and time with an unwavering affectionate bond (Ainsworth 1973, Bowlby 1969). The 20th century presented developments in attachment theory by many influential theorists and experimentalists, looking at attachment’s effects on early childhood (Ainsworth and Bell 1970, Bowlby 1969, Harlow and Zimmerman 1958) Early childhood begins from birth till pre-pubescent period. Attachment is formed between a child and their primary caregiver in their early stages, and is essential in a child’s social, emotional and intellectual development during early childhood. Having a positive and secure bond with the primary caregiver can help the child to maintain stable relationships and typical behaviours or reactions to change. However, if there is a disruption in the development of this attachment, an insecure attachment may form, and it may have adverse effects on the child that can last lifelong, resulting in atypical behaviour (Ainsworth and Bell, 1970).

Bowlby, the forefather of attachment theory, viewed attachment as an innate dependency for human survival; from birth, infants have a biological need to stay connected to their mother. He argued attachment to be universal, as it has a biological base. Bowlby found that attachment behaviours are displayed responding to situations that threaten the closeness between mother and child, such as fear of parting and insecurity (Ainsworth and Bowlby, 1991). Bowlby identified other attachment traits, such as providing a safe haven, a sense of protection and comfort; a secure base allows the child to be independent whilst knowing that the primary caregiver still remains; proximity maintenance lets them create a healthy distance whilst exploring and remaining secure; separation distress causes them to feel distraught when forcibly removed from the primary caregiver; and an internal working model which is developed from the child’s experience of their very first relationship. This is a cognitive schema that shapes their thoughts about attachment with other individuals, about the self and how it relates to others, and vice versa (Leman et al., 2012). This was summarized into Bowlby’s Maternal Deprivation Hypothesis that during the beginning of a child’s life, if the mother-infant bond is ruined, there would be severe consequences on the child’s social, emotional and intellectual development, which is why from birth to two years is the critical period (Bowlby and Organization, 1952). Bowlby supports this hypothesis with his findings from his 44 thieves study; half of the young thieves were without their mothers for more than 6 months during their early stages of life and 32% showed affectionless behavior towards others, highlighting the effects of insecure attachment on early childhood development (Bowlby, n.d.). It is possible their insecure attachment led them to develop poor emotionality and distant relationships. Bowlby also accepted Harlow’s study of monkeys because it correlated with attachment between mother-infant as being an emotional bond, as well as reliance for necessities, and established that separation from the mother caused distress. The monkeys learned how to self-soothe without the mother figure, which is an extraordinary skill they adopted through suffering distress, but it was still considered detrimental to their mental and emotional state (Harlow and Zimmermann, 1958). Also, having done the experiment on rhesus monkeys, the study was more applicable to humans due to similarities in DNA, but it could be argued that the full extent of the effects of deprivation were not explored.

Ainsworth explored maternal deprivation further through her study, The Strange Situation, in 1965, where children were put in a condition, being left with a stranger by their parent and their behaviour based on the return of their parent was what organised them into attachment categories (Ainsworth et al., 2014). From the study, in 1971, Ainsworth and Bell identified three types of attachment: 70% of the sample had a secure attachment, where the child was happy and responsive to the mother returning, and this type is associated with the same behaviour reciprocated in the child’s primary care; 15-20% had an insecure-avoidant attachment, where there was no distress displayed by them in response to the mother’s absence, and is linked to the possible result of abusive or negligent caregivers; 10-15% had an insecure-resistant attachment, where the child was intensely distraught as the mother left, responding with a mixture of clingy and resistant behaviour when she returned and this is the result of unreliable availability of the mother (Greenberg et al., 1993). Ainsworth argued that the caregiver’s response to the needs of the child affected the attachment type, reinforcing the caregiver’s behaviour (Ainsworth and Bell, 1970). From these attachment types, there derives positive and negative effects on early childhood development, especially social development. Secure children would be much more confident in exploring new and different environments, learning that they can impact the setting around them and have control over what happens to them. The child’s working model is developed by positive experiences with the primary caregiver, influencing what they expect of their mother in new conditions and so impact how they perceive and react to meet the expectations. Therefore, becoming adaptable to change. Ainsworth argues that an insecure-avoidant child tries to refuse intimacy, even when wanting it most, leading the child to avoid experiences that would adapt the working model. Thus, the child cannot learn that it is possible to trust a figure of attachment rather than reject them due to the child’s defensive barrier (Ainsworth, 1985). This could lead onto forming maladaptive relationships in later life if this behaviour is persistent. Main and Solomon in 1986, argued that there is a fourth type of attachment labelled as disorganised and disoriented. They characterised it by a confusing pattern of attachment between the mother and child. This is linked with extremely unexpected and impulsive parenting, and situations when the child might have gone through some kind of trauma (Greenberg et al., 1993). Although, it is difficult to distinguish this from the insecure-resistant type.

Main provides evidence for Ainsworth’s attachment types using her study of toddlers; she made a prediction that secure toddlers would exceed scores in mental development and would be better in language development, due to their free exploration of the world around them with full confidence. In her observation of 21-month-old secure children playing in view of their mothers, she found they were engaged in uninterrupted, experimental play and focused on intricate details of complicated objects, compared to insecure toddlers. Doing a separate test showed the secure toddlers scored very high Bayley mental development measures compared to insecure toddlers, seeming due to socioemotional factors, as they displayed more enthusiasm and cooperated well with the assessor (Main, 1983). From the evidence, children in the secure category would be more stable in their behaviours and confident in their actions, while children in the other two categories would need reassurance and are closed off to new experiences. In Sroufe et al’s similar study, they put 24-month-old toddlers with their mothers in a condition with free-play, clean-up and problem-solving incidents. Symbolic play was recurrent with the secure toddlers than those labelled insecure-avoidant or insecure-resistant. The problem-solving incident was used to test their ability to work things out independently with agency but was difficult without an adult; the secure children were more excited than the insecure cohort, more probable to collaborate with the mothers’ ideas and less probable to disregard them, throwing tantrums. However, they were uncooperative during the clean-up incident. The mothers were rated on their supportiveness and assistance with the problem-solving session; the mothers of the secure toddlers had higher ratings than those of insecure toddlers. Sroufe et al’s study showed how the mother-child relationship, and the child’s working model, stemming from that relationship, have an impact on their development socially and intellectually (Matas et al., 1978). Despite these findings, it could be considered reductive because the environment’s effect on the child is disregarded, as well as individual differences between children, such as personality. Harris supports the idea on personality differences using the nature vs nurture argument; personality traits originate from genes, rather than parents’ nurturing and can be a better reason for good or poor early childhood development than attachment. This can be identified from separated twin studies or even from raising two siblings in one household, in the same manner (Harris, 1998). Another limitation to applying attachment to early childhood development is that most of the evidence surrounds stressful conditions rather than observing the mother and child in their naturalistic setting, demonstrating their interaction (Field, 1996). Observations of natural behaviour would provide much more valid research.

Overlooking the research surrounding attachment theory and how it affects early childhood development, it is clear from Bowlby’s and Ainsworth’s work that the child’s first attachment is the primary caregiver and is crucial for the child’s life. The primary caregiver has major influence on the child’s behaviour and response to change, meaning children can either be confident and stable or confused and insecure, leading onto possible atypical behaviour if severely unstable, possibly carrying onto adult life. Evidence has been provided to back up claims about attachment types and maternal deprivation being paramount to the development of children by Main, Sroufe et al, Ainsworth and even Harlow in the context of baby monkeys. Secure children are seen to be superior in social, emotional and intellectual development, compared to insecure children because they have a stable attachment with their primary caregiver, so can explore the world freely. However, these studies can be found reductive as not considering the influence of social groups on children’s personalities; the idea that personality is also a biological factor and how the research is only conducted on a specific stressful scenario rather than parent-child interaction in the home. There is still much research to do to cover all grounds, but nevertheless, attachment does affect early child development in both positive and negative ways.


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Ainsworth, M.D., 1985. Patterns of infant-mother attachments: antecedents and effects on development. Bull. N. Y. Acad. Med. 61, 771–791.

Ainsworth, M.D.S., Bell, S.M., 1970. Attachment, Exploration, and Separation: Illustrated by the Behaviour of One-Year-Olds in a Strange Situation. Child Dev. 41, 49–67. https://doi.org/10.2307/1127388

Ainsworth, M.D.S., Blehar, M.C., Waters, E., Wall, S., 2014. Patterns of Attachment: A Psychological Study of the Strange Situation. Psychology Press.

Ainsworth, M.S., Bowlby, J., 1991. An ethological approach to personality development. Am. Psychol. 46, 333–341. https://doi.org/10.1037/0003-066X.46.4.333

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Bowlby, J. (1969). Attachment. Attachment and loss: Vol. 1. Loss. New York: Basic Books.

Bowlby, J., Organization, W.H., 1952. Maternal care and mental health: a report prepared on behalf of the World Health Organization as a contribution to the United Nations programme for the welfare of homeless children. Geneva: World Health Organization, Geneva.

Greenberg, M.T., Cicchetti, D., Cummings, E.M., 1993. Attachment in the Preschool Years: Theory, Research, and Intervention. University of Chicago Press.

Harris, J. R. (1998). The nurture assumption: Why children turn out the way they do. New York: Free Press

Harlow, H.F., Zimmermann, R.R., 1958. The Development of Affectional Responses in Infant Monkeys. Proc. Am. Philos. Soc. 102, 501–509.

Leman, P., Bremner, A., Parke, D.R. and Gauvain, M. (2012). Developmental psychology. London: McGraw-Hill Higher Education, Chapter 7.

Main, M., 1983. Exploration, play, and cognitive functioning related to infant-mother attachment. Infant Behav. Dev. 6, 167–174. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0163-6383(83)80024-1

Matas, L., Arend, R.A., Sroufe, L.A., 1978. Continuity of Adaptation in the Second Year: The Relationship between Quality of Attachment and Later Competence. Child Dev. 49, 547–556. https://doi.org/10.2307/1128221

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