Offspring–parent attachment denotes the strong bonds that children form to their caregiver(s), seeking to maintain proximity to and protesting separations from their caregiver(s) and using the caregiver(s) as a secure base to explore the environment and a safe haven to return to for comfort and protection. Children are endowed with an attachment behavioral system retained in evolution as maintaining proximity to caregivers was associated with increased chances of survival and thus reproduction. Accordingly, children come into the world prepared to form attachments, doing so to individuals who are sufficiently available and responding to children’s attachment behaviors. Offspring–parent attachment therefore denotes a hierarchical bond between children (the smaller and weaker part) and their caregiver(s) (the stronger and wiser part) and not the emotional bond that caregivers form to their offspring. Attachment bonds take time to form and are typically observable during the second half of children’s first year of life, when attachment-related experiences with the caregiver(s) have become internalized in the child in the form of cognitive-affective representations of self and others (internal working models, [IWMs]) that organize the child’s behavior and displays of affect in relation to the caregiver(s). Offspring–parent attachment varies in quality or organization depending on the caregiver’s pattern of responding to the child’s signals and is typically described using two dimensions (secure/insecure, organized/disorganized) subsuming four categories (secure, insecure-avoidant, insecure-resistant/ambivalent, insecure-disorganized/disoriented).
Universally, human infants form strong bonds – attachments – to caregiver(s), seeking to maintain proximity to and protesting separations from the caregiver(s) and using the caregiver(s) as a “secure base” from which to explore the environment and a “safe haven” to return to for comfort and protection when distressed. John Bowlby, a psychoanalyst and child psychiatrist (see “John Bowlby: Pioneer of Attachment Theory”), was unsatisfied with the available explanations of attachment, with psychoanalytical and social learning theories deeming attachment a secondary result of children’s drives and feeding (see “Psychodynamic Foundations to Attachment Theory”). Bowlby contested these “secondary drive theories,” arguing that attachment is a primary motivation, and sought an alternative explanation. He came to draw from multiple scientific traditions, most notably ethology and evolutionary theory, cognitive theory, and control systems theory as applied to ethology (see “Evolutionary Foundations of the Attachment System and Its Functions”). The phenomenon of offspring–parent attachment, or to paraphrase Bowlby, “the nature of children’s ties to their caregivers” (Bowlby 1958/1982), is discussed below (see Cassidy 2008, for a thorough introduction).
The attachment system, attachment behaviors, and the relation between the attachment system and other behavioral systems. Bowlby (1982), following Darwin (1859), and drawing from ethology, argued that humans (and some other animals) are endowed with an attachment behavioral system that was retained through natural selection as it served an adaptive function in primate species’ typical ancestral environments (see “Evolutionary Foundations of the Attachment System and Its Function”). Specifically, Bowlby argued that the “predictable outcome” following activation of the attachment behavioral system is proximity to caregivers, which have served a biological “function” of increasing chances of survival against predators and other natural dangers (see “Infant Survival” for a discussion of alternative suggestions, such as facilitating learning from caregivers). As individuals endowed with an attachment behavioral system ultimately had more progeny, the attachment system became a stable characteristic of the human species.
Bowlby argued that the attachment system is interacting with other behavioral systems, most notably the fear system and the exploratory system. Regarding the fear system, Bowlby argued that the attachment system is activated by internal (e.g., illness, pain) and external (loud noises, darkness, strangers, separations from caregivers) signals of threat/danger and similarly terminated by signals that there is no more cause for alarm (as opposed to buildup and discharge of psychic energies, see “Psychodynamic Foundations to Attachment Theory”). For young infants, close (physical) proximity to the caregiver(s) is often paramount to terminating the activation, whereas older children, who, for example, have acquired language, can be soothed by more elaborate means, such as talking to the child and conveying that there is no cause for alarm (psychological proximity). The attachment system is, however, also thought to affect the fear system, with children typically more able to explore their environments (i.e., less prone to fear), when a caregiver is available for comfort and protection (i.e., as a “secure base”; see “Individual Variations in Attachment”). Bowlby also argued that humans have an exploratory system (and an innate motivation to explore the environment) and that the attachment and exploratory systems are mutually inhibiting so that when one is activated the other is deactivated. Importantly, Bowlby argued that having a caregiver available as a secure base (or an internalized representation of the caregiver as available, called “felt security”) supports children’s ability to explore the environment (e.g., increasing their epistemic space). Children’s ability to balance flexibly between their attachment needs and need to explore the environment is therefore key in individual variations in attachment (see “Individual Variations in Attachment” for a further description). Moreover, variations in attachment are thought to partly affect children’s further development through effects on children’s ability to explore the environment (see “Effects of Attachment Quality and Organization”).
Children come into the world social and prepared to form attachments to caregivers who are (sufficiently) available and responding to their signals, particularly during times of distress when the attachment system is activated. Children are endowed with attachment behaviors, which are described by their evolutionary function of maintaining/increasing proximity to caregivers. Such behaviors include positive (e.g., vocalizing, smiling) and aversive (e.g., crying, screaming) signal behaviors and active behaviors such as following and clinging, with increased development of motor, language, and cognitive abilities expanding the repertoire of attachment behaviors as children grow older.
Bowlby also argued that caregivers are endowed with a complementary caregiving system, rendering them biased and responsive to their children’s signals, which possibly developed as parents’ genes are only passed on to future generations if their children survive and have progeny of their own (Simpson and Belsky 2008). Caregivers are, for example, usually monitoring their children’s whereabouts and retrieving them (increasing proximity) upon cues of danger. Children’s forming of attachments to their caregivers is thus a collaborative effort, and since children’s environments typically include caregivers who are responding to their signals, almost all children form attachments (called “the universality principle”; van IJzendoorn and Sagi 1999), and the attachment system is hence considered a moderately environmentally stable system (but see “Disorganized Attachment and Reactive Attachment Disorder” for detrimental effects following severe social deprivation). The collaborative process between children and their caregiver(s) does however not mean that caregivers are attached to their children, a common misconception. Attachment denotes the bond that offspring form to their caregivers. That is, the nature of children’s ties to their caregiver(s) is a hierarchical relationship between the child (the smaller, weaker part) and the caregiver (the stronger and wiser part), thought to stem from the evolutionary survival value of maintaining proximity to caregivers (see “Attachment in Adulthood,” for differences in functioning in adult relationships). With the words of Bowlby: “Because immature organisms are usually very vulnerable they are commonly endowed with behavioral equipment that produces behaviors specifically likely to minimize risk, e.g., behavior that maintains proximity to a parent” (Bowlby 1997/1982, p. 143).
Development of attachment, attachment representations, and individual variations in attachment. Attachment bonds develop slowly during children’s first year of life and are typically first observable around 7–9 months of age, that is, when children are seen to monitor and maintain proximity to the caregiver(s) and to use the caregiver(s) as a “secure base” and a “safe haven” (Ainsworth et al. 1978; Bowlby 1982). Importantly, an attachment bond is denoted by an “organization” of attachment behavior in relation to one or more specific individuals, not in any single behavior (see “Individual Variations in Attachment” and Sroufe and Waters 1977). Indeed, the behaviors shown in relation to the attachment figure(s) are typically in stark contrast to behaviors shown toward other persons. Attached children will, for example, typically not make do with comfort by another person when the attachment figure(s) is present.
The key facilitator of children’s development of attachment is that a caregiver is being continuously available and responding to the child’s attachment behaviors (not feeding, see “Psychodynamic Foundations to Attachment Theory”). Children can form attachments to multiple caregivers, and the caregiver’s sex is unimportant (e.g., mothers are not by default more suited as attachment figures; Ainsworth et al. 1978; Bowlby 1982). Children are however thought to organize their attachment relationships in hierarchies (turning to the one highest in the hierarchy first if that person is present), and since mothers’ are usually the primary caregiver (particularly early in children’s lives), they are often at the top of children’s attachment hierarchies.
The slow development of attachment is thought to be in part due to the immature state of the attachment system at birth (see “Evolutionary Foundations of the Attachment System and Its Function”). The slow development is also due to the fact that children need repeated attachment-related experiences with their caregivers for an attachment bond to be formed. That is, organization of attachment behavior in relation to a specific person necessitates having formed representations of the other and what to expect from that person, particularly as regards availability for protection and support (i.e., as a secure base and safe haven). Indeed, drawing from cognitive psychology, Bowlby argued that experiences with caregivers lead to the development of cognitive-affective representations of self and others, which he termed “internal working models” (IWMs) and which he considered complementary in nature (Bowlby 1982; see “Evolutionary Foundations to Attachment Theory and Its Function”). Once formed, these IWMs, also termed “attachment representations,” come to guide children’s attention, behavior, and displays of affect in relation to the caregiver, particularly in situations when the attachment system is activated.
The attachment system is also moderately environmentally labile, being open to learning and thereby permitting modifications to suit the child’s environment. This openness is seen in the relation between the characteristic patterns (quality) of caregiving (e.g., sensitivity) that children receive and the different patterns of organization of attachment behaviors (i.e., quality of attachment) that children develop (see “Individual Variations in Attachment”). Briefly, Mary Ainsworth, who collaborated closely with Bowlby, found that children tend to show three different organized patterns of attachment, corresponding to the patterns of caregiving they have received during the first year of life (Ainsworth et al. 1978). Secure children, having received sensitive care, show a good ability to use their caregiver as a secure base and safe haven. Insecure-avoidant children, whose bids for proximity have been rejected, show an inability to turn to their caregiver when (mildly) distressed (i.e., a minimizing pattern). Insecure-ambivalent/resistant children, having received inconsistent sensitivity, show an inability to explore the environment, demanding comfort from their caregiver without being comforted by the contact (i.e., a maximizing pattern). Mary Main subsequently discovered a fourth group of children, termed insecure-disorganized/disoriented (Main and Solomon 1990). Disorganized children tend to have experienced frightening/frightened behaviors from their caregiver (Main and Hesse 1990) and show an inability to sustain an organized pattern of attachment behavior in relation to the caregiver. Variations in attachment are therefore generally described using two dimensions (secure-insecure, organized/disorganized-disoriented), subsuming four different patterns. Importantly, insecure children are attached to their caregivers. Profound difficulties forming attachments to others (i.e., reactive attachment disorder [RAD]; see “Disorganized Attachment and Reactive Attachment Disorder”) are typically reserved for children who have not had any caregiver consistently available (e.g., children growing up in some institutions).
As outlined by Bowlby, children are endowed with an attachment behavioral system and attachment behaviors and form strong bonds to caregivers that are (sufficiently) available and respond to their signals. The core function of attachment is maintaining proximity to caregivers, which have served an adaptive function of increasing chances of survival in primate species’ typical ancestral environments. Offspring–parent attachment therefore denotes a hierarchical bond between children (the smaller and weaker part) and their caregiver(s) (the stronger and wiser part).
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