Under stress are you cool as a cucumber or hot headed? Do you trust others to be available, or doubt them? Do you tend to withdraw from your partner when stressed or cling to them? Do you challenge authority and feel more comfortable when you are in charge, or do you hate to rock the boat? The early stages of development have a lot to do with the “working models” we use to decide on how to include others or not include them in our lives.
In the last two posts I discussed the process of attunement and sensory regulation that begins in the first nine months and the process of shame states and repair of the second nine months. When this process goes well it allows us to enjoy exploring our world and to respond appropriately to the needs of others. In this post I will discuss how we negotiate our needs with the caregivers in our world.
Finding Home Base
In this post, I want to discuss the concept of attachment, first identified by John Bowlby in the 1950s. Attachment is a relationship between an infant and its parent that evolves through the first year and a half of life. It is a process whereby an infant creates a “working model” to predict and direct the availability (that is the accessibility and responsiveness) of caregiving others in their world. In this process infants figure out in whose arms they will find comfort when it is needed and how to get it.
From the sixth week of life the infant can tell his caregivers apart and begins to respond unhappily when they are in the care of a stranger. Infants show preference for one caregiver who becomes the infants primary “attachment figure”. Human infants can allow (remember my earlier post "Mothers and Others") more than one attachment figure, but there remains a hierarchy of the most preferred attachment figure which the infant will select when available, and demand when most alarmed. Infants bond to their primary caregiver through the process of attunement, that is with a caregiver who is sensitive and responsive. The quality of this social engagement is more important than the amount of time spent with that caregiver.
The attachment system is a motivational system which leads the infant to seek out its caregiver for safety, security and protection when it is distressed. When the attachment system is aroused the infant is less able to calmly explore their surroundings. The infant will vocalize and call the caregiver and, when able, will move towards the caregiver. When they have safely been reunited with the caregiver, the distress resolves, the infant is comforted and they can resume exploration. The biological utility of this behaviour is clear. In the process of evolution, having a well-tuned attachment system maintains the safety and security of infants in an uncertain world. The neurobiology of this system is now well understood. A stressful situation activates the infants sympathetic nervous system (speeding up heart rate and mobilizing energy), the motivational system (involving the dopamine system) is now directed away from exploration and towards seeking out the caregiver When this is achieved the infant is soothed and comforted (a process involving oxytocin, serotonin and endorphins). When this behaviour pattern works, it is reinforced. If it is not successful, other patterns of behaviour emerge.
The Strange Situation
Mary Ainsworth, a colleague of Bowlby, was a pioneer in studying toddlers’ attachment behaviour. She set up a series of laboratory scenarios that would mildly stress toddlers and observed how they responded. She identified three patterns of attachment. Further work by Margaret Main added a fourth pattern.
Ainsworth separated attachment styles into secure and insecure. The most famous observation scenario she created to rate children was called the “Strange Situation”. In this scenario the parent and the toddler are in a room, and are joined by a non-threatening stranger. At a prearranged point the parent leaves the room unannounced. After a few minutes, the parent returns.
Secure or Insecure
Securely attached toddlers were seen to protest (cry and call) when the parent left, but were able to calm quickly when the parent returned and comforted them. Ainsworth also identified two patterns that she referred to as insecure attachment.
In the first, the child does not protest when the parent departs and when the parent returns the child ignores, avoids the parent, or approaches very hesitantly. Despite not protesting, the child’s exploration of the toys deteriorated and later studies revealed that these infants are showing stress reactions (elevated heart rates etc.) during the departure even though they are not protesting. This pattern was termed an avoidant attachment .
In the second pattern, the child does protests, often in a dramatic fashion, sometimes clinging tightly to the departing parent. When the parent returns the infant continues to protest, even directing aggression toward the parent and does not settle for some time. This second “insecure” pattern was referred to as an ambivalent attachment.
Mary Main demonstrated a fourth pattern, which she referred to as an insecure disorganized attachment. These infants appeared to be confused as to how to respond. The child might protest and then withdraw or appear frozen in indecision. This pattern has been demonstrated to occur in the most troubled of parent child situations and has been related to the worst outcomes. None of these patterns is in itself a “disorder”. They are merely relationship patterns. They have also been shown to have remarkable staying power although they can change as development progresses. These pattern have been shown to persist into adulthood in our relationships with significant others in our life.
Active or Passive
Attachment patterns are strategies of communicating with a caregiver, and the ability to use that caregiver to become calm when faced with stress. Avoidant children have learned not to call their parent, as calls have not been attended to, or they have learned to inhibit their calls, having determined it is best not to burden their caregiver unless it is very necessary. Ambivalent children have learned to turn up the volume of their protests when distressed. They demand the presence of the caregiver loudly, and have determined that this is the best strategy for getting their needs met. In the end we have extremes of active versus passive strategies. Disorganized children may flip flop between these strategies, at times seizing control, and other times becoming passive. It is important to point out here that the child’s behavior is not related to the parents love for their child. Parents who very much love their children can be unavailable for many reasons or can be stressed by a multitude of factors. Also genetic or environmental (toxins/medical/trauma) factors may interfere with a parent's capacity to soothe a child despite their best efforts and availability. Any one of these strategies may be a functional strategy in such situations for a child.
In the last post we explored how children learn to accommodate their behaviour to the needs of others. In this post we have seen how children communicate responsibility to those others for their needs. These relationship patterns persist into adulthood and determine the patterns we engage in, in our most intimate relationships, when we are in need. These intimate relationships in turn are the relationships we rely on for support when we become the caregivers for the next generation. We, as a society, are charged with providing as supportive a community as possible to young parents, of all attachment styles, as they face the challenges of meeting the needs of their young ones. In this way we allow them the best opportunity to create sustaining relationships that will provide a strong foundation for the next generation.