The Basics Of Attachment Theory
There are many different theories that form the basis of the understanding of human behaviour. One of the most important aspects of the development of any human being and his or her ability to maintain effective, healthy relationships is found in Attachment Theory.
Like many constructs used in psychology, the theory is really a model. It is a way to understand the dynamics and predict responses of individuals based on the level of attachment or bonding to a primary caregiver in the very earliest stages of life. However, unlike many people assume, attachment theory is not general but rather specific in scope. It specifically deals with why some people respond differently when they are stressed, threatened or separated from loved ones in a relationship.
The key focus in attachment theory is the need for a child, an infant, to bond with at least one primary person in his or her life. This is often the mother, but it could be a father, another family member or even a foster or adoptive parent. It is less important the role of the person and more important in how that adult is able to interact and provide comfort and security for the infant.
There are different types of relationships possible. The healthiest attachment for an infant and child is with an adult capable of providing support, security, and encouragement while also creating a predictability in the relationship.
For example, if the child cries and the primary caregiver soothes, holds or feeds the baby the infant learns that an adult is a safe person. In addition, when the caregiver is seen as a trusted, stable and secure anchor for an infant they are more willing to try new things, to explore and to have a sense of how interpersonal relationship work in a healthy dynamic.
When the caregiver is unpredictable and provides mixed messages to the infant, an attachment still forms, but it is one that is very different. The child may develop an anxious or avoidant type of attachment or even a complete lack of attachment to the caregiver as the child gets older.
These children tend to be less confident as they don't see the parent as a source of support or a reliable "back-up" in their lives. Additionally, these children often have more than their emotional and attachment needs unmet, so they tend to be more focused internally than externally.
Mary Ainsworth, one of the developers of Attachment Theory, focused on the difference in behaviours of children with strong or weak attachment to caregivers. Children with a strong attachment could be separated and remain calm as they trusted the caregiver to return. Children that had a weak attachment did not have this confidence and very quickly became distressed and tearful which often continued even when the caregiver returned.
What it Means
It is important to realize that Attachment Theory is not a diagnosis, but rather a model of understanding how interpersonal relationships form. Children that have a strong attachment tend to have greater confidence and security while those without are less secure and more anxious about relationships.
Attachment Theory can shape future relationships, but it does not strictly define them. Individuals can earn more effective interpersonal relationship skills as children, teens and adults, even if they did not have a secure relationship with a carer in their early life.
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