The Silver Thread:Patterns of Attachment


During the birth phase of Psychology, investigators began to study patterns of attachment. Attachment is the initial bonding between parent and child. That pattern of attachment later manifests itself in adult relationships, where an attachment pattern characterizes conflicts or harmony in the relationship. That is the basic bond between a couple, which may create problems or benefits in the context of a relationship.

An English Psychiatrist, John Bowlby, was one of the first persons to research children’s attachment patterns. But an American Psychologist, Mary Ainsworth, was the first to catalog styles of attachment.

Ainsworth established a clever experiment to study attachment patterns. She had a mother bring a child, a one-year-old, to her clinic. Waiting was a female graduate student. The graduate student began interacting with the baby. After the baby was engaged, the mother left the room. At some point, the infant recognized that the mother was gone. At that point, the baby reacted, and the examiner brought the mother back to the room.

Four patterns were noted:

Secure Attachment: In this pattern, the baby noticed the mother was gone and then panicked. After the mother returned the child bonded with the mother and calmed down. This signaled a healthy attachment and predicted a more harmonious adult set of attachments. About two-thirds of the children displayed this reaction. When the researchers studied the daily mother-child interaction, they saw that those mothers were attentive and empathic with their children. This predicted a child with a healthy attachment to other colleagues, boyfriends, or girl friendships.

Avoidant Attachment: These children generally explored the room. When the mother left they showed no signs of disturbance or anger. When the mother returned, the child showed no reaction, no distress, or pleasure.

In studying the mother-child interaction, researchers found that these mothers were inconsistent in the way they responded to their infants. When these children signaled distress at home the mothers did not respond in a reliable or sensitive manner. Often they were indifferent to the child’s distress. About 20% of the children showed this pattern. As adults, they were detached, indifferent and isolated from their mates.

Ambivalent Attachments: These children did panic when they noted the parent was gone. When the mother did return the child was not consoled. The initial disturbance was greeted with indifference, but when the mother returned the indifference continued. The mother could not console the infant.

This disturbance looks like adult anxiety. Once anxiety is activated in a susceptible adult, the anxiety takes on a life of its own. Anxiety continues to build much after the initial threat is gone.

The population constituted about 10-15% of the infant population.

Disorganized Attachment: In these cases which constitute about 10% of the infant population, the infant becomes terrified when noticing the mother is gone. However, when the mother returns, the terrified child approaches the mother, then freezes or falls on the floor, or clings, cries and at the same time pulls away.

Observations of the parents of these children showed about 80% were drug/ alcohol abusers. These parents showed a lack of attunement to the child’s moods. The parents were frightened and the child picked-up on their fright and mirrored it. There was a high level of fright, which was independent of parental input.

While the long-term implications of these early attachment behaviors are still being studied, it appears that the dysfunctional patterns of attachment pathology–avoidant, ambivalent and disorganized–are precursors of later attachment pathologies.


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