Social and Emotional Development
It is not a secret that infants develop a strong emotional attachment to the people who provide them with a caring and nurturing relationship. Infants are familiar with the faces of family members and react positively to seeing their faces and being held by them. However, the situation is very different when the infant comes in contact with Great Aunt Irma, whom the baby has never seen before. When the baby is passed from its familiar mother to caring but unfamiliar Great Aunt Irma, the baby will most likely not react in the same manner as she did with her mother. Instead the infant will cry and reach for the more familiar mom. This fear is called stranger anxiety, and it occurs in babies between six months and two years old.
Attachment is an emotional tie with another person. In young children attachment is shown by their desire to be held by their parents or other familiar caregivers and by their becoming upset or distressed when separated. Attachment has a strong evolutionary component, since it aids in survival. Just as you would see cubs following the mother lion around in Africa, a baby stays close to its mother for protection.
Attachment comes from three key components in relationship between the child and caregiver: body contact, familiarity, and responsive parenting. An infant seeks body contact with the mother or main caregiver. This soft, warm body gives the infant a safe haven from which to explore his or her surroundings and also a place to go to when upset. A mother's or caregiver's body is very important in attachment with the infant because it allows a sense of security.
Although it is thought to be the mother's job to provide the most nurturing for her children, the father's presence is important to the development of his child. Studies show that children who grow up without a father can be at an increased risk for various psychological and social pathologies. Of course, single parents of either sex are often exposed to poverty, increased stress, and more limited resources, which impact what they can offer their children.
Familiarity is based on the critical period of infants, which is that period of time shortly after birth in which the infant is exposed to stimuli that will produce proper development. Attachments based on familiarity must happen during the critical period. It is not necessary for a child to be in contact with her main caregivers right at birth to develop an attachment to them, as is seen in adopted children, but human attachment develops very slowly and is helped along when an infant is in contact with her main caregiver from the beginning.
Forms of Attachment
Attachment comes in two basic forms: secure attachment and insecure attachment. Secure attachment is shown when a baby can happily play in and explore a new environment in his mother's presence. An insecurely attached baby will not be eager to explore the surroundings, but rather will stick to his mother. One explanation for the secure and insecurely attached babies is the mother's actions.
Responsive mothers who act with sensitivity and attentiveness toward their children most likely have securely attached infants. Mothers who are insensitive toward their children and ignore them will most likely have babies with insecure attachments. A child's temperament may also influence the parent's behavior. For instance, a child who is generally more anxious, less cuddly, and more easily upset will elicit different parenting behavior than a cheerful, calm, relaxed child. It goes both ways.
Researchers have also described three major variations of insecure attachment: ambivalent, avoidant, and disorganized. A child displaying signs of ambivalent-insecure attachment will become very distressed when the caretaker leaves the room, but does not seem to be particularly comforted when he or she returns. Those with an avoidant-insecure style show little preference between a parent and stranger and generally don't seek comfort from caregivers when they are distressed. Disorganized attachment is marked by a pronounced mix of behavior, where children may avoid or even resist attention from caregivers. Researchers believe that this attachment style is linked to inconsistent parenting behavior. Sometimes the parents may be a source of comfort, but at other times they might be a source of neglect or even fear.
Much of this chapter has discussed the child's attachment to the mother. Though the mother's attachment seems to be a very important role in the development of a child, the father's presence also makes a big difference. However, it need not be a biological mother or father to satisfy the child's need for attachment. The presence of safe, caring, responsible adults in a child's life is what seems to be important in nurturing healthy development.