Attachment may be described as a bond or an affectionate tie between a child and it's primary caregiver, characterized by a loving and enduring relationship. All theories of infant social and emotional development emphasize the child's relationship to parents and other caregivers. One reason for this emphasis is the assumption that an attachment between child and caregiver is important for providing a foundation of emotional security for the child, and forms a basis for the parent's later influences on the child.

A prominent figure in the study of attachment behaviors is Mary Ainsworth. Using a technique known as the strange situation, Ainsworth was able to identify 3 different patterns of attachment that emerge in children at around 8 months of age. She felt all children could be classified into one of these three attachment patters;

a) secure attachment

b) insecure-resistant attachment

c) insecure-avoidant attachment.

It is becoming increasingly known that securely attached infants tend to be more socially competent than insecure attached infants. Studies show that children classified as strictly attached are rated by teachers as having enhanced popularity and social skills. They also seem to be less sooner to bullying than other children. Why might this be so?

Enhanced social competency may be explained by finds that secure attachment is associated with higher self-esteem, autonomy and empathy towards others. Studies show that securely attached infants have a healthy sense of self, in that they tend to acknowledge mostly positive attitudes about themselves, while also being aware of their imperfections. On the other hand, insecure attached infants tend towards an excessively negative or positive view of themselves (depending on the type of insecure attachment). It is probable that the qualities linked with secure attachment make children more likeable, popular and attractive, leading to better friendship networks ..

Significantly, socially competent and self-confident individuals are likely to make better relationships with others, while also mingling with peers of similar social standing. This means that secure attachment in early infancy sees to lead to a greater quality and quantity of social experience, leading to a continuously progressive social development through childhood and adolescent years. This is an ongoing cycle of events, appearing to have it's origins in early attachment formation.

The question should be raised – how does this social competency and heightened self esteem develop? Under Piagetian thought, a child gains knowledge by acting upon the environment – the more experience that a child can gain, the more learning that occurs. Research findings indicate that secure attachment is associated with greater exploratory behavior in infancy. For example, when kindergartens aged children are placed in cognitively challenging situations, those who are classified as being securely attached display more sophisticated make believe play and greater persistence and enthusiasm on problem solving tasks at 2 years of age. In contrast, insecure attached infants do not show such behaviors. Secure attachments are more likely to lead to curiosity about the environment, and a heightened willingness to explore. John Bowlby would describe this phenomenon as the product of a 'secure base', which a child can leave and move away from, knowing it will be there on his or her return. Children who have a secure base (ie they have trust and a sense of security in the availability of their parents) tend to have a secure attachment, and are less likely to display clingy, awkward behavior when in a social setting.

It is also known that securely attached individuals display greater co-operation with their parents. Such behavior may have beneficial effects upon social development since these infants are better likely to listen and interact with their parents, leading to enhanced learning and gaining of experience from them. On the other hand, an insecure attached child who is uncooperative may miss out on parental efforts to teach or help them, and very possibly may even discourage the parents from trying to assist the child.

Perhaps the best way to understand the importance of attachment formation would be to observe the effects where it has been hampered or obstructed. There are a number of studies showing the detrimental effects of attachment figure deprivation on social development – rhesus monkeys have been isolated at birth and deprived of all social and environmental stimulation. When placed in free play sessions with others, these monkeys display severe developmental deficits and withdrawal.

Similar research with human infants has focused on the developmental outcomes of institutionalization (for example, in Romanian orphanages). Such children have been observed to be more withdrawn, rarely approach adults or seek reassurance if in distress. These children also tend to be more attentive seeking and consequentially more disruptive in school than children reared in home environments. Even 'good' institutional rearing at an early age is associated with behavioral problems in childhood and personality problems in adulthood. The lack of a dependent attachment illustration seems to unsettle these children, in the formative phase of their personality development.

There is a growing amount of research to suggest that insecurely attached individuals can benefit from early therapy and social care. The introduction of affectionate and responsive caregivers has been shown to have positive developmental effects upon children previously devoid of a secure attachment. Parenting courses which have an emotional and relationship focus, can also help. Changes in the emotional and physical environment, and consistent messages of acceptance, can help a child move towards a more secure sense of self and others. Improvements in family circumstances and in parent child relationships (eg reduction in family stress, increase in social support) can to some degree alter the quality of attachments that have been formulated.

Children who have suffered neglect, or other forms of child abuse, are at risk of being insecure attached. Sometimes, parental mental health problems (including drug and substance misuse during and after pregnancy) are important precipitating factors. At other times, it may simply be a result of family stress, domestic violence and a lack of adequate social support for the parents. Clearly, it is in all our interests to support children and families to flourish in secure, safe and healthy environments. There are a number of support services in both the voluntary and statutory sectors, working hard to make this expectation a reality. Please contact me, or visit my website, for further details.