Becoming Attached

What experiences in infancy will enable children to thrive emotionally and to come to feel that the world of people is a positive place? Attachment theorists believe they have some answers.
The Payoff

"I got interested in the field because I went to her lectures," says Inge Bretherton, who was a thirty four year old undergraduate, returning to college after her children started elementary school, when she first heard Ainsworth speak, at Johns Hopkins, in 1969. "I thought, oh, here is somebody who's studying real children in real environments. Almost nobody else was doing that at the time. Back then everybody was a behaviorist. You couldn't talk about the inner life, so to speak, or the internal world. Not in developmental psychology. I had gone to lectures in Cambridge where every time the person talked about consciousness he made quotation marks in the air. That was the sort of climate in which all this developed."

Bretherton, now a leading attachment scholar who teaches psychology at the University of Wisconsin, was just one of many bright students Ainsworth began attracting at that time, people who would carry attachment work with them to other universities throughout the seventies and eighties.

Everett Waters was an undergraduate chemistry major at Johns Hopkins when he met Ainsworth, in 1971, and volunteered to help in her research. Waters, who now teaches at the State University of New York at Stonybrook, soon abandoned chemistry and in 1972 entered the psychology doctoral program at the University of Minnesota. There he met Alan Sroufe, a young assistant professor. Sroufe was intrigued by what Waters told him about Ainsworth's work, and before long the university was buzzing with attachment research. That Minnesota's Institute of Child Development, prestigious and centrist, had gotten into attachment was enormously helpful to Ainsworth, who needed the support. Behavioral critics, as Bowlby puts it, were "clobbering her," much as conservative analysts had clobbered him.

Staunch opponents of psychoanalysis and any other theory that posits the existence of unconscious processes or structures of the mind, behaviorists believe that human actions are best understood in terms of environmental conditioning. Their studies had shown that if rewarded, a behavior increases in frequency; if punished, it diminishes. Surely, if Ainsworth's babies were crying or sitting quietly, those behaviors must have been reinforced in similar circumstances, the children must have been responding to familiar cues from their mothers, and Ainsworth must have misread her data. That infants may have built in needs for certain kinds of relatedness, that they develop unconscious working models of self and other, which reflect in part how well their mothers tend to meet those needs, and that their behavior reflects such internal considerations were heresy in the American university of that time.

But the Strange Situation's value did not escape a handful of infancy researchers, who saw that they had been given an extraordinary tool, a Rosetta stone of sorts, with which they could decipher the traces of an infant's experience with his parents. Once they could do Chat, all sorts of questions previously confined to theoretical speculation were suddenly accessible to empirical study. In the coming years psychologists would use the Strange Situation sporadically at first, then with greater frequency, and finally in a flood of empirical excitement to correlate attachment style with self esteem, with cognitive abilities, with persistence in solving problems, with peer relations, with romantic love, with maternal depression, and with just about everything else that seemed relevant. The results would range from inconclusive to contradictory to stunningly consistent. No one would be more prolific in applying Ainsworth's techniques than Sroufe.

Sroufe, at forty eight, is a soft spoken and deliberate man with a commanding presence and a crusading ardor for the principles he believes in. Extremely articulate, both in person and in print, he broke the ice for many developmentalists with his influential and widely reprinted 1977 article "Attachment as an organizational construct," which was co authored by Waters. Sroufe's passion for Ainsworth's work derives partly from his own history of difficulties with the research methods that preceded hers.

"In the past," Sroufe explains, "developmental psychology thought there were two ways of doing things you either counted discrete behaviors or you did global ratings. The problem with discrete behaviors is it takes a tremendous amount of observation to get anything that's worthwhile, and it's hard to know what they mean. To know that one mother picks up her kid more than another mother does, or that one child talks to other children more than a second child does that may tell you something, but it probably doesn't."

Global ratings, on the other hand, allow an observer to use his own judgment: How sensitive is this mother? How sociable is that child? "But," Sroufe says, "global ratings have always had the reputation of being subjective and unreliable. People can't agree. Well, Ainsworth's methodology is neither of those.

"She has one scale called Cooperation and Interference. On the cooperative end the parents fit what they do to the child. They do things in a timely manner, they do things when the child is open to them, they don't do things at cross purposes to the child. On the other end, interfering, the parent is coming in doing things when the child isn't ready. Ainsworth showed that mothers of babies who later are avoidant hold their babies as much as mothers of babies who later are secure. So if you just measure frequency of holding you get no difference. But there's one circumstance in which mothers of babies who are later avoidant do not hold them, and that's when the baby signals that it wants to be held. So you could have counted a lot of holding and you would have gotten nothing."

Blessed with sophisticated facilities, a steady flow of cash from funding agencies, their own nursery on campus staffed by teachers trained to do their ratings, fleets of observers when needed, and summer camps equipped with remote cameras, the Minnesota researchers have been able to follow various samples of children from different socioeconomic strata, taking the initial attachment patterns observed by Ainsworth and extending their implications to later and later periods of life.

They have found that two year olds assessed as secure at eighteen months were enthusiastic and persistent in solving easy tasks and effective in using maternal assistance when the tasks became more difficult. In contrast, their anxiously attached counterparts tended to be frustrated and whiny. They found that preschoolers who had been judged securely attached as infants were significantly more flexible, curious, socially competent, and self reliant than their anxiously attached counterparts. The securely attached children were more sympathetic; they wanted, and more likely to be leaders. Similar findings persisted through elementary school age.

Some of the most intriguing Minnesota material, much of it since confirmed by other studies, concerned avoidant kids. They have proved far less able to engage in fantasy play than securely attached children, and when they have engaged in such play, it has more often been characterized by irresolvable conflict. Children with histories of secure attachment tend to be neither victims nor exploiters when placed in pairs, but avoidant kids often victimize other insecurely attached children. Critics had claimed that infants labeled "avoidant" were simply more independent, but the fact that they grew up to be four year olds who sought contact with their teachers at a greater rate than securely attached children suggested otherwise. That they were frequently sullen or oppositional and not inclined to seek help when injured or disappointed, however, spoke poignantly of their avoidant patterns.

According to Sroufe, many teachers react with tragic consistency when dealing with the three types of children. They tend to treat securely attached children in matter of fact, ageappropriate ways; to excuse and infantilize the dingier ambivalent children; and to be controlling and angry with avoidant ones. "Whenever I see a teacher who looks as if she wants to pick a kid up by the shoulders and stuff him in the trash," Sroufe says, "I know that kid had an avoidant attachment history."

In following a sample of 180 children from poor homes, Sroufe and his colleague Byron Egeland have found that nurses' ratings of the mothers' interest in their new babies accurately predicted future quality of attachment. They have also discovered that a child's attachment classification can

change, usually as a result of a major alteration in the mother's circumstances: for instance, a single mother's forming a stable partnership with a new man. That the first year's effects, though still assumed to be profound, are not necessarily indelible is a hopeful sign.

The 180 Minnesota children are now heading into adolescence. "You couldn't name a federal priority that we can't access with the data coming up!" Sroufe says. "Drug abuse, delinquency, AIDS, teenage mothers we'll be able to tell what their histories were and who was in the risk group." Needless to say, he expects security of attachment to be a principal factor in predicting healthy functioning in the teenage years.

They Are Leaning Out for Love

If attachment theory is correct, the insecurely attached child has developed a strategy for dealing with his mother's unavailability or inconsistency. The ambivalent child (ambivalent children represent about 10 percent of children from middle class U.S. homes) is desperately trying to influence her. He is hooked by the fact that she does indeed come through on occasion. He picks up that she will respond sometimesperhaps out of guilt if he pleads and makes a big enough fuss. And so he is constantly trying to hold on to her or to punish her for being unavailable. He is wildly addicted to her and to his efforts to make her change.

The avoidant child (20 to 25 percent) takes the opposite tack. He becomes angry and distant (even though he remains no less attached). His pleas for attention have been painfully rejected, and reaching out seems impossible. The child seems to say, Who needs you I can do it on my own! Often in conjunction with this attitude grandiose ideas about the self develop: I am great, I don't need anybody. Indeed, some parents unwittingly promote such grandiosity in the child. If the mother can convince herself that her child is vastly superior to other children, she has an excuse for her lack of nurturing attention: This kid is special, he barely needs me, he's been doing his own thing practically since he was born.

In such cases the mother's lack of nurturance likely has its own tragic reasons, often originating in the neglect that she experienced when she herself was young. Needs and longings that she has long repressed make her angry, depressed, or disgusted when she sees them in her child.

Meanwhile, if she, too, is somewhat grandiose, the idea of a superior kid, who has no needs, will reinforce her own sense of superiority. This style of nonrelatedness can thus pass down through the generations, along with values that conveniently support it (our family believes in independence; we're not namby pambies).

Some of these patterns of anxious attachment may he responsible for certain well known maladaptive syndromes. Bowlby believes that avoidant attachment lies at the heart of narcissistic personality traits, one of the predominant psychiatric concerns of our time. It may also be at work in the legions of people who achieve a rigid independence from their families by becoming emotionally cut off, a pattern first identified by the family theorist Murray Bowen. Other correlations are sure to emerge.

Insecurely attached children are believed to be relatively amenable to change throughout their early years. Avoidant children, for example, will seek attachments with teachers and other adults, and if they are lucky, they will find a special person who will provide them with an alternative model of relatedness. Recent research has shown that if a child is securely attached to his father (or to another secondary caregiver), that will be the greatest help in overcoming an insecure attachment to his mother. Even if it's only an aunt the child sees occasionally, the knowledge that she cares will keep a different quality of relatedness alive in him. Studies of resiliency indicate that a child's having had such a person in his life can make an enormous difference in his ability to believe in himself and overcome adversity.

But the insecurely attached youngster often has difficulty finding such an alternate attachment figure, because the strategies he has adopted for getting along in the world tend to alienate him from the very people who might otherwise be able to help. The behavior of the insecurely attached child whether aggressive or cloying, all puffed up or easily deflated often tries the patience of peers and adults alike. It elicits reactions that lepeatedly reconfirm the child's distorted view of the world. People will never love me, they treat me like an irritation, they don't trust me, and so on.

Even a mother who has sought therapy, who has found a stable mate, who has overcome distracting financial problems who is now able to be more nurturant may have a hard time reaching the child who has adopted such survival strategies. She may find it hard, for example, to persuade him to give up his angry estrangement and be open to receiving love from her again; or to let go of the dinginess, the guilt, and the power struggles, and trust that she has changed, that she will not neglect him this time, that he can let her be a separate person and she will still be there for his needs. Getting such a message across requires the patience and consistency to persist until the child builds up a new set of expectations, or, if you will, a revised internal working model.

Roger Kobak, a psychologist at the University of Delaware, believes that distorted attachment patterns grow out of the way the child learns to deal with negative feelings. A secure child is able to communicate negative feelings like anger, hurt, jealousy, and resentment in a meaningful way. He can cry or shout, fall silent, or say "I hate you," confident of a sensitive response. The insecure child does not have this confidence. His mother, unable to handle her own negative feelings, either becomes dismissive or overreacts. As a result, his negative feelings are either walled off from his consciousness or revved up to the point where they overwhelm him. His ability to communicate his pain is gradually shrunken and distorted until it virtually demands misinterpretation.

Indeed, parents of insecurely attached children consistently misinterpret their behavior. "Parents often think these anxiously attached kids don't love them," Sroufe says. "They think the kid's rejecting them. The mothers of ambivalent kids think, he doesn't like me, he's just ornery, and so forth. Are you kidding? He doesn't like you? You are the center of the universe!"

Ideally, insecurely attached children need to be reached by adolescence, because it is in childhood that change is most easily accomplished without therapeutic intervention, when a steadfast parent or an available teacher can turn a child around. Sroufe cites the example, from his work with preschoolers, of a child whose devious and hostile behavior, combined with a swaggering false confidence, alienated his teachers. But when the teachers were instructed to confound his feelings of low self esteem by refusing to reject him, and to seek out opportunities to be close to him, he gradually changed his behavior and formed a close bond with one of them.

For abused children, the problem of repair is even thornier, because the messages they get and the working models of relatedness they develop are more confused. Pat Crittenden, a former student of Ainsworth's and a psychologist at the University of Miami who works with families under severe stress, says, "An abusing mother tends to be fairly coercive and demanding, even hostile, but to come across as almost sickly sweet. She is unlikely to scream and yell at her child. She is far more likely to paste a smile on her face and with gritted teeth demand that her child do something. The child then learns to associate a positive expression of feeling with a really negative experience. And so when he goes off to school, or meets other members of his family, or maybe later meets a peer or a potential lover, he will misinterpret positive expressions of feeling. He will assume that people who appear to be nice are being coercive."

Abused children have typically been found to fall within a fourth attachment category, called "disorganized." A child in this category seeks proximity with his mother in distorted ways. He may approach her backwards, or freeze suddenly in the middle of a movement, or sit for a time and stare off into space. His reactions, unlike the strategies of avoidant and ambivalent babies, seem to suggest the collapse of strategy.

When parents hear about all this, they may wonder, could I get a Strange Situation done on my kid? And yet that by itself would be pointless. The assessment was devised as a research tool, and its power is based on percentages. Some infants who receive sensitive care look anxiously attached, and some who have neglectful parents look secure. Sroufe has been asked by courts to help settle custody cases by putting the child through a Strange Situation with each of his parents, but he has steadfastly refused, because a certain percentage of children will either be mislabeled or reveal patterns that do not result from the predictable parenting styles.

Structures of the Mind

The attention given to the interpersonal strategies and outlooks of young children inevitably raises the question of how these mental constructs show up in adults. In what form do early attachment patterns persist in our lives? If we can't watch adults' reunion behavior, if we can't put adults in a lab and see them crying, crawling to their mothers, or allowing themselves to be comforted, can we in some other way access their internal working models? That is the question that has occupied Mary Main, and she has come up with some ingenious answers.

Main began by examining the parents of securely and anxiously attached children to see what correlations she could find. She used a sample of mothers and fathers of sixyear olds whose attachments had been assessed at twelve or eighteen months. In the course of a cleverly devised and very demanding sixty to ninety minute interview, which seems to evoke in adults some of the same feelings that the Strange Situation evokes in infants, she asked the parents to describe their childhoods and their important relationships. She later analyzed the interview transcripts for variations in the ways they responded. Four patterns emerged.

One group, which Main labeled "autonomous," easily remembered early experiences with their parents and clearly saw them as telling. They seemed self reliant, objective, and able to incorporate painful memories into their discussion. Main was confident that these adults either had had secure attachments as children or had somehow been able to rework insecure early models in order to achieve a more balanced and realistic view of

what it means to relate to others. To the extent that their childhood experience was bad, they were able to acknowledge it and had insights about its effects. In some cases they could understand and forgive their parents. Their children were for the most part securely attached.

A second group, which Main described as "dismissive of early attachments," tended to be indifferent to their deepest feelings about relationships. They remembered little of their childhood bonds and offered idealized portraits of their parents. When probed, however, they recalled incidents that contradicted this perfection, with details that suggested parental neglect or rejection. These detached adults typically presented themselves as strong and independent, but they were in many ways reminiscent of avoidant children, still unable to face the reality of their early disappointments and hurt. The majority of their children showed an avoidant attachment pattern.

The third group, which Main labeled "preoccupied with early attachments," came across as somewhat confused and incoherent about their relational past. During the interview they tended to become flooded with intense negative memories, which brought forth feelings of anger and dependency that they could not easily manage. The childhood struggle with their parents, and their ongoing efforts to please them, seemed palpably present. Their children tended to display an ambivalent attachment pattern.

A fourth group of adults corresponds fairly consistently with the fourth"disorganized" group of children. Adults in the fourth category are typically found to be suffering from unresolved childhood traumas, such as physical abuse or the loss of a parent.

Main has found that her assessment of adults corresponds to the attachment classification of their children 76 percent of the time. Another study has found a match up of 85 percent. The work of Main and her students on the transmission of attachment patterns may bring us closer to understanding the process by which our parents become a part of us. It helps explain why we seem to go through life maddeningly constrained to one of four rolesmother, father, self with mother, self with father in our relationships with others.

Psychoanalysis has a rich body of concepts concerning just this process, and attachment theorists sometimes seem to be reinventing this psychoanalytic wheel. If so, it is a wheel with a difference. For it is one thing to talk about internal structures of the mind especially the mind of an infant, who has few or no words and quite another to investigate them empirically. This difference represents a second aspect of the attachment revolution.

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