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 repeatedly 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 clinginess, 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 six-year-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 roles—mother, 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.
The Temperament Debate
To many young developmentalists and to others who have heard about attachment principles through popular authors, one of the attractions of the material has been how commonsensical it is. It seems only right that our earliest relationships become a part of us, and that something like an internal working model accounts for the types of relationships we develop later in life.
“It's intuitively pleasing, that's what's getting in the way,” says Jerome Kagan, one of Ainsworth's most consistent antagonists. “Because it makes intuitive sense, people are assuming it's right. But most of the time intuition is wrong. I mean, intuitively the sun goes around the earth, right? Intuitively the earth is flat, right? Why is psychology the least advanced science? Because our intuitions aren't very good.”
Kagan, an influential psychologist at Harvard University who eschews ideological labels (“I'm part of the reasonable school”), is the author of The Nature of the Child, which casts a critical eye on such popular assumptions as “a mother's love for her infant is necessary for the child's future mental health” or “the events of infancy seriously influence the future mood and behavior of the adolescent.” His position on attachment is complicated, because he attacks it from several directions, and his objections are not always compatible, though he argues them all with great verve and authority.
Kagan first of all believes that too much attention is paid to early experience. Children, he argues, even after suffering extreme loss, are far more resilient than we tend to think. He cites studies of teenagers who experienced deprivation when very young and rebounded handsomely in adolescence.
According to Kagan, the commotion about attachment is mainly a sign of contemporary mores. “In the forties and fifties the children now called securely attached were called overprotected, and that was a bad thing. My view is, if you're attached, you are motivated to adopt the values of your parents. If your parent values autonomy, you'll be autonomous; if your parent values dependency, you'll be dependent. Because most American parents in this historical moment value autonomy, their attached children are autonomous.”
Kagan argues that some of the children whom Ainsworth has labeled securely attached become upset when left alone in the Strange Situation not because they're securely attached but because they're unable to deal with uncertainty. They've been trained for dependency, and are showing the ill effects of this training.
Similarly, Kagan believes that many children who have been classified as avoidant in the Strange Situation have simply been trained to control their fearful responses. They learn such control not because they've been ill-treated but because control is something their parents value. He further charges that attachment theorists have placed too much emphasis on security—that is something they value—and are not attentive enough to the advantages that our society confers on those able to handle adversity. Thus a parent rated as insensitive on Ainsworth's scales might actually be giving a child superior training for the modern world.
Needless to say, such interpretations challenge the very core of attachment theory—that consistent availability and warmth yields autonomous children. They also run counter to many of Sroufe's empirical findings. A researcher who investigates inborn temperament, Kagan in any case plays down the long term impact of parenting, for he strongly believes that genes contribute to much of what we become. He cites studies that indicate that children who are assessed as irritable shortly after birth are likely to be classified as anxious a year later. He insists that many children classified as avoidant appear indifferent to their mothers' comings and goings not because they've given up hope of getting anything from their mothers but because they are better able to handle stress. Compared with their counterparts who have been labeled secure or ambivalent (with equal injustice, according to Kagan), the so called avoidant children are simply constitutionally less fearful. He remains unmoved by Minnesota studies showing that the heart rate of an avoidant child goes way up when the mother leaves the room and way up again when she returns, even as the child's behavior remains calm, data that seem to suggest that the avoidant child is indeed angrily estranged. Kagan argues that heart rate acceleration in such situations may be a function of temperament and says he has unpublished data suggesting just that.
Other developmentalists similarly favor a genetic approach, and in recent years an eruption of new research—much of it on identical twins who have been raised separately—seems to have convincingly established that a great many of what we think of as personality traits are inherited. There seems to be a genetic predisposition toward shyness or sociability, toward thrill-seeking or placidity, toward easygoingness or irritability. But whether you trust others or not, whether you anticipate love or rejection, whether you feel good about yourself as a person—are these things inherited? No, Ainsworth says. These are not inherited traits, they are learned; and although subject to change, they are initially determined by the sensitivity and reliability of the care you received in your first years. Although Sroufe goes so far as to contest that any baby is inherently difficult, some attachment theorists will now acknowledge that at the extreme fringes of temperament, which are what Kagan tends to study, anxious attachment may indeed have some genetic basis. But generally they believe it is far more likely that temperament alters the style of a secure or insecure pattern, not the pattern itself.
In a study by Jay Belsky, mothers' evaluations of their infants' temperament at three months and nine months bore no correlation to the infants' attachment patterns at twelve months. Sroufe, in another study, identified new mothers who were depressed and unresponsive, and evaluated their babies. “We could show—really clearly—deterioration in those kids. They looked pretty good at three months, but at six months they didn't look so good. About half of them were anxiously attached at twelve months, and all of them were at eighteen months. We're talking a serious downhill slide. What are you going to say? The baby was born a downhill slider?”
One of the charged issues tucked into the temperament debate is the blaming and defending of mothers. Attachment theorists are careful to point out that attachment isn't everything—an insensitive caregiver is not the only road to psychopathology. Nevertheless, the emphasis placed on attachment classifications, and the assumption that those classifications reflect maternal sensitivity exclusively, can give the impression that all psychiatric sorrows emanate from bad mothering. At this point in its evolution attachment theory does not seem to account adequately for the poor mother-infant fit; the mother who has a hard time relating to the infant but does come alive to the toddler; or the baby who, because he is extremely irritable or aggressive, because he is not as smiley and responsive as some, or because he is constitutionally unable to take much pleasure in the attachment relationship, may require an unusual degree of sensitivity and patience. A mother who might be fine with the average baby may not have the emotional wherewithal to handle a baby closer to the temperamental fringe. Studies of mothers with children in more than one attachment category seem to support this idea in certain cases. The mother's difficulty with a particular child may also owe much to her life circumstances, such as receiving inadequate emotional support from either her husband or society as a whole. And it may be complicated by unnecessary self blame. In all such cases, attributing anxious attachment simply to maternal insensitivity would be both unscientific and unfair.
Stephen Suomi, Harlow's successor at the University of Wisconsin, now at the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, has been working on the interaction between temperament and attachment in rhesus monkeys (he's actually done modified Strange Situations on them). Suomi has found that heredity seems to determine whether a rhesus monkey will be socially forward or retiring, and that excessive timidity in and of itself can lead to problems in relationships. But these are only tendencies, he says. A nurturant mother—in some cases it may have to be an exceptionally nurturant mother—can erase temperamental deficits.
Some of the temperament findings are being slowly absorbed into attachment thinking. But genetic determinism continues to irk Ainsworth. “Those who claim that it's all in the genes say that the way the baby is handled in the first years of life doesn't really matter a damn. That's a trend I deplore. You just have to observe abusing mothers with their children over time, as my friend Pat Crittenden does, and you'll see—it sure has an effect. It doesn't necessarily mean the child is going to abuse his own children, although a lot of them do, but it certainly makes it very difficult for them to have normal, satisfactory interpersonal relationships.”
Even at this level the temperament debate may never be completely settled. For it can always be said, no matter how abysmal the mother's parenting style or how dysfunctional the child, that a miserable mother has simply passed on her miserable genes. And as Ainsworth says, “There's no way of winning that argument.” At the current stage of research a lot depends on whose statistics and judgment you trust and what makes the most sense. A lot also depends on how much faith you have in Ainsworth's seminal study of a quarter century ago.
Ainsworth's study was not unimpeachable. As her former student Michael Lamb, now the chief of the Section on Social and Emotional Development at the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, pointed out in a controversial 1984 critique, Ainsworth was not able to get perfect reliability checks on all observers in the home situations (were they definitely measuring the same thing?). No videotapes were available for review. Also, except for research in Germany by Klaus and Karin Grossmann, Ainsworth's study has rarely been replicated, which is quite surprising when one considers the skyscraper of research and theoretical conclusions that is balancing on this small base. In every study that begins by assessing infants in a Strange Situation at twelve or eighteen months and continues to evaluate those children for years afterward, assumptions are being made about the style of the parenting each child has received, and conclusions are being drawn about the effect that style has had on every aspect of the child's life. But the parenting itself is almost never assessed. It is only inferred from the infant's Strange Situation classification. That inference is possible mainly because of Ainsworth's twenty-three Baltimore families. If her study is flawed and the correlations it demonstrated are open to question, the whole attachment edifice begins to wobble.
Ainsworth is not insensitive to this and would like to see more replications. But longitudinal studies of that magnitude take time, money, and immense effort. Young workers prefer breaking new ground to tilling the old. Although Ainsworth believes that much has been established in partial replication, the question lingers.
Attachment and Modern Living
Meanwhile, the field has been transformed. In the past twenty years infants and mothers have been observed as never before, with some researchers using film and doing frame-by-frame analyses. Such work has tended both to bolster and to spread attachment ideas, partly because it has demonstrated a level of attunement and communication between mother and infant that was not perceived before.
The groundbreaking work of the psychoanalyst Margaret Mahler on the process of separation and individuation in infancy has also stimulated new thinking about the early bond. Like Ainsworth, Mahler made pioneering observations of mothers and children, but, probably because she was more wise observer than true scientist—neither employing a rigorous methodology nor generating testable hypotheses—her impact has been more limited. Very influential in psychoanalysis, which has always relied on informed speculation, her concepts have made few inroads in developmental psychology, which favors scientifically testable assumptions.
The Strange Situation, in contrast, has proved to be the great enabler of further studies—indeed, the most widely employed assessment tool of its kind. Today attachment research is, to use Ainsworth's word, “zooming,” each month, it seems, bringing fresh evidence of the importance of quality of attachment in our lives. Both research psychologists (who work in academia) and clinicians (the social workers, psychologists, and psychiatrists who treat patients) are drawn to the theory because attachment does something that is rare in psychology: it combines the pleasures of testable hypotheses with the prospect of changing the world.
“I really do think that this work has great relevance to the well-being and happiness of mankind,” Ainsworth says. “It sounds corny, and I don't go around shouting it from the rooftops, but that's what's behind the whole thing as far as I'm concerned.”
There is something simple and life affirming in the attachment message—that the only thing your child needs in order to thrive emotionally is your emotional availability and responsiveness. You don't need to be rich or smart or talented or funny; you just have to be there, in both senses of the phrase. To your child, none of the rest matters, except inasmuch as it enables you to give of yourself. What's more, you don't have to be an outstanding mother, just—in Winnicott's famous phrase—a “good enough” mother.
The pressures on people to think otherwise, however, are relentless, especially in an urban environment where whether you get your child into the right nursery school can seem more critical than how he experiences your love. The “superbaby” phenomenon, which encourages parents to believe that what kids really need is to have their IQs juiced up with a rigorous program of infant stimulation, is emblematic of those pressures.
“I don't think it's healthy,” Ainsworth says, “to be at the child too much, to have him taste this, and smell that, and feel this, trying to enrich all aspects of his life. It's too much, it's intrusive. The normal kind of interaction that takes place in the course of routines, where there is some conversation and smiling back and forth and perhaps a little play, or in periods that are consciously devoted to play—I think that is what the infant needs in the way of stimulation. That doesn't mean the child's interest in other things shouldn't be encouraged, but he'll have that interest if he just has a chance to explore. Stimulation is something you do to somebody else. It's experience the child needs.”
Where Ainsworth's message has been heard, it has helped to refocus child-rearing debates away from arguments over specific techniques and toward the more comprehensive issue of sensitivity. Questions like whether to breast feed or bottle feed or at what age to introduce solid foods, though still important, no longer carry the same urgency. Attachment theory suggests that babies thrive emotionally because of the overall quality of the care they've experienced, not because of specific techniques. A bottle-fed baby whose mother is sensitively attuned will do better than a breast fed baby whose mother is mechanical and distant.
Ainsworth has been accused by some feminists of being out of touch with what they see as current life styles, because she is skeptical about the viability of working motherhood. But she contends that it's the children who are out of touch, by perhaps millions of years, for that is when our evolutionary adaptations were forming—including adaptations that may have made proximity to the primary caregiver a cornerstone of secure development. “It's very hard to become a sensitively responsive mother if you're away from your child ten hours a day,” she says. “It really is.”
But unlike Bowlby, who strongly believes in full time caregiving, who contends that women are best equipped biologically to play this role, and who would like to see a campaign equivalent to the Attorney General's crusade against smoking to convince parents that day care is bad for their babies, Ainsworth admits the possibility that supplemental mothering could be arranged without harm to the child. “From the point of view of the child's general welfare, the mother should be pretty consistently available. That doesn't mean she has to be there every moment, can never go out, never have anybody else look after the child, or anything like that. But fairly consistently available. Women's lib people have been finding it comfortable to assume that it doesn't matter what you do and that a woman owes it to herself to work and do what fulfills her. People who focus primarily on the welfare of children tend to ignore what suits the mother. But it's really a matter of how do we adjust these two things. Had I myself had the children I longed for, I like to believe I could have arrived at some satisfactory combination of mothering and a career, but I do not believe that there is any universal, easy, ready made solution.”
As for currently available day care, the research itself is still in its infancy, and Ainsworth prefers not to comment. We don't know how the quality of day care affects attachment outcomes, how many kids are really at risk, how the risk differs at different ages, or whether (to state the case at its most extreme) a mother who stays home bored and resentful is better than one who comes home happy and fulfilled.
Important, too, are the larger societal trends of which day care is only a part. Ainsworth sees the pressures and penchants of modern life pushing us toward anxious attachment, with the unhappy consequences of psychological distress, discordant relationships, and weakening social ties. “People used to have more leisure, more time for fun, for sociability. Now everybody's too busy to be sociable. It's sad.”
Economic and social conditions in many Western countries tend to force both parents to work, to penalize those who put their careers on hold for several years, and to give little support to parents, working or not. Traditional societies, as Bowlby stresses, often enjoyed an abundance of secondary attachment figures. Families were stationary, interdependent, and surrounded by relatives, from grandmothers to adolescent aunts, who all pitched in with baby care. While this way of life may be irrevocably lost, compensations could be developed. We could make it easier for mothers and fathers to take time off from work for infant care, train teachers to deal constructively with anxious attachment styles, put additional adults in classrooms to allow for the supplemental connections that seem to benefit kids who are anxiously attached to their mothers, and provide greater support to families. Needless to say, we are ages away from making such commitments.
“You have to think decades,” says Bowlby, who sees the struggle for a more child centered society as requiring a huge scientific and civic campaign akin to the one that abolished polio. “We now have ample evidence that certain types of experience in childhood are risk factors. Plainly there is every reason to abolish those risk factors if we can.”
If Bowlby has not yet won a consensus on this point, he has at least had the satisfaction of seeing many of his once heretical views widely accepted. His is now an indisputably major name in the field, and in the past few years he has received the honors and accolades accorded to significant innovators. In private conversations even some former detractors have come around. “Fortunately,” he says dryly, “I come from a long-lived family.”
He was fortunate, too, to find a partner who was able to put some of the central features of his theory to the test and then mobilize much of developmental psychology to follow in her footsteps. He looks back now on his four decades of collaboration with Ainsworth with pleasure, gratitude, and perhaps a touch of guilt about her long comparative obscurity.
Despite her own prominence with many who barely know Bowlby's work, to Ainsworth he remains the senior partner. That they have not been riven by the jealousies and competitiveness that have destroyed so many other scientific enterprises may have something to do with her supportive femininity, a trait that men like Bowlby thrive on. “I think that women on the whole are much readier to take the lead from a male mentor than the other way around,” she says.
To her students, Ainsworth remains a formidable and dominating presence, capable of a no nonsense approach to the work and hardly self-effacing in her views. But the relationship with Bowlby suggests a more self-doubting side. “I was pretty insecure as a child, and I suppose I never really let it go,” Ainsworth says. “If a paper was turned back with a severe criticism or a grant proposal was turned down as having no value, I would immediately think, well, maybe I'm just no good; maybe there isn't anything at all to this thing I value so much.” It seems fitting that Bowlby, who appears blissfully unfamiliar with the experience of self doubt, did the grand synthesis, while Ainsworth was the one to clarify the origins of the more commonplace insecurities that haunt us.
That she is entering the spotlight now—with major awards and guest lectureships—both pleases and embarrasses her. Unlike Bowlby, who holds the light as if he were born to it, she doesn't seem at home. “It sounds corny and modest,” she says with a touch of urgency, “but it's the ideas I've been so enthusiastic about and so eager to put forward, not myself. You ask whether it took a lot of patience to do those longitudinal studies. Well, yeah, it takes patience; I don't think there are any useful shortcuts. But it never felt that way to me, because I find the firsthand details so awfully interesting. The data collections for those longitudinal studies were among the most interesting things I've ever been into in my life.”