Developmental Aspects of Attachments

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Except in highly unusual conditions of neglect or abuse, virtually all infants develop close emotional ties to those who care for them. These initial attachments are as biologically basic as learning to crawl and talk because they have been crucial to the protection, nurturance, and development of infants throughout human evolution (Gould, 1977; Tobach & Schnierla, 1968). Bowlby (1969/1982) placed special emphasis on the role of distress-relief sequences as key interactions for the development of attachments, with attachment behaviors eliciting caregiver proximity and care for a vulnerable, dependent infant.

Attachment theorists believe that these infant-caregiver relationships address two fundamental needs of the infant (see Ainsworth et al., 1978; Cassidy & Shaver, 1999). First, a caregiver's support reduces a young child's fear, distress, or anxiety in novel or challenging situations and enables the child to explore with confidence and to manage negative emotions (Ainsworth, 1967; Emde & Easterbrooks, 1985). This is commonly reflected in secure base behavior, by which an infant maintains reassuring psychological contact with the caregiver (through looks and smiles from a distance and occasionally returning to the adult for affection) while exploring and playing. Second, the caregiver's sensitive and prompt responding to the baby's needs and signals strengthens the child's sense of competence and efficacy, especially for obtaining assistance from others. Attachment relationships begin to develop very early on and become consolidated between 6 and 12 months of age as infants become gradually aware of the psychological qualities of other people, acquire expectations for their behavior, and develop trust in certain caregivers upon whom they rely for this kind of assistance and support (Ainsworth et al., 1978; Colin,

Individual Differences in Attachments

Although virtually all infants become attached to their care-givers, not all attachments exhibit characteristics that attachment theorists define as secure (Ainsworth et al., 1978). Whereas the markers of a secure attachment are the child's confident exploration and secure base behavior in the care-giver's company, as well as ready soothing of distress when the child is upset, infants sometimes develop attachments to caregivers that reflect uncertainty or distrust in the responsiveness of the parent, child-care provider, or other caregiver. Infants with insecure attachments are not so easily soothed by the caregiver, and their exploratory play may be better characterized either by independence or by anxious dependency on the adult (Ainsworth et al., 1978; Colin, 1996; Thompson, 1998). An insecure attachment is not, however, equivalent to no attachment at all. Even a young child who is uncertain about the caregiver's nurturance derives important emotional support from the caregiver's presence that would not be derived from the company of someone to whom the child had no attachment at all. Even so, as we shall see, attachment relationships characterized by insecurity provide young children with a weaker psychological foundation for the growth of sociability, emotion management, and self-understanding than do secure attachments. Insecure attachments do not presage or accompany the development of psychopathology. There is, however, some evidence of an association between one kind of insecure attachment—insecure disorganized attachment—and psychopathology in childhood and adulthood, particularly in the context of high psychosocial risk environments (Dozier, Stovall, & Albus, 1999; Greenberg, 1999; Lyons-Ruth & Jacobvitz, 1999; Sroufe,

1997). Although some of these data are cross-sectional, others are drawn from a handful of longitudinal studies following the development of infants into the childhood or adolescent—and now early adult—years.

Given the importance of secure attachment, what characteristics of care contribute to its creation? Although a child's temperament is influential, the most important determinant of whether an infant develops a secure or insecure attachment is the caregiver's sensitivity to the child's needs and intentions (de Wolf & van IJzendoorn, 1997; Thompson, 1998). Sensitivity can be described as responding promptly and appropriately to the child and being available to help when needed, especially when the child is distressed. The word "appropriately" is key here because the quickest response is not necessarily the most sensitive, particularly beyond early infancy. Appropriate timing of sensitive responsiveness allows older infants opportunities to develop competent self-regulation of emotions and coping strategies. Sensitive responding thus addresses the two fundamental needs of the infant described earlier: It helps to manage the child's distress to permit confident exploration, and it consolidates a young child's sense of efficacy, both in the self and in soliciting the support of others and the expectation of an effective response.

Sensitive care—and its opposite, whether conceptualized as unresponsiveness, uninvolvement, rejection, or psychological unavailability—is influenced by many features of a caregiver's life experiences (Berlin & Cassidy, 1999; George & Solomon, 1999; Isabella, 1995). The amount and nature of social stress and support that an adult experiences; the caregiver's personality and childhood history, including his or her own attachment relationships; competing demands, beliefs, and values; and many other factors can influence the sensitivity shown to a young child at any moment (Bornstein, 1995; Easterbrooks & Graham, 1999; Fonagy, Steele, & Steele, 1991; Holden, 1995). Sensitivity also is undermined by more severe circumstances, such as parental depression or other forms of mental illness (Seifer & Dickstein, 1993). Ababy's temperamental difficulty, developmental delay, or other needs influence how sensitivity is expressed in the relationship with the caregiver (e.g., Brazelton, Koslowski, & Main, 1974) and can also affect the child's perceptions of the adult's responsiveness (Easterbrooks, 1989; Seifer, Schiller, Sameroff, Resnick, & Riordan, 1996; van den Boom, 1989). Thus, the sensitive care leading to secure attachment is affected by the psychobio-logical and familial contexts of infant development discussed earlier, reflecting the view that attachment relationships are the product of an integrated developmental system.

Multiple Attachment Relationships

In typical conditions of contemporary care, infants develop attachments to many caregivers, including mothers and fathers at home, child-care providers, preschool teachers, and sometimes also grandparents and other adults (Berlin &

Cassidy, 1999; Howes, 1999). Infants' attachments with these caregivers can be secure or insecure based on their experience with each person, largely independent of the security of their relationships with the other people who care for them. This means that a child can be insecurely attached to the mother but securely attached to the father or a child-care provider, or the reverse may be true. This has important implications for early socioemotional development because it means that young children are affected by relationships with a variety of caregivers, each of whom provides opportunities to develop the social skills, emotional understanding, and self-confidence that are offered by a secure attachment. Secure relationships with each are optimal, but a secure attachment to one may support healthy psychosocial growth even if relationships with others are insecure. Early socio-emotional development is, in short, affected by a variety of relationships, not just the mother-infant bond, although the mother-infant relationship remains most significant for most children (Easterbrooks & Goldberg, 1990; Main, Kaplan, & Cassidy, 1985; Suess, Grossman, & Sroufe, 1992; NICHD Early Child Care Research Network, 1997).

Issues of Stability and Continuity in Attachments

Relationships are not static. They change and grow in concert with the developing child and the changing social contexts in which the child lives. Parents and the quality of care that they provide also change over time (Holden & Miller, 1999). This means that the security of attachment can change in the early years when changes occur in the caregiver's sensitivity, in family circumstances, or for other reasons (Thompson, 1998). Longitudinal studies have found, for example, that changes in attachment security occur because of common changes in family circumstances such as alterations in child-care arrangements, the birth of a new sibling, or family stress (like marital discord) that causes a reorganization of familiar patterns of interaction with caregivers (Belsky, Campbell, Cohn, & Moore, 1996; Cummings & Davies, 1994; Teti, Sakin, Kucera, Corns, & Das Eiden, 1996; Vaughn, Egeland, Sroufe, & Waters, 1979). A child with an insecure attachment in infancy, therefore, may later have opportunities to develop greater confidence in the same caregiver, and a child who begins with a secure attachment is not safeguarded against the possibility of later insecurity if the caregiving context and quality should change toward in-sensitivity. There is no guarantee that the influence of early attachment security will endure, unless that environmental caregiving support and ensuing security are maintained in the years that follow through the continuing sensitivity of parental care and a supportive developmental context.

Therefore, one of the most important long-term consequences of a secure attachment in infancy is that it inaugurates a positive relationship with a caregiver that heightens the child's receptiveness to the adult and that supports, but does not ensure, continuing parental sensitivity (Kochanska & Thompson, 1997; Waters, Kondo-Ikemura, Posada, & Richters, 1991; Thompson, 1999). If this positive relationship is maintained over time, it contributes to the development of mutual trust and responsiveness between parent and child in which young children are motivated to accept and adopt the parent's instruction, guidance, and values. Such a relationship provides not only a secure base for confident exploration in infancy but also support, in early childhood, for a young child's emerging conscience and sense of moral responsibility, emotional understanding, positive sense of self, and motivation to achieve (Kochanska & Thompson, 1997; Laible & Thompson, 1998, 2000; Thompson, 2000a; Waters et al., 1991). A secure attachment in infancy is important, in short, because it reflects a positive parent-child relationship and inaugurates processes of mutual positive regard that can support healthy socioemotional growth in the years that follow.

A secure attachment in infancy also supports other socioemotional competencies (see Thompson, 1998, 1999, for reviews). Longitudinal studies report that children with secure attachments to parents (typically mothers) develop more positive, supportive relationships with teachers, friends, camp counselors, and others whom they come to know well. Their positive social skills and friendly approach to those with whom they develop new relationships seem to evoke closer friendships with others. There is also evidence that securely attached infants have stronger social skills in their initial encounters with unfamiliar adults, perhaps because they generalize the positive sociability that they acquire in their relationships with caregivers.

Attachment relationships are important also because of how they influence young children's emergent understandings of who they are and of what other people are like. Secure or insecure attachments are associated with a child's developing conceptions of self, others, and relationships that constitute some of their earliest representations (or, in the parlance of attachment theory, internal working models) of the social world (Bretherton & Munholland, 1999; Thompson, 2000a). Securely attached infants have been found, for example, to have a more complex and sophisticated understanding of themselves and their mothers compared to insecurely attached infants (Pipp, Easterbrooks, & Brown, 1993; Pipp, Easterbrooks, & Harmon, 1992; Pipp-Siegel, Easterbrooks, Brown, & Harmon, 1995; SchneiderRosen & Cicchetti, 1984).

In early childhood, when representations of self and the social world begin to develop more fully, the influence of secure attachments on the "self" becomes more apparent (Thompson, 2000a). Securely attached young children have been found to have positive views of the self (Cassidy, 1988; Verschueren & Marcoen, 1999),a more easily-accessed or balanced self-concept (Cassidy, 1988; Easterbrooks & Abeles, 2000), a more sophisticated grasp of emotion (Laible & Thompson, 1998), more positive understandings of friendship (Cassidy, Kirsh, Scolton, & Parke, 1996; Kerns, 1996), and more advanced conscience development (Kochanska & Thompson, 1997; Laible & Thompson, 2000) compared with insecurely attached young children (see review by Thompson, 1999). Attachment theorists argue that this arises not only because of the continuing influences of sensitive parental care, but also because attachment security provides important lessons about what people, including the self, are like in close relationships, including how rewarding or painful they might be. Positive notions lend confidence in the self and guide young children's understanding and expectations in their encounters with new relational partners (Sroufe & Fleeson, 1986).


The body of research just summarized adds credence to traditional views, expressed in Freud's famous maxim, that the mother-infant relationship has enduring effects on early psychosocial development. Especially when the sensitivity that initially led to a secure attachment is maintained into early childhood, attachment security contributes to the growth of a positive orientation toward others, emotional and moral awareness, and self-understanding that are crucial aspects of healthy psychological development. However, the dynamic changes that can occur in the quality of caregiving, and thus attachment security, remind us also that the effects of early attachment are provisional, that is, contingent on the enduring quality of these relationships in the years to come. Moreover, early attachment does not solely determine the course of later socioemotional growth and is only one of the complex influences on early psychological development (Sroufe, Carlson, Levy, & Egeland, 1999; Sroufe, Egeland, & Kreutzer, 1990).

This means that in understanding the course of early development, it is important to take a developmental contextualist view (Lerner, 2002; Lerner & Kaufmann, 1985) and to consider, along with the security of attachment, the influences of a child's temperamental attributes, biological characteristics, intellectual capabilities, the parent's stresses and supports, the marital relationship, the demands or opportunities associated with socioeconomic status, and other influences on early socioemotional growth (Belsky, 1981; Easterbrooks, Davidson, & Chazan, 1993; Lyons-Ruth, Easterbrooks, & Cibelli, 1997). Security of attachment is important for its direct influences on early socioemotional development, but it is also important as it buffers (or heightens) the impact of risk factors that can undermine healthy psychosocial growth, and enhances (or undercuts) the benefits of other supports that exist in the child's world.


As attachment theorists have shown, and as developmental scientists concerned with cognitive development also have recognized, early relationships are important for the growth of social representation. From their experiences in close attachment relationships and interactions with others, infants acquire a sense of who they are, what people are like, and the qualities of close relationships in the form of internal working models that encompass provisional understandings of the self and social world. These rudimentary representations are continuously revised in the years after infancy with advances in conceptual understanding and experience in new and different relationships. As infancy evolves into toddlerhood and early childhood, a young child's working models of self and relationships change significantly as parent-child relationships become forums of mutual understanding and disagreement and as the child develops more complex forms of psychological self- and other-awareness.

The Role of Conflict in Relationships

Although the emphasis of attachment theory is on the development of warm, nurturant relationships with parents and other caregivers, we have already noted that conflict and its resolution are also part of these early relationships. In fact, even securely attached dyads experience affective errors or mismatches in emotional communication (Lyons-Ruth et al., 1999); the repair of these missed communications is key to successful emotion regulation and secure attachments. From the dyssynchrony experienced in early face-to-face play to the testing of wills evoked by the toddler's independent locomotion, parent-child differences in behavior, goals, intentions, and expectations provide some of the most important early catalysts to the young child's growing awareness of the subjectivity inherent in interpersonal relationships. Nothing focuses a young child's attention on what others are thinking, feeling, and expecting better than the realization that disagreement with that person must be resolved. As a consequence, conflict as well as security in early relationships helps to shape emergent representations of self, others, and relationships. Conflict, then, may be development enhancing (Turiel, 1978, 1997).

The second and third years of life are marked by significant changes in parent-child relationships. Young children are developing the cognitive skills to understand parental expectations and apply them to their own behavior, and they are becoming increasingly capable of regulating their own actions according to internalized standards of conduct (Kopp, 1982; Kopp & Wyer, 1994). At the same time, parents "up the ante" in their expectations for the behavior of offspring to incorporate consideration for others, basic skills at self-care, safety concerns, and compliance with family routines and manners (Campos et al., 2000; Erikson, 1950; Gralinski & Kopp, 1993). The strategies used by parents to elicit compliance also change to build on the young child's maturing capacities for self-control, and they begin to make greater use of explanations, bargaining, indirect guidance, and other nonassertive strategies (Belsky, Woodworth, & Crnic, 1996; Crockenberg & Litman, 1990; Kuczynski, Kochanska, Radke-Yarrow, & Girnius-Brown, 1987). In response, young offspring cooperate but also assert their own independent judgment by refusing before they comply and by negotiating, compromising, and displaying other indicators of self-assertion (Kuczynski & Kochanska, 1990; Kuczynski et al., 1987; Vaughn, Kopp, & Krakow, 1984). As a consequence, parent-child interaction in the toddler period is a psychologically more complex process of mutual understanding than it was in early infancy. This affords young children frequent opportunities to expand and elaborate their understandings of self and social relationships because of their experience of shared and conflicting intentions, feelings, and beliefs in their interactions with caregivers.

Developments in Self and Social Understanding

These changes in parent-child interaction arise because of the growth of psychological self-awareness in the second and third years. Self-understanding grows rapidly in infancy and early childhood (Stern, 1985, 1995). Early in infancy, a rudimentary subjective self-awareness emerges from the infant's experience of the self as a causal agent in social interaction and a volitional agent in play, especially when accompanied by the strong emotions that are often experienced in these situations. Somewhat later in the first year, as noted earlier, a new form of self-awareness arises as infants become aware of subjective states in others that can be accessed and altered, contributing to the realization that differences exist between another's feelings and intentions and one's own.

By the middle of the second year, another form of self-awareness develops with the growth of physical self-recognition. Toddlers who catch sight of their mirror images after a spot of rouge has been surreptitiously applied to their noses begin to respond with self-referential behavior (e.g., touching their noses) and other self-conscious acts (e.g., smiling, looking away) that indicate that they recognize the mirror image to be themselves (Lewis, 1993). By the end of the second year and during the third year, young children become more psychologically self-aware. They begin to use their names and personal pronouns more frequently, describe themselves and their experiences to others, and assert their competence, independence, and responsibility as autonomous agents by insisting on "doing it myself" (Bullock & Lutkenhaus, 1990; Heckhausen, 1988; Stipek, Gralinski, & Kopp, 1990). This emergent psychological self-awareness also contributes to the defiance and obstinacy that can occur with parents (leading to the charming description of this period as the "terrible twos"); but beneath a young child's assertion of self-will is a newly discovered self-conscious sense inspiring reflection and requiring expression and respect from others.

Because of these changes in the parent-child relationship and the child's psychological self-awareness, the end of infancy and the beginning of early childhood also witness rapid advances in social awareness. The initial, provisional working models of infancy change considerably as the young child acquires growing insight into the feelings, intentions, and (at a somewhat later age) thoughts of other people and into the nature of human relationships. The child's developing sensitivity to the violation of behavioral standards and emerging capacities for self-control, for example, together with the incentives to cooperate with the parent that arise from a secure attachment relationship, provide the foundations for conscience development in early childhood as young children adopt and comply with the expectations of parents (Dunn, 1987; Emde et al., 1987; Kochanska & Thompson, 1997). The emotional repertoire of infancy expands considerably to include self-referential emotions like pride, guilt, shame, and embarrassment that reflect the young child's growing awareness of and sensitivity to the evaluations of others (Lewis, 1993; Tangney & Fischer, 1995). And with a developing understanding of the mental states of others, young children begin to enlist this understanding in more competent social interaction, whether this consists of negotiating with parents, teasing a sibling, or achieving personally meaningful goals (e.g., having dessert after dinner).

Conclusions: Applications To Policy and Practice and Imperatives For A Research Agenda 105


The close of infancy and the beginning of early childhood brings, therefore, remarkable advances in psychological growth that arise, in part, from the flourishing representational capacities of the second and third years of life. As a consequence, young children perceive themselves and regard others much differently and become capable of understanding relationships and interacting with others in ways that take into account the perspectives, emotions, and intentions of other people. Throughout this period, a young child's close relationships with caregivers remain central to the growth of these representational working models through the warmth and sensitivity of adult care. When caregivers focus a young child's attention on the human consequences of misbehavior, exuberantly applaud a child's accomplishments, help a young child understand a sibling's actions, or talk about the child's own emotions, they contribute to the growth and refinement of a young child's early representations of who they are, what other people like, and how relationships are negotiated. These relational catalysts to social and emotional understanding begin to be influential at the same time that children's representational abilities unfold (Thompson, 1998, 2000a), providing a reminder that although caregiving relationships change significantly from infancy to early childhood, the sensitivity of care—expressed in age-appropriate ways— remains important throughout.


During the past decade or so, we have witnessed an explosion of interest in infancy, within the scientific and popular milieu. Technological advances in understanding the development and functioning of the infant brain have gone hand in hand with public engagement campaigns highlighting the importance of the early years of life for social and emotional, as well as cognitive, development. Very early child development has enjoyed currency in major media outlets and among politicians and entertainers. The market is filled with infant products (T-shirts, toys, videos, music) extolling the amazing skills of infants and is aimed at making babies "more stimulated," "smarter," or "better attached." Researchers and academics now must ask the "so what?" question (Brady, Jacobs, & Lerner, 2002) and consider how best to translate advances in the scientific knowledge base about early social and emotional development into policies and practices that promote positive development (e.g., secure attachments, curiosity, self-confidence, cooperation, conflict resolution).

Although most researchers do not operate acontextually, it is important to bring these issues of dissemination, policy, and practice to the forefront, rather than the recesses, of scientific investigation (Brady et al., 2002; Shonkoff & Phillips, 2000). Thus far, the potential benefits of developmental science have yet to be realized. The reasons are complex, including (a) traditional academic or university structures that do not facilitate dissemination of applied work, (b) the natural tendency of academe toward scientific conservatism based on standards of scientific rigor, and (c) the occasional suspicion of academe by some policy makers and practitioners (Lerner, Fisher, & Weinberg, 2000). Efforts to bridge the divide between research and application may be enhanced by embracing broader definitions of the scientific enterprise, scientific rigor, and the surrounding context of scholarly and public policy endeavors (East-erbrooks, Jacobs, Brady, & Mistry, 2001; Thompson & Nelson, 2001).

The publication of From Neurons to Neighborhoods: The Science of Early Childhood Development (Shonkoff & Phillips, 2000) by the Committee on Integrating the Science of Early Childhood Development presents a compelling mandate for policy-makers, employers, and individuals to consider what we know to be the fundamental needs of infants and whether our social policies and practices facilitate positive infant social and emotional development for all infants. Several key questions accompany this directive, including those of the roles of culture and individual differences in biological predispositions and environmental context in shaping individual development.

The bulk of our scientific knowledge in infant social and emotional development is drawn from Western samples (primarily North American) that are not representative of diversity in race or ethnicity, family structure, or economic context. In fact, some have assumed that all infants are the same, echoing a bias that "babies are just babies," not really conscious beings until the onset of language. Although all cultures have traditions that promote competence, in a heterogeneous society it is sometimes difficult to distinguish individual differences in typical social and emotional development from deviations requiring concern and intervention. How does an early intervention home visitor, for example, distinguish culture-bound caution and shy behavior from potentially problematic emotional inhibition? In addition, to what extent can particular individual, relational, or contextual strengths compensate for particular vulnerabilities or risks, particularly in the frequent context of double jeopardy (Parker, Greer, & Zuckerman, 1988) or multiple risks? The fact that we do not have immediate answers to many of the most pressing questions in early social and emotional development does not mitigate the responsibility to use the extant knowledge to ensure the best start for all infants.

The application of scientific research in infant social and emotional development spans disciplinary boundaries (e.g., interdisciplinary or transdisciplinary team approaches to early intervention). Earlier in this chapter we discussed recent significant developments in the knowledge base about infant socioemotional functioning that have emerged from neuroscience. This work in neuroscience crosses traditional notions of disciplinarity but is easily embedded in a developmental framework that includes social relationships. This research calls into question both the limits of developmental plasticity as well as deterministic views of early brain development. Future work needs to map this knowledge of early development onto the actual social ecology of infancy that considers not only the primary caregiving relationship but also the broader social networks and contexts in which infants develop.

Our understanding of the growth of social and emotional capacities in infancy highlights that although infancy is a period of origins, developmental processes early in life are complex and multifaceted. Nature and nurture are in dynamic interplay throughout infancy as caregivers respond to the psychobiological individuality of offspring but also alter temperamental qualities through the quality of care. Early influences can have an enduring effect on young children, but change is also evident. Continuity in early adaptation is apparent primarily when the developmental context is maintained as the child grows so that early influences are actually continuing ones that impact on psychosocial growth. The dispositions, understanding, and relationships of the first two years are important not because they may inaugurate unchanging developmental pathways, but because they provide a foundation for the emergence of new representational capacities and relational capacities in the years that follow. These underpinnings ideally set the stage for the transitions of early childhood to be approached with security, curiosity, and confidence in the self and in relationships.

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