Updated: Apr 13, 2021
Attachment is a description of the emotional bond between a child and their parent. Infants require attention, comfort, support and security and the way in which a parent reacts to these needs affects the quality of the attachment formed. Infants who are securely attached learn to trust in the fact that others will take care of them. John Bowlby’s research found that the attachment an infant forms with their primary carer, usually the mother but not always, is the most significant in their life. A secure attachment affects children developmentally and socially. Children with a secure attachment are more likely to play well with other children their own age but not only this; it may also influence the quality of their future relationships with partners. If children have been able to develop a secure relationship with their parent then they will be more likely to react calmly in situations of stress and will find themselves able to explore new environments without fear by using their attached adult as a safe base. These children are also more likely to display more socially acceptable behaviour such as cooperation and empathy.
Children are more likely to form an insecure attachment if their experiences with their caregiver are negative or unpredictable. An insecure attachment teaches children that adults are unreliable and should not necessarily be trusted. This can result in avoidance of other people, refusing to interact with others or wishing to be entirely independent in everything and, as much as possible, they may even wish to care for themselves. Insecurely attached children may more commonly show anti-social and violent behaviours, which may cause them to have difficulty forming friendships and playing with other children. They may also find it hard to temper their emotions becoming excessively angry, anxious or frightened or exaggerating feelings of distress. Children who are insecurely attached are unlikely to be bothered when their parents leave them and in turn will show little interest on their return.
Failure to form any childhood attachment may cause issues for a person throughout their life. A child may fail to form an attachment if raised in an institution without stimulation or the regular attention of an adult or if they are locked away under conditions of abuse or extreme neglect. This can result in the child becoming completely withdrawn, easily frightened and even mute. It can also affect their ability to form relationships later in life. This also applied to the monkeys that Harlow used in his research; the monkey’s that were reared in complete isolation without even an artificial mother grew up to be very frightened or had tendencies to lash out aggressively to other monkeys. They were also incapable of mating as adults and if they were to become mothers they were unable to care for their babies and were even abusive toward them.
Disorganised attachment can occur when although a child needs to rely on their parent for care i.e. food, clothing and shelter, they are also afraid of their parent. When a child feels both comforted and frightened by their carer this can cause them serious confusion. This can occur due to a number of reasons, in particular abuse; psychological abuse i.e. over criticism, rejection, inconsistency or insults, physical or sexual abuse. It could be emotional neglect meaning there could be little or no physical contact, no affection and no bond. Also a child’s sense of security may be threatened even if there is no direct abuse to them for example if there is severe marital conflict or domestic violence between mother and father or a parents addiction to alcohol or drugs.
With other attachment styles children are able learn the ways in which they can get what they need from their parent and they learn how their parent is most likely to react in different situations. However a child who has a disorganised attachment does not have this security. Characteristics of these children are that they may do things that seem to make little or no sense, they may speak very fast and be hard to understand, they may be unpredictable and seem different from one day to the next. They may have trouble regulating their emotions or show emotions that are out of proportion to the event; they may also have difficulty understanding other children’s emotions.
One of the most important factors when recognising and responding to a child with attachment issues is to understand how that child is feeling. While educators are unlikely to be able to replace an insecure attachment with the primary care-giver it can offer a secure safe base. School can also be a place where children can make attachments with their key workers and begin to form trust in adults.
If teachers are able to behave in ways that disconfirm the insecure child’s ideas of what an adult will behave like, then a secure relationship can develop between teacher and child. A caring teacher has to work hard to change a child’s expectation that all adults will be hostile, rejecting, or unresponsive. If an insecurely attached child is able to form a relationship with their teacher then they will be more likely to better perform socially, emotionally and academically. Being attachment aware and supporting children in class will be beneficial to all members of the class.