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Childs relationships based on attachment to mother

Childs Relationships Based on Attachment to Mother

"A child's future relationships are almost entirely determined by the quality of attachment to the mother." Discuss, referring to relevant empirical evidence.

The primal importance of a child's bond to its mother has always been recognised, and is a topic that has fascinated people for thousands of years. Playwrights from Sophocles to the modern day have explored this, and in more recent times psychologists have devoted much research and conjecture to understanding it. Among psychologists, there is much debate about exactly how important this attachment is, and why.

At the turn of the century, the treatment of new-born babies was regarded as having little significance for later life, as babies were thought to be immune to influence. This idea, like many others prevalent at that time, was attacked by Sigmund Freud. He believed (see Freud, 1933 for a synopsis, but this theory was put forward considerably earlier) that the relationship a child has with its mother is a prototype on which all future relationships are based.

Freud's theory held that the child becomes attached to its mother because she is its source of food, hence she gratifies its most basic needs. Slightly later in childhood, the drive for food is supplemented by another basic drive - the need for sexual pleasure. According to Freud's theory, the mother, who is already an object of love because of her role in satisfying the first need, becomes an object of desire with whom the child wants to gratify its sexual desire (this is with reference to boys - an equivalent mechanism was proposed for girls, but much criticised, and Freud eventually admitted to not understanding female sexuality). In the normal course of growing up, the child comes to accept that this can not be, and sets out to become an adult, and find another figure with whom to satisfy this need. It follows that if future relationships are a substitute for the mother-child bond, then they will also be modelled on it.

Many people have questioned this cynical view of infants, including John Bowlby (1969, 1973). He disregarded what he called Freud's "cupboard love" theory of attachment, believing instead that a child is born biologically pre-disposed to become attached to its mother for two important reasons. These are the need for comfort, and the fear of the unknown, both of which are characteristics that can be observed in all children. Thus the bond with the mother is formed for less crass reasons than simply that she is the provider of sustenance.

Bowlby's conjecture has been supported experimentally by Harlow (1958). He studied rhesus monkeys, one of the primate species most closely related to humans. In his study, new-born monkeys were raised without their mothers, instead of which they were provided with two 'mother substitutes'. One was a wire 'mother' equipped with a nipple that provided food, whereas the other was a 'mother doll' made of terry-cloth. While the monkeys soon learned which was the source of food, and went to the "wire mother" to feed, they became attached to the "cloth mother," which was their source of comfort when frightened. This shows that infants need their mother for something other than food, and this comfort can only be provided by an appropriate figure - the cloth mother is a better substitute because it more closely resembles the monkeys' real mothers.

Though he disputed Freud’s explanation of the child’s love for its mother, Bowlby agreed that the attachment a child forms to its mother is crucially important for the rest of its life. That a primary attachment is important is generally accepted, but the contention that it must necessarily be with the child’s mother has also been debated. In the late 20th Century, more and more mothers are having to work while their children are still very young, and yet this social change does not seem to be creating a mentally unhealthy generation. Clarke-Stewart (1989) studied children who had "had extensive non-maternal care" during the first year of their lives, and did not find evidence of this having harmed them. These children had formed attachments, but not necessarily to their mothers, and this arrangement seems to be adequate.

Having seen that the formation of a primary attachment is important, the next issue is how this attachment is formed. One approach is that babies are born Ôprogrammed’ to form an attachment to something, which under normal circumstances is the mother. An equivalent process in animals was studied by Konrad Lorenz (reported in Hess, 1959).

Lorenz studied baby birds, and found that a newly hatched chick instinctively follows the first moving object it sees as soon as it can walk. If it has the chance to follow this object for about 10 minutes, it develops a strong attachment to it, and is distressed if they become separated. In nature, this first moving object would be the mother’s legs, but Lorenz found that the process (which he called "imprinting") can take place with any other object, such as his own legs, a model duck, or even things totally removed from nature like a wooden rectangle. He found that this imprinting need not necessarily occur immediately after birth, but that there is a "critical period", during which the chick is ready to be imprinted. In ducklings this period lasts about two days.

Klaus and Kennel extended this idea to cover human babies, claiming that the first few hours after birth constitute a similar critical period, after which a bond can still be formed between mother and child, but it will not be as strong. They found that a lack of contact between mother and child can lead to "disorders of parenting", which have adverse consequences for the child. These findings have been disputed, and it is only generally accepted that this critical period has short-term consequences; in the long term it is thought that bonds formed later can be as strong (Bee, 1995).

Klaus and Kennel then postulated a second stage of attachment, which is the "opportunity to develop real mutuality". This takes place over the course of the first few months of the baby’s life, as parent and child interact with and respond to each other, allowing a "natural interlocking pattern of attachment behaviours" to develop. This second phase of attachment is more widely accepted than the first, and has far greater long term significance.
The main remaining issue is that of what happens if the child does not form a primary attachment in this way. The most obvious case is of children who form no such attachment at all.

Harlow, having studied attachment behaviour in rhesus monkeys, followed this up with a study of the consequences of having no attachment at all (1962). He reared monkeys in isolation for various periods of time, and found that those who had no contact with others (neither their mother, nor any peers) for the first year of their lives were severely disturbed by the experience. When brought out of isolation, these subjects did not participate in the active play which is characteristic of normal monkeys, but instead huddled and withdrew. When they matured, they proved incapable of mating, and those that were artificially inseminated were incompetent parents. Mothers who had no experience of being loved by a mother showed no love for their children, even abusing them horrifically.

To establish whether or not a similar phenomenon occurs in human development, Goldfarb (1955) studied children who were brought up in orphanages with little or no human contact for the first 3 years of their lives, and compared them to children who were adopted at birth. Both groups had been separated from their natural parents, but the adopted children had the chance to form normal attachments to other people. He found that the adopted children performed better on tests of aptitude, and the orphans not only performed less well, but also became socially maladjusted. They either became "insatiable in their demands" for human love and attention, or showed no interest in other people.

This clearly shows that the lack of a primary bond is damaging to a child, but there is also the issue of what happens when a bond is formed, but is not as secure or strong as it should be. To study this, one must first define a Ôsecure attachment’.
Mary Ainsworth (Ainsworth and Bell, 1970) devised a test to determine the quality of a one year old infant’s attachment to its mother. This test, known as the "Strange Situation", involves observing an infant’s reactions when a stranger enters a room in which the infant has been playing in the company of its mother. The mother then leaves, leaving the child alone with a stranger, and after a short time the mother returns.

On the basis of this experiment, children can be classified as "securely attached" or "insecurely attached". The securely attached children showed some distress when the mother left, but were prepared to interact with the stranger. When the mother returned they greeted her enthusiastically, and she could comfort them if they were upset. Insecure children responded in various ways, either not reacting to the mother, or rejecting her when she returned, or being so distressed by her leaving that they refused contact with the stranger.
If the quality of attachment is as important to later relationships as has been claimed above, then one would expect children who rate as securely attached when a year old to socialise well when they reach school. Longitudinal studies (such as Waters, Wippman, and Sroufe, 1979) have confirmed this hypothesis, with findings that rate securely attached children higher on a wide variety of scales, including self-esteem, altruism, sociability and classroom behaviour.

In conclusion, it seems fair to say that children must develop a secure primary attachment in order to develop in a healthy manner. There is much evidence, however, that this attachment need not necessarily be to the child’s mother, as their father, another caregiver, or in exceptional circumstances a peer group can perform a similar function. Whoever the bond is formed with, however, a secure and strong attachment is clearly essential for healthy future relationships.

Ainsworth, M. D. S.; & Bell, S. M. 1970. Attachment, exploration and separation : Illustrated by the behaviour of one-year-olds in a strange situation. Child Development. 41:49-67.
Bee, H. 1995. The Developing Child. Harper & Row.
Bowlby, J. 1969. Attachment and loss : vol. 1. Attachment. Basic Books.
Bowlby, J. 1973. Separation and loss. Basic Books.
Clarke-Stewart, A. 1989. Infant day care : Malignant or maligned. American Psychologist 44:266-273.
Freud, S. 1933. New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis. English translation by J. Strachey, 1965.
Gleitman, H. 1995. Psychology. Norton.
Goldfarb, W. 1955. Emotional and intellectual consequences of psychological deprivation in infancy : A reevaluation. In Hock, P. H. & Zubin, J. (Eds.), Psychopathology of childhood. Grune and Stratton.
Gordon, I. J. 1962. Human Development from Birth through Adolescence. Harper & Row.
Harlow, H. F. 1958. The nature of love. American Psychologist 13:673-685.
Harlow, H. F. 1962. The heterosexual affection system in monkeys. American Psychologist 17:1-9.
Hess, E. H. 1959. Imprinting. Science 130:133-141.
Waters, E.; Wippman, J.; & Sroufe, L. A. 1979. Attachment, positive affect, and competence in the peer group : Two studies in construct validation. Child Development 50:821-829.

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