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Attachment Theory and Childhood Trauma

Mary Main (1996) recently reviewed the field of attachment research. In the years since Bowlby’s original formulation, the concept of attachment has been

extended beyond infancy to account for behavior throughout the life span. Main has affirmed that the development of the attachment relationship is based on social interaction. In the overwhelming majority of instances children become securely attached to a nurturing caregiver. Children also become attached to maltreating parents and the resulting attachment bond is expressed as an insecure attachment. Te quality of the attachment bond is usually established by seven to eight months of age and is characterized as secure or insecure. Secure attachment is the result of an infant being able to rely on the caregiver as consistently available and nurturing. Infants who have incompetent, uncaring, or inconsistent caregivers express insecure attachment behavior. Insecure attachment behaviors related to separation and reunion with the caregiver range from ignoring the caregiver to excessive and disquieting expressions of distress.Being securely attached to a nurturing caregiver is further expressed by using the caregiver as a “secure base” for exploring one’s immediate environment. For example, a small child playing in the park will run and play far away from his or her mother as long as he or she is in visual proximity. Te child will wander farther and farther away only to spontaneously return to his or her mother and soon wander off again in spirited play. Just as the child displays organized and confident behaviors while in the comforting presence of the caregiver, he or she can also appear disorganized and highly anxious or fearful upon separation or loss of the caregiver. Brief separations from one’s parents is a common event in disasters.Upon separation and loss of proximity to the caregiver, the child will express fear and anxiety until again secure in the knowledge of the availability of the caregiver. As discussed earlier, infants and very young children must be able

physically to see objects to keep them psychologically available. However, with time, children can build psychological representations of objects, people, and relationships. Recent research suggests that through maintenance of mental models of caregivers, children are influenced in their formation of relationships with peers and in the development of successful interactions with friends. Ina similar vein, adolescents are influenced by models of adult caregivers as they begin developing long-term relationships with significant others. o better understand normal and abnormal child development, much research has been conducted comparing the behavior of securely attached and insecurely attached children. Carlson and Sroufe (Main, 1996) have reported “ in peer and school settings, children who felt secure as infants with their mother exhibit greater ego resilience as well as social and exploratory competence than insecure infants Security with fathers also contributes favorably to outcome” (p. 240).Disasters are events postulated with separation and loss. Irrespective of the quality of the child’s attachment to the caregiver as secure or insecure, unexpected separation and disruption of one’s secure environment results in fear, anxiety, and disorganization of one’s own behavior. Children who have experienced secure attachment relationships with a nurturing caregiver are the most resilient in reconciling the disruption and recovering from traumatic events. Te disruption and loss experienced will most likely be more difficult to resolve for children who have experienced insecure attachment relationships.Cassidy (1996) summarized some basic findings from the study of attachmen t relationships: Linkages exist between family and peer systems. Children’s daily experiences with parents affect their concept of self and relationships with others. Children with more positive relationships with peers express more positive behaviors. More positive behaviors result in being better liked by peers.In summary, the quality of parents’ caregiving behavior initiates a process linked with the quality of peer relationships throughout childhood and early adolescence. Erik Erickson’s theory of psychosocial development (Santrock and Yussen,1987) offers a perspective on a child’s social development. Erickson proposed that social development is the result of the interaction between internal biological

forces and external cultural pressures. As such, he proposed eight stages of development throughout the life span. Te conflicts one experiences at each stage can be resolved in either a positive (adaptive) or negative (maladaptive) way.For Erickson, the development of a psychologically healthy adult required the successful resolution of conflict at each developmental stage. He accounted for variation of emotional expression and behavior among individuals on their resolution of conflict along a continuum of healthy to unhealthy outcomes. Te eight stages of psychosocial development coincide loosely with eight life stages. Five of these stages occur from infancy through adolescence.Early infancy is the stage of ‘trust versus mistrust’ in which the infant learns to view the world as a place where one can trust others to be supportive and car-ing, or a place where the infant cannot consistently rely on the support and nurturing of others. Late infancy is the stage of ‘autonomy versus shame and doubt’.In this stage autonomy is the ability to control one’s own actions, such as successful toileting. An inability to learn such control may result in feelings of shame and doubt. Early childhood is the stage of ‘initiative versus guilt’. Te child is confronted with the conflict of relationships with parents and unresolved feelings of love and hate. Taking the initiative and engaging in positive social activities resolves conflict; failure to do so results in unresolved guilt. Middle childhood isthe stage of ‘industry versus inferiority’. During this stage, the child’s cognitive knowledge, physical abilities, and social relationships are expanded. Upon com-parison of self with others, the child ultimately measures how he or she compares to peers. If the child feels incompetent and inferior, as opposed to competent and adequate, his or her interactions with others will differ than if the child feelsconfident in how he or she compares with peers. During the storm and stressof adolescent years, the child is confronted with the universally known stageof Erickson’s theory ‘identity versus identity confusion’. It is during this period that the child resolves the conflict between “who I am and what I want to be”and struggles to decide the direction of his or her life. Resolution of the conflict associated with identity marks the end of childhood and the emergence of adult role-taking in society. Te remaining three stages continue to deal in a similar vein with issues of role performance and development throughout adulthood.In summary, normative development throughout childhood is generally viewed as an active and complex process. It involves the ongoing maturation of the child and how he or she engages people and events, attachment to significant adults, social relationships with peers, intellectual and emotional development, and the actual world in which he or she lives. Childhood is the culture in which individual development occurs. Te quality and characteristics of their environment also directly influence the healthy development of children. Is it a setting where basic needs are a struggle to meet, where danger and fear of personal


Mary Main (1996) recently reviewed the field of attachment research. In the years since Bowlby’s original formulation, the concept of attachment has been extended beyond infancy to account for behavior throughout the life span. Main has affirmed that the development of the attachment relationship is based on social interaction. In the overwhelming majority of instances children become securely attached to a nurturing caregiver. Children also become attached to maltreating parents and the resulting attachment bond is expressed as an insecure attachment. Te quality of the attachment bond is usually established by seven to eight months of age and is characterized as secure or insecure. Secure attach-ment is the result of an infant being able to rely on the caregiver as consistently available and nurturing. Infants who have incompetent, uncaring, or inconsistent caregivers express insecure attachment behavior. Insecure attachment behaviors related to separation and reunion with the caregiver range from ignoring the caregiver to excessive and disquieting expressions of distress.Being securely attached to a nurturing caregiver is further expressed by using the caregiver as a “secure base” for exploring one’s immediate environment. For example, a small child playing in the park will run and play far away from his or her mother as long as he or she is in visual proximity. Te child will wander farther and farther away only to spontaneously return to his or her mother and soon wander off again in spirited play. Just as the child displays organized and confident behaviors while in the comforting presence of the caregiver, he or she can also appear disorganized and highly anxious or fearful upon separation or loss of the caregiver. Brief separations from one’s parents is a common event in disasters. Upon separation and loss of proximity to the caregiver, the child will express fear and anxiety until again secure in the knowledge of the availability of the caregiver. As discussed earlier, infants and very young children must be able

5 The World of Childhood and the Developing Child physically to see objects to keep them psychologically available. However, withtime, children can build psychological representations of objects, people, andrelationships. Recent research suggests that through maintenance of mentalmodels of caregivers, children are influenced in their formation of relationships with peers and in the development of successful interactions with friends. Ina similar vein, adolescents are influenced by models of adult caregivers as theybegin developing long-term relationships with significant others. o better understand normal and abnormal child development, much researchhas been conducted comparing the behavior of securely attached and insecurelyattached children. Carlson and Sroufe (Main, 1996) have reported “ in peerand school settings, children who felt secure as infants with their mother exhibitgreater ego resilience as well as social and exploratory competence than insecureinfants Security with fathers also contributes favorably to outcome” (p. 240).Disasters are events postulated with separation and loss. Irrespective of thequality of the child’s attachment to the caregiver as secure or insecure, unexpectedseparation and disruption of one’s secure environment results in fear, anxiety, anddisorganization of one’s own behavior. Children who have experienced secureattachment relationships with a nurturing caregiver are the most resilient in reconcil-ing the disruption and recovering from traumatic events. Te disruption and lossexperienced will most likely be more difficult to resolve for children who haveexperienced insecure attachment relationships.Cassidy (1996) summarized some basic findings from the study of attachmentrelationships: Linkages exist between family and peer systems. Children’s daily experiences with parents affect their concept of self andrelationships with others. Children with more positive relationships with peers express more positivebehaviors. More positive behaviors result in being better liked by peers.In summary, the quality of parents’ caregiving behavior initiates a processlinked with the quality of peer relationships throughout childhood and earlyadolescence.Erik Erickson’s theory of psychosocial development (Santrock and Yussen,1987) offers a perspective on a child’s social development. Erickson proposed that social development is the result of the interaction between internal biological

forces and external cultural pressures. As such, he proposed eight stages ofdevelopment throughout the life span. Te conflicts one experiences at each stagecan be resolved in either a positive (adaptive) or negative (mal-adaptive) way.For Erickson, the development of a psychologically healthy adult required thesuccessful resolution of conflict at each developmental stage. He accounted for variation of emotional expression and behavior among individuals on their reso-lution of conflict along a continuum of healthy to unhealthy outcomes. Te eightstages of psychosocial development coincide loosely with eight life stages. Five ofthese stages occur from infancy through adolescence.Early infancy is the stage of ‘trust versus mistrust’ in which the infant learnsto view the world as a place where one can trust others to be supportive and car-ing, or a place where the infant cannot consistently rely on the support and nur-turing of others. Late infancy is the stage of ‘autonomy versus shame and doubt’.In this stage autonomy is the ability to control one’s own actions, such as success-ful toileting. An inability to learn such control may result in feelings of shameand doubt. Early childhood is the stage of ‘initiative versus guilt’. Te child isconfronted with the conflict of relationships with parents and unresolved feelingsof love and hate. aking the initiative and engaging in positive social activitiesresolves conflict; failure to do so results in unresolved guilt. Middle childhood isthe stage of ‘industry versus inferiority’. During this stage, the child’s cognitiveknowledge, physical abilities, and social relationships are expanded. Upon com-parison of self with others, the child ultimately measures how he or she comparesto peers. If the child feels incompetent and inferior, as opposed to competentand adequate, his or her interactions with others will differ than if the child feelsconfident in how he or she compares with peers. During the storm and stressof adolescent years, the child is confronted with the universally known stageof Erickson’s theory ‘identity versus identity confusion’. It is during this periodthat the child resolves the conflict between “who I am and what I want to be”and struggles to decide the direction of his or her life. Resolution of the conflictassociated with identity marks the end of childhood and the emergence of adult role-taking in society. Te remaining three stages continue to deal in a similar vein with issues of role performance and development throughout adulthood.In summary, normative development throughout childhood is generally viewed as an active and complex process. It involves the ongoing maturation of the child and how he or she engages people and events, attachment to significant adults, social relationships with peers, intellectual and emotional development, and the actual world in which he or she lives. Childhood is the culture in which individual development occurs. Te quality and characteristics of their environ-ment also directly influence the healthy development of children. Is it a setting where basic needs are a struggle to meet, where danger and fear of personal

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