An Inuit family is sitting on a log outside their the upbringing of children left without parents. The parents, wearing warm clothing made of animal skins, are engaged in domestic tasks. Between them sits a toddler, also in skin clothes, staring at the camera.
For infants and toddlers, the “set-goal” of the attachment behavioral system is to maintain or achieve proximity to attachment figures, usually the parents. Attachment theory is a psychological model that attempts to describe the dynamics of long-term and short-term interpersonal relationships between humans. However, “attachment theory is not formulated as a general theory of relationships. The most important tenet of attachment theory is that an infant needs to develop a relationship with at least one primary caregiver for the child’s successful social and emotional development, and in particular for learning how to effectively regulate their feelings. Any caregiver is equally likely to become the principal attachment figure if they provide most of the child care and related social interaction. Attachments between infants and caregivers form even if this caregiver is not sensitive and responsive in social interactions with them.
Infants cannot exit unpredictable or insensitive caregiving relationships. In the 1980s, the theory was extended to attachment in adults. Attachment applies to adults when adults feel close attachment to their parents and their romantic partners. Attachment theory has become the dominant theory used today in the study of infant and toddler behavior and in the fields of infant mental health, treatment of children, and related fields.
A young mother smiles up at the camera. On her back is her baby gazing at the camera with an expression of lively interest. The attachment system serves to achieve or maintain proximity to the attachment figure. In close physical proximity this system is not activated, and the infant can direct its attention to the outside world.
Within attachment theory, attachment means “a biological instinct in which proximity to an attachment figure is sought when the child senses or perceives threat or discomfort. Attachment behaviour anticipates a response by the attachment figure which will remove threat or discomfort”. A baby leans at a table staring at a picture book with intense concentration. Insecure attachment patterns can compromise exploration and the achievement of self-confidence. A securely attached baby is free to concentrate on her or his environment. The attachment behavioural system serves to achieve or maintain proximity to the attachment figure. Pre-attachment behaviours occur in the first six months of life.
After the second year, as the child begins to see the caregiver as an independent person, a more complex and goal-corrected partnership is formed. Children begin to notice others’ goals and feelings and plan their actions accordingly. Common attachment behaviours and emotions, displayed in most social primates including humans, are adaptive. The long-term evolution of these species has involved selection for social behaviors that make individual or group survival more likely. A young father lies on his back on a quilt on the floor. He holds his baby daughter up above him with his arms straight and his hands round her ribcage.
The baby has her arms and legs stretched out and arches her back smiling directly at the camera. Early experiences with caregivers gradually give rise to a system of thoughts, memories, beliefs, expectations, emotions, and behaviours about the self and others. Bowlby’s original account of a sensitivity period during which attachments can form of between six months and two to three years has been modified by later researchers. These researchers have shown that there is indeed a sensitive period during which attachments will form if possible, but the time frame is broader and the effect less fixed and irreversible than first proposed. This system, called the “internal working model of social relationships”, continues to develop with time and experience. Internal models regulate, interpret, and predict attachment-related behaviour in the self and the attachment figure. In Western culture child-rearing, there is a focus on single attachment to primarily the mother.