Sensitive parent, secure child

By Jean Mitchell,2014-04-22 21:39
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Sensitive parent, secure child

Sensitive parent, secure child

    Research has now shown conclusively that if parents meet children’s needs sensitively in infancy, they are much more likely to grow up to be contented, sociable and self-confident. A child who has gained confidence in his parents’ care for him,

    and goes to them readily when he needs affection or help, is said to be ‘securely attached’ to them. Having had positive experiences with their parents, such children learn to have similar confidence in other suitable people who may become ‘attachment figures’, e.g. grandparents, or intimate partners in adulthood. This process is conceived of as creating a conscious or subconscious ‘representational model’ of ‘attachment figures’, i.e., an habitual pattern of emotions which determine how one

    thinks about or relates to the possibility of attachment to different people, depending on how one perceives their characteristics as individuals. These representational models vary from being mostly positive in some people to mostly negative in others, depending on how they have been treated at critical times.

    Researchers believe that a person who has formed a secure attachment to his parent

    is likely to possess a representational model of attachment figure(s) as being available, responsive, and helpful, and a complementary model of himself as at least a potentially lovable and valuable person . . . influenced by those models he is likely to have been able to make further loving and trusting relationships 61 during his . . . adult life.

    Parental love satisfies rather than spoils the child, and fosters responsibility to others. There is abundant evidence that babies whose parents respond sensitively to their expressed needs, especially by holding or carrying the baby, are more content and cry less. Although babies who are carried more are also fed more frequently, they feed for no longer in total, and so there is no evidence that greater parental responsiveness 62 makes babies [Delete more] greedy.

    The key breakthrough in understanding how differences in parental treatment influence children’s relationships with parents and other attachment figures was made by Mary Ainsworth. She built on the pioneering work of John Bowlby to develop the ‘Strange Situation’. This procedure involves an infant aged 12 to 18 months twice

    being separated from his parent for up to three minutes. If he becomes distressed during either separation he is immediately reunited with the parent. More than one hundred infants were videoed in the study in which the Strange Situation procedure was first tested. The videos were studied in minute detail, and three characteristic types of infant response were identified. For the sake [delete purpose] of clarity I will describe the findings with reference to mothers, though the procedure has been found to be equally valid for fathers. Infants classified as avoidant tend not to be upset when their mother leaves the room, and avoid interacting with her when she returns. Infants classified as ambivalent are usually very upset when their mother leaves the room, but waver between wanting contact and angrily resisting contact with her when she returns. Infants classified as secure actively seek contact with and are readily 63 comforted by their mother when she returns.

    Since Ainsworth’s pathbreaking work there have now been many more studies

    which carried out frequent observations of infants and mothers at home during their first year (and a few with fathers), before they were assessed in the Strange Situation. These show that babies whose parent had the sensitivity to perceive their baby’s

    communications accurately, and respond in a way which met the baby’s needs, with affection when appropriate, were more likely to be assessed in the Strange Situation as securely attached to that parent. Babies whose parent was unresponsive at home were more likely to be assessed as ambivalent towards the parent. Babies whose parent was relatively unresponsive at home, but also behaved intrusively towards the baby, were more likely to be assessed as avoidant towards the parent [delete mother]. The psychologists who assessed the Strange Situation videos were told nothing of the parenting quality as observed in the home, so [delete in order that] they would have no preconceptions. Ainsworth found that infants later classified at twelve months old as avoidant in the Strange Situation responded negatively to being put down by their mother at home both in the first and fourth quarter of their first year. Therefore their avoidant response in the Strange Stuation was not a sign of greater maturity, 64independence, or even-temperedness.


61 John Bowlby, Attachment and Loss, vol. 3: Loss, Sadness, and Depression

    (Penguin, 1984), 242

    62 Marinus H. Van IJzendoorn and Marianne S. De Wolff, ‘In search of the absent

    father meta-analyses of infant–father attachment: a rejoinder to our discussants’,

    Child Development 68, 1997, 605; Elizabeth Anisfeld, Virginia Casper, Molly

    Nozyce and Nicholas Cunningham, ‘Does infant carrying promote attachment? An

    experimental study of the effects of increased physical contact on the development

    of attachment’, Child Development 61, 1990, 161727, esp. 1624; A. Scher,

    ‘Facilitators and regulators: maternal orientation as an antecedent of attachment

    security’, Journal of Reproductive and Infant Psychology 19, 2001, 32533, esp.

    326, 328; Heidi Neufeld Bailey, Carey Anne Waters, David R. Pederson, and Greg

    Moran, ‘Ainsworth revisited: an empirical analysis of interactive behaviour in the

    home’, Attachment and Human Development 2, 2000, 191216; Marinus H. van

    IJzendoorn and Frans O. A. Hubbard, ‘Are infant crying and maternal

    responsiveness during the first year related to infantmother attachment at 15

    months?’, Attachment and Human Development 2, 2000, 37191; Urs A. Hunziker

    and Ronald G. Barr, ‘Increased carrying reduces infant crying: a randomized

    controlled trial’, Pediatrics 77 (5), 1986, 6418, esp. 644

    63 Mary D. Salter Ainsworth, Mary C. Blehar, Everett Waters and Sally Wall,

    Patterns of Attachment: a Psychological Study of the Strange Situation (Erlbaum,


    64 Marianne S. De Wolff and Marinus van IJzendoorn, ‘Sensitivity and attachment: a

    meta-analysis on parental antecedents of infant attachment’, Child Development

    68, 1997, 57191, 584; Sandra J. Weiss, Peggy Wilson, Matthew J. Hertenstein,

    and Rosemary Campos, ‘The tactile context of a mother’s caregiving: implications

    for low birth weight infants’, Infant Behavior and Development 23, 2000, 91111,

    esp. 93, 93, 102–03; Van IJzendoorn and Hubbard, ‘Are infant crying’ (see above),

    374, 376; Bailey, Waters, Pederson and Moran, ‘Ainsworth revisited’ (see above),

    192, 198, 203; Scher, ‘Facilitators and regulators’ (see above), 326; Van

    IJzendoorn and De Wolff, ‘In search of the absent father’ (see above); Peter

    Fonagy, Miriam Steele, Howard Steele, Anna Higgitt, and Mary Target, ‘The

    theory and practice of resilience’, Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry

    and Allied Disciplines 35, 1994, 23157, esp. 246, 235, 236; Ainsworth, Blehar,

Waters and Wall, Patterns of Attachment (see above), 121

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