Points of View

Research videos can raise some questions.  The most recent one I saw had to do with the reaction of young children separating from their mothers.  This is an issue that at times looms large, such as when children start school.  Or even earlier when left with a baby sitter.  When children react with major protests this sometimes gets labeled separation anxiety – perhaps creating parental anxiety as well.

The issue of separation brings up questions about attachment.  When do infants begin to show attachment to a specific caregiver?  How to they behave if that caregiver does not respond?  How significant is this for later development?  The British psychologist John Bowlby, played a major role in thinking about these questions as well as what the basis is for attachment behavior.

A major theory early on about the basis for attachment in infants was as a response to the survival need to be fed.  Babies became attached to the feeding caregiver – at that time the mother – who was responsive to its needs.  Bowlby rejected that formulation and instead wrote of a lasting psychological connectedness between human beings who have an innate need to form an attachment.

Bowlby’s theories about attachment were developed further by Mary Ainsworth, a developmental psychologist whose work included an elaboration of various types of attachment behavior.  She developed a method called strange situation assessment, which describe categories of responses by children to being left by their parent with a stranger.

Theories about attachment have more recently been incorporated into something called Attachment Parenting, a parenting philosophy that proposes methods aiming to promote the attachment of parent and infant not only by maximal parental empathy and responsiveness but also by continuous bodily closeness and touch.  This seems more like a digression from Bowlby and Ainsworth rather than a continuation of their work.

Ainsworth’s Strange Situation Assessment has been used by numerous researchers to explore or refine and elaborate on her major categories, which she described as secure, anxious-avoidant, and anxious-resistant.  These refer to the behavior of young children left temporarily with a stranger upon reuniting with mother.  The research video referred to above is such an example.

The categories used in the assessment were intended to describe styles of attachment, or the nature of attachment behavior.  However, inevitably value judgements have been made, and it often becomes a matter of “secure attachment” being the good attachment with the others being problematic.

As has been the case with other kinds of research, the secure attachment is attributed to sensitive, responsive behavior by the mother.  In other words, the “good” mother.  Some theorists have disagreed with that interpretation and have seen attachment behavior determined by a child’s temperament or personality.

A broader interactive interpretation expands on that by positing that a pattern of behavior evolves between mother and child based on a child’s responses to which the mother reacts.

In the video referred to, it is interesting to note the role of the researcher who directs the scene.  After the stranger has been in the room a short while the mother is directed to leave.  She does so abruptly, without a word to the child in preparation.  The child notices almost immediately and erupts in crying protest.

It is worth considering the possibility that the mother’s departure does not reflect her usual behavior upon taking leave of her child.  In other words, perhaps it is the nature of the research set-up rather than the mother’s typical mode of response that elicits behavior from the child that fits one of the attachment style categories.

Does research find ways to prove its point?