Assignment – Paper 3 – Developmental Psychology: Your goal for this paper is to demonstrate your understanding of attachment theory. Describe the main tenets of the theory, key research findings, and importance in development across the lifespan. Respond specifically to Stern’s work. Provide a review and a critique. At the end of the paper, briefly address how attachment theory holds up in your opinion and give your rationale.
As discussed in a previous paper, Maslow (1943) studied fulfilled and happy people to ascertain what factors contribute to their happiness or self-actualization. One of the most significant findings of his research is that true happiness does not occur until our deficit needs are met and we are able to meet our higher needs for growth and self-actualization, a finding that was recently validated in a ground-breaking study by Tay and Diener (2011) involving over 60,000 participants from 123 countries. However, to become a version of ourselves that we are happy and satisfied with, at least most of the time, the majority of people appear to need to work through the layers of our personality that we believe do not contribute to our overall well-being or steer us in a direction in life that we enjoy and are satisfied with.
To gain a better understanding of how we can live a more fulfilling life, in this paper we will discuss various concepts from attachment theory and their relationship to the formation of our personality. We begin by looking at the foundational work of psychiatrist and psychoanalytic theorist Daniel Stern on the development of infants and young children. To address any criticism to that Stern’s empirical infant research was conducted more than fifty years ago, examples from more recent research are also given for each of the developmental stages described by Stern.
Four Interrelated Senses of Self
Stern (1985) explains that, while our sense of self develops throughout life, different selves emerge in a sequence of overlapping and interrelated phases or layers during the first two years of life, when the child makes significant developmental leaps. Because different types of stress, abuse, and trauma during these critical developmental stages, as Sterns argues, can lead to dysfunctional cognitions, behaviors, and experiences later in life, the primary caregiver plays an important role in assisting the child through these developmental stages, as we will see more clearly when also looking at the different attachment styles. Stern (1985) defined four distinct senses of self in relation to each major developmental stage: (1) the emergent self, (2) the core self, (3) the subjective self, and (4) the verbal self.
The emergent self evolves from birth to two months of age. In this phase the infant is confronted with an intense stream of seemingly unrelated sensory stimuli, which they over time learn to integrate and organize (Stern, 1985). Sander (1962, 1964) and Greenspan (1981) emphasize that during these first months, physiological regulation and a balanced nervous system are essential to the infant’s natural development. If the infant perceives the world as frightening and dangerous, or if the caregiver is unhappy or even depressed, the infant’s first impression of the world may be one of fear, unsafety, and feeling overwhelmed, which may have a negative impact on the infant’s development. As an example, a recent meta-analysis by Slomian et al. (2019) of 122 studies suggests that maternal postpartum depression, primarily relating to the first six to eight weeks after birth, increases the risk of adverse effects on infant motor and cognitive development, infant sleep, and general health, as well as social and behavioral development.
Between the ages of two and six months, the infant develops an awareness of its own characteristics and begins to perceive itself as a distinct entity from the other objects in its environment, which Stern (1985) refers to as the core self. At this stage, it is believed, the infant determines whether or not it can rely on its caregiver to meet its needs and thus feel safe in life. Sander (1964) emphasizes the caregiver’s ability to self-regulate and co-regulate emotional distress with the infant as critical aspects of this interaction, a process that Lobo and Lunkenheimer’s (2020) subsequent research has demonstrated is critical for the child’s ability to emotionally self-regulate later in life, for example, helping children in preschool to control their emotions and behavior while focusing on the task at hand.
Then, between the ages of seven and fifteen months, Stern (1985) describes how the subjective self emerges as the infant recognizes that their subjective reality, made up of thoughts, feelings, and experiences, begins to differ from those of others. At this stage, co-regulation between the infant and the parents takes on a new dimension, which, according to Sander (1964), is accompanied by the expansion of the infant’s socialization and interaction with its environment. While research by Essex et al. (2002) demonstrated that maternal depression during this phase is associated with a decreased ability of the infant to regulate its stress response, Essex et al. (2013) demonstrated that one-year-old infants of severely stressed mothers even exhibit negative changes in gene expression, which can result in adverse development and mental and physical health problems later in life.
Finally, from around the fifteenth month onward, Stern (1985) discusses how the verbal self develops as a consequence of the child’s increased linguistic capability and ability to build and convey increasingly sophisticated abstract representations of their reality. Simultaneously, according to Sander (1964), the child becomes more self-assertive, which means that they more effectively, and in a variety of ways, can express their needs, desires, rights, or opinions. For example, recent research shows that various stressors experienced by children from this age onward, such as not being adequately provided for or growing up in economic hardship, often negatively affect their language abilities (Farah et al., 2006; Hildyard & Wolfe, 2002), as well as causes impaired brain functioning in related language areas (Raizada et al., 2008), which can have serious social and relational consequences later in life.
When I read Stern’s work on the “multilayered self,” I am reminded of Winnicott’s (1960) concepts of a false self and a true self. While the false self is a protective facade or shield against pain and adversity, the true self is a more authentic expression of who we truly are – the aspects of our personality that transcend our upbringing, unmet needs, and so on. This is the potential version of ourselves that Maslow (1943) describes that we can all evolve into when we achieve self-actualization, or the person we are when our thoughts, feelings, and actions are congruent, as opposed to when we think one thing, feel another, and eventually do a third. Thus, the truer self is the polar opposite of the incongruent self, which is based on internal conflicts that appear to result in external conflicts all too often.
Consider that beneath the various layers of personality formed by adversity and unmet needs lies a truer and more authentic self, which may emerge temporarily when we feel safe, or more consistently over time as we heal and integrate our false self, or pain body, as spiritual leader Eckhart Tolle (2004) so aptly refers to it. Alternatively, as Dr. Gabor Mate (2009) so eloquently states, as children grow older, they have two primary needs: attachment and authenticity, but “when authenticity threatens attachment, attachment trumps authenticity” (Paloma Foundation, 2017). Let us look at the deeper dynamics at work in the development of various attachment styles to better understand how the need for attachment can trump the development of an authentic self.
Four Different Attachment Styles
I was very intrigued when I first heard about attachment theory, originally developed by psychologist John Bowlby (1958, 1959, 1960) to better understand infants’ strong reactions to parental separation, such as the critical function of weeping, clinging, or urgent searching as a means of avoiding future separation or reconnecting with a returning parent. While researching this topic a few years ago, I came across a YouTube video demonstrating the Strange Situation, an innovative test developed by psychologist Mary Ainsworth allowing some of Bowlby’s ideas to be empirically tested. More precisely, the Strange Situation examines the patterns of early attachment between mother and infant, particularly in children aged nine to 18 months (Ainsworth et al., 2015). The infant and mother are alone in a room at the start of the test. After a while, a stranger enters the room, speaks to the mother, and approaches the infant, while the mother also exits (Mayhem, 2010). Naturally, the infant is alarmed, and the mother returns after a short time to reconcile with her child (Mayhem, 2010). While the same procedure is more or less repeated, the child is observed for four characteristics: play behavior, reactions to the mother’s leaving and returning, and behavior in the presence of the stranger (Ainsworth et al., 2015). Based on the child’s behavior, Ainsworth divided the child’s attachment style into three groups: secure, insecure-avoidant, and insecure-ambivalent (Bretherton & Ainsworth, 1974). Ainsworth’s colleague, psychologist Mary Main, later added a fourth group: insecure fearful-avoidant, also known as disorganized (Main & Solomon, 1986).
Children with a secure attachment feel safe with their caregiver and enjoy playing as long as the caregiver is present. They interact with the stranger when the caregiver is present, but are visibly upset when the caregiver leaves and returns (Mayhem, 2010). These children feel that the caregiver is available and responsive to their needs, and as a result, they may use the caregiver as a safe haven for comfort and as a secure base from which to explore their environment (Schaffer & Emerson, 1964). Children with insecure avoidant attachment, on the other hand, avoid or ignore their caregivers and show little emotion when they leave or return (Mayhem, 2010). The avoidant child, unlike the securely attached child, does not explore much regardless of who is present (Mayhem, 2010). Ainsworth and Bell (1970) hypothesized that avoidant infants’ calm behavior is a mask for physiological and emotional distress. Studies on the heart rates of avoidant infants later confirmed this hypothesis (Sroufe & Waters, 1977). While avoidant children internalize their stress, children with insecure ambivalent attachment do the opposite. Prior to separation, they show more visible signs of stress and become clingy and upset when caregivers try to reassure them (Mayhem, 2010). Internal conflict appears to exist between resentment and anger at not being cared for and fear of the caregiver abandoning them again, reflecting the ambivalent nature of this attachment style (Mayhem, 2010). According to researchers, this anxious-rejective behavior, or push-and-pull behavior, is an unconscious attempt by the child to control the relationship in order to ensure that the caregiver remains available to the child (Solomon et al., 1995; Crittenden, 1999). The disorganized attachment, unlike the other three attachment styles, occurs when the child perceives their parents’ behaviors as unpredictable, resulting in an inability to develop a strategy to ensure that the child’s needs are met without triggering negative emotions such as anxiety or fear (Duschinsky, 2015). Rather than having a functional coping strategy to use when stressed, when reunited with their caregivers disorganized attachment showed conflicting emotions, such as intense closeness seeking followed by intense avoidance, and/or they appeared confused and disoriented (Hertsgaard et al., 1995). When cortisol levels were measured in the saliva of these children, they were considerably higher than for the previous three attachment styles, demonstrating that the Strange Situation test was much more stressful for these children (Hertsgaard et al., 1995).
The Importance of Attachment Theory in Adult Relationships
While writing this paper about attachment theory, a question arose that I have already learned quite a bit about: What influence does a child’s attachment style have on an adult’s relationships? Let us try to find an answer to this question. According to studies by Grenberg and Johnson (1988) and Hazan and Shaver (1990, 1994), the essential elements of attachment theory seem to apply to both child-caregiver and adult relationships. Just as children seek closeness with their caregivers, so do adult couples. When they are together, adults often feel reassured, whereas when they are apart, they tend to feel nervous or lonely (Hazan & Shaver, 1990, 1994). Additionally, a loving relationship can provide a secure foundation for exploring the world and confronting the inevitable challenges and hardships that accompany it. For instance, my wife, who recognizes herself as having an avoidant attachment style, describes how she was unable to use her family as a secure base as a child. Instead, from the age of about twenty, she was able to use her loving relationship with a partner as a secure base from which to explore the world. Let us take a closer look at how different attachment styles manifest in adults.
According to Bartholomew and Horowitz (1991) and Hazan and Shaver (1987), secure attachment style enables an adult to have secure and loving connections in which they may easily trust, love, and be loved by others. If their spouses require space or time alone, they do not perceive this as a threat. They are able to maintain balance between relying on others and being overly dependent. With regard to the insecure ambivalent adult, Bartholomew and Horowitz (1991) and Hazan and Shaver (1987) characterize them as having a deep fear of abandonment. They tend to be insecure in relationships and are constantly seeking assurance that their partner will not leave them. For example, becoming anxious when their partner does not respond to a text quickly enough, or constantly feeling that their partner does not care enough about them. Lastly, Bartholomew and Horowitz (1991) and Hazan and Shaver (1987) explain that adults with an insecure avoidant attachment style are torn between wanting and dreading close relationships. They long for emotional intimacy but find it difficult to fully trust and rely on others. Others frequently desire a level of intimacy that people with this attachment style may be uncomfortable with. While the avoidant may hide in their cave when becoming emotionally distresses, the ambivalent may do the opposite, running after the person in order to reassure themselves that everything is alright, something family and marriage therapist Cloé Madanes refers to as the crazy eight (Madanes & Robbins, 2005).
Discussion about Attachment Theory and Low Socioeconomic Status (SES)
Reading attachment theory research from the past and present, it became clear that one population group suffers disproportionately: people with low socioeconomic status (SES). In accordance with the research in developmental psychology and attachment theory, people with low SES appear to be the group most at risk of not receiving the necessary conditions for optimal development.
Human development is heavily influenced by three systems, as discussed earlier in paper 1, namely the biological, psychological, and social systems (Newman & Newman, 1999). These systems are interconnected, which means that changes or circumstances in one system have an effect on the other. A child from a low-income family may not be provided with the necessary conditions for these three systems to develop optimally, which has a negative impact on their development (Newman & Newman, 1999). For example, if they do not receive enough nutritious food, vitamins, minerals, and the like, and are instead exposed to unhealthy food or too many toxins, the biological system, which is essentially the brain, body, and central nervous system, will not develop properly. The same can be said of the psychological system. If the quality of parenting is negatively affected, for example, by parents who are overly stressed, work too much or too little, or abuse drugs or alcohol, it is obvious that various cognitive and emotional processes such as memory, language ability, emotional regulation, and problem solving will not receive the necessary safety and stimulus to develop.
People with low SES are occurring in many of the research articles cited in this paper. Ainsworth et al. (1978), for example, demonstrate that parents who do not exhibit consistent and predictable behaviors contribute to the development of high attachment anxiety in their children, which is a term that refers to concern about close relationships. Murdock et al. (2018) then show that high attachment anxiety is common in people with low SSS in childhood, which they link to impaired emotion regulation and shorter telomere length, all of which are associated with an increased risk of diseases such as diabetes, cancer, stroke, and heart attack later in life. Although this is not the solution to the problem of low SES children having it more difficult receiving the necessary prerequisites for their development, Neville et al., (2013) have demonstrated that family-based training program, in which parents are trained to be more responsive, consistent, and predictable actually improved cognitive and behavioral outcomes in children.
Even if change is often gradual and slow, it will still happen in its own time. All of the pioneers of attachment theory and developmental psychology, in my opinion, have done a great deal to improve conditions for children and, by extension, society as a whole. I hope that knowledge of attachment theory and its applications spreads throughout society; in schools and universities, in documentaries on TV, Netflix, and YouTube, and, of course, as a topic of interest to parents and policymakers alike, all in the best interest of creating a society whose members feel safe and encouraged to develop their authentic selves, have a good foundation for learning the skills necessary to thrive, and thus have a solid chance to exist at Maslow’s level of self-actualization.
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