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  • Writer's pictureMichelle Du Plessis

Attachment and social relationships

By Michelle du Plessis

Attachment is multifaceted and complex to identify. It is important to recognise that each child develops at a different rate and will respond differently according to various factors such as temperament, underlying medical conditions, culture or living conditions.

Attachment responses can indicate how the child is coping in a relational sense, but each baby will display different responses according to their attachment to a specific individual. Mary Ainsworth, a developmental psychologist set out to define and test the various attachment responses in a study called ‘The strange situation’ and was able to classify these responses into either insecure or secure attachment.

Secure Attachment

Secure attachment refers to an ideal attachment response where a baby signals that they associate their caregiver with positive feelings or a secure base ). These babies typically show distress when their primary caregiver leaves and is soothed when they return and able to find comfort in their presence.

Insecure attachment

Insecure attachment is more complex, but usually relates to a compromised relationship between caregiver and child and is therefore seen as less ideal for the child’s wellbeing. Although children displaying a more insecure attachment style may seem less attached to their caregiver, their behaviour is not necessarily an indication of what they are actually feeling or whether they are attached to their caregiver or not.

According to Ainsworth's model, there are three main categories of insecure attachment:

  • Anxious/ambivalent

  • avoidant and

  • disorganised

Anxious/Ambivalent attachment Style

Anxious/ambivalent attachment may be present when the baby shows signs of distress, panic, and preoccupation with their caregiver - which can result in clingy, ambivalent or controlling behaviours. When the caregiver leaves the child may become intensely distressed or inconsolable even when the caregiver returns.

Avoidant Attachment

Avoidant attachment is signalled by the baby’s indifference to the caregiver’s comings and goings. This attachment style is usually indicated by the child’s independent and seemingly unaffected response to their caregiver.

Disorganised Attachment Style

A disorganised attachment style is usually indicated when the child displays that they are conflicted, confused or maybe frightened at their caregivers return after being away. This style of relating usually indicates that the child does not feel necessarily safe when their caregiver is either present or away. This is usually evident when the child has experienced significant trauma or abuse.

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