Saturday, August 11, 2012

How a Child’s Attachment Changes from Infanthood to Middle Childhood

Middle Childhood
Attachment in Middle Childhood refers to the emotional and social development of the child in the six to twelve age category. In early childhood, the aim of the child is to retain proximity to his parents. It uses attachment behaviours such as crying and smiling to achieve this goal, thus ensuring physical and psychological safety. As the child gets older and moves into middle childhood, availability of parents becomes more important than proximity. Availability refers to open communication between the parent and the child, the parent being responsive to the child’s needs and the parent being physically accessible to the child. There is also a change in his attachment behaviours as crying and smiling are replaced with an internalised expectation and belief system regarding attachment.

The change from proximity to availability is largely due to the fact that, the child is becoming more self-reliant. To take an example. If an older child is feeling distressed, then a phone call or a photograph of the attachment figure may be sufficient to alleviate the child’s anxiety.

While friends provide friendship during this period, parents continue to fulfill the child’s attachment needs (a feeling of felt security in the context of availability and protection in a relationship). The parent also acts as the main source of social support. Essentially, the child’s internalised view of relationships, based on his interactional history with his parents, continues to influence his perception of social events and expectations regarding relationships. This also influences the child’s ability to cope with the school environment and the changes that take place in it over time.

One of the key developments in Attachment Theory was the Strange Situation Experiment. The Strange Situation Experiment is used to assess the attachment of infants at 15 months. In the experiment, a child plays with toys in the presence of its mother. A stranger enters the room, engages with the mother and the child, the mother subsequently leaves. The stranger attempts to comfort the child. The stranger leaves and the mother re-enters. This is repeated a few times. The reactions of the child to the mother’s departure and re-entry are classified, according to a well-developed set of criteria to determine the child’s attachment categorisation. There is one secure category and three insecure ones.

The secure child will feel upset when the mother leaves the room and will seek her out. He will find comfort in her when she returns. He will then return to explore the environment comforted in the knowledge, that she is in close proximity if needed.

An Insecure – avoidant child will not be upset when the mother leaves the room and he will keep playing. When the mother returns, he will not seek her out - he ignores her. He will not seek proximity or contact from the parent on return and will appear unemotional.

The Insecure – ambivalent child, will do little exploration of toys and show signs of distress before the mother leave the room. When she leaves the room, the child is generally inconsolable and fails to take comfort in her when she returns. He will continue to focus on the parent and cry. He will not return to play when the parent returns.

The Insecure – disorganised child displays some avoidant and ambivalent patterns of behaviour. In general, he displays disorientated behaviours in the parent’s presence. He may run towards the parent and then freeze before he reaches her. He may cling to the parent and cry while at the same time, look away.

In middle childhood, these patterns of behaviour for secure and insecurely attached children will continue unless, there is an interruption in the continuity of care. E.g. where the parent experiences a trauma (such as divorce, ill health, or the death of another loved one) rendering her less available to the child, then a previously securely attached child can, over a period of time, develop an insecure attachment style. This can work the other way as well, where an Insecure attachment style can become secure due to positive changes occurring in the parent’s life, rendering her more available to the child.

A child who is securely attached in middle childhood, has more harmonious interactions with teachers and peers, is better liked, has more friends and has fewer behavioural problems. He is able to use his parents to assist him in stressful situations. His communication pattern with his parents tends to be a more emotionally open one, from which he can develop problem-solving skills. These skills can then be applied to other situations, which can in turn lead to the development of more complex coping ones. These skills are supported and underpinned by the parents.

Emotional regulation and independence are desired outcomes for adulthood and these skills are best mastered in a secure attachment relationship.
An insecurely attached child has less positive social expectations and may assume that people will generally be unhelpful. In addition, he will tend to see himself as less competent and will have difficulty in calming himself when distressed. Unfortunately, this behaviour is self-reinforcing. An insecurely attached child will tend to carry this view of himself and others into other relationships, thereby encouraging less benign behaviour from others, leading to difficult social interactions and relationships.

So, what can you as a parent to foster a secure attachment in your child? This is a subject that I will return to in greater detail in a future article. However below are some ideas that may be useful.

As the child grows through middle childhood, effective parenting includes being a sensitive listener, granting autonomy for exploration as well as monitoring friends and the child’s activities. Also, making time for joint activities and maintaining respect for the child during conflict and disciplinary issues.

Sheila Hayes

Recommended Additional Reading

Introductory Reading

In Depth Reading

The Bowlby Attachment Trilogy
       1969:     Attachment, (Updated in 1982)
       1972:     Separation: Anxiety and Anger
       1980:     Loss: Sadness and Depression

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Why It Is Important To Explain and Reflect A Child’s Emotion Back To Them

Marie Murray wrote an excellent piece recently in The Irish Times Health Supplement on the subject of explaining and reflecting a child’s emotion back to them.

Children are not born with control over their feelings. This is a skill they learn through interaction with their carers. Just as children learn to dress themselves, they also learn to control their feelings and to express their feelings in a constructive and clear way. Mastery of emotions is further enhanced when they are linked to corresponding behaviours.

This is best understood by way of example.

Sarah and Kate are friends and are 4 years of age. They are playing in the lawn and taking turns at kicking the ball into the goal where Sarah’s mother is the goalkeeper.  It is Sarah’s turn to get the ball but Kate takes it.

Sarah storms over to her mother and says

“I am not playing anymore with Kate, I hate her and this is a stupid game”.

Sarah’s mother then says to Sarah in a soothing voice:-

 “Sarah you are angry with Kate right now. She did not wait for her turn and now you do not want to play with her”. Sometimes these things happen and it is ok to be annoyed. I am sure Kate didn’t mean it”

Here Sarah’s feelings and subsequent behaviours are explained to her by her mother. The more this is done by Sarah’s mother in various circumstances, the more Sarah can then make sense of why she is feeling and behaving towards Kate in this particular way.

Explaining and reflecting reassures and calms Sarah as her mother expresses to her what she may be feeling. Sarah can also see in her mother’s eyes that her mother is being empathic towards her. Contrary to popular belief, acknowledging Sarah’s feelings does not encourage her to be angrier.

Sarah has learned from previous experience that when her feelings have been acknowledged by her mother, she has felt calmer and in control. This repeated explaining and reflecting process helps Sarah understand and regulate her emotions as she learns that her feelings will not overwhelm her. Regulation happens as Sarah learns that she is able to imitate her mother’s responses and attitude and previous difficult emotions suddenly become more manageable.   

·         In the above example, Sarah can tolerate her frustration with Kate because her mother is emotionally available to  Her mother is able to accurately acknowledge and reflect how Sarah felt and behaved at that moment. Her mother’s empathy reveals to Sarah that she is understood. Her mother also offers a hypothesis to Sarah - that Kate didn’t mean it. Effectively, her mother is able to ‘take in’ or contain Sarah’s anger. This has the effect of detoxifying the intensity of Sarah’s anger for her, so she can understand and eventually come to terms with her experience. The ability of a carer to take in or contain a child’s emotions is a key element in ensuring a secure attachment in a child’s emotional landscape.

I would recommend you read Marie Murray’s article in full.

Psychology References

Below, I have also outlined some information on the Psychological concepts that are relevant to this area together with links for further reading.

Explaining and Reflecting: This is called Parental Affect Mirroring in the Psychological literature. One of the key thinkers in this area is Professor Peter Fonagy of University College London. Follow this link for an extract from his seminal book Affect Regulation, Mentalization and the Development of The Self.

The act of a mother being emotionally available to her child is called,  “maternal reverie” in the psychological literature.  This was a concept introduced by the British Psychologist Wilfred Bion in the nineteen sixties. Interestingly, Bion was also a key thinker in the area of Group Dynamics and his ideas have been incorporated into military training around the world.

The taking in of anger is known as containment. Again Bion was a key thinker in this area. See the links above for references.