Attachment and Phases of Development

According to Bowlby (1969/1982) attachment propensities develop through four phases in humans.

In the first phase, which takes place between birth and 2-3 months, infants respond to a variety of social stimuli and people, not exhibiting strong preferences for one attachment figure. Bowlby may have underestimated how open very young infants are to contact comfort from multiple caregivers, he was correct in believing that infants are malleable in terms of whom they can bond with in the opening months of life.

During the second phase, which runs from 2-3 months to about 7 months, infants display greater discrimination in social responsiveness. They begin, for instance, to distinguish caregivers and family members from strangers, to selectively prefer certain persons, and to direct their attachment behaviors toward specific attachment figures.

In the third phase, which extends from 7 months to roughly 3 years, children learn to play a more active role in seeking proximity and initiating social contact. During this phase, they start to develop “internal working models” (i.e. beliefs, expectancies, and attitudes about relationships bases on experiences with attachment figures) of the self and significant others. This is also the phase during which the three primary functions of attachment are first seen in the child’s behavior: proximity maintenance (staying near to, and resisting separation from, the attachment figure), safe haven (turning to the attachment figure for comfort and support), and secure base (using the attachment figure as a base from which to engage in nonattachment behaviors).

If children in this phase have prolonged separations from their attachment figures, they experience the three stages of response to separation: protest, despair, and detachment.

The fourth phase, which begins about age 3, marks the beginning of behaviors that signal the development of a “goal-corrected partnership” with attachment figures. That is, given the further development of language skills and theory-of-mind capabilities, children begin to see the world from the perspective of their interaction partners. This allows them to incorporate the goals, plans, and desires of their interaction partners into their decision-making, resulting in the negotiation of joint plans and activities.

As children move through the toddler years, their desire for physical proximity is gradually replaced by a desire to maintain psychological proximity (i.e., felt security). Early in adolescence, overt manifestations of attachment bonds with parents start to subside. The three functions of attachment – proximity maintenance, safe haven, and secure base – are slowly transferred from parents to peers and romantic partners as adolescents enter adulthood.

In summary, each of these normative capabilities and proclivities was probably shaped by selection pressures. Infants (and mothers) who forged stronger emotional bonds had, on average, higher reproductive fitness. Young children who were motivated to maintain closer contact to their parents (and parents who encouraged such tendencies) achieved greater fitness, as did individuals who successfully moved through each attachment stage and were able to transfer critical attachment functions from their parents to adult romantic partners.                             

© Drew Starr, 2011

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