Bonding and Attachment in Maltreated Children

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Lesson 3: Factors Affecting Bonding and Attachment
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Are there ways to classify attachment?

Like human traits such as height or weight, individual attachment capabilities are also continuous.  In an attempt to study this range of attachments, however, researchers have clustered the continuum into four categories of attachment: secure, insecure-resistant, insecure-avoidant, and insecure-disorganized/disoriented.  Securely attached children feel a consistent, responsive, and supportive connection to their mothers, even during times of significant stress.  Insecurely attached children feel inconsistent, punishing, unresponsive emotions from their caregivers and feel threatened during times of stress.  The table below illustrates these classifications.


Strange Situation Procedure:

Classification of Attachment

Percentage at One-Year

Response in Strange Situation

Securely attached

60-70 %

Explores with M in room; upset with separation; warm greeting upon return; seeks physical touch and comfort upon reunion

Insecure: avoidant

15-20 %

Ignores M when present; little distress on separation; actively turns away from M upon reunion

Insecure: resistant

10-15 %

Little exploration with M in room, stays close to M; very distressed upon separation; ambivalent or angry and resists physical contact upon reunion with M

Insecure:  disorganized disoriented

5-10 %

Confusion about approaching or avoiding M; most distressed by separation; upon reunion acts confused and dazed – similar to approach-avoidance confusion in animal models


Dr. Mary Ainsworth developed a simple process to examine the nature of a child’s attachment.  This is called the Strange Situation Procedure.  Simply stated, the mother and infant are observed in a sequence of “situations:” parent-child alone in a playroom; stranger entering room; parent leaving while the stranger stays and tries to comfort the baby; parent returns and comforts infant; stranger leaves; mother leaves infant all alone; stranger enters to comfort infant; parent returns and tries to comfort and engage the infant.  The behaviors during each of these situations is observed and “rated.”  The behaviors of children in this testing paradigm are scored and used to categorize attachment styles.


What other factors hinder bonding and attachment?

Any factors that interfere with bonding experiences can interfere with the development of attachment capabilities.  When the interactive, reciprocal "dance" between the caregiver and infant is difficult or disrupted, bonding experiences are a  challenge to maintain.  Disruptions can occur because of primary problems with the infant, the caregiver, the environment or the "fit" between the infant and caregiver.


Infant: The child’s “personality” or temperament influences bonding.  If an infant is difficult to soothe, irritable, or unresponsive--compared to a calm, self-soothing child--he or she will have more difficulty developing a secure attachment.  The infant's ability to participate in the maternal-infant interaction may be compromised due to a medical condition such as prematurity, birth defect, or illness.


Caregiver: The caregiver's behaviors can impair bonding.  Critical, rejecting, or interfering parents tend to have children that avoid emotional intimacy.  Abusive parents tend to have children that become uncomfortable with intimacy and withdraw.  The child’s mother may be unresponsive to the child due to maternal depression, substance abuse, overwhelming personal problems, or other factors that interfere with her ability to be consistent and nurturing with the child.


Environment:  A major impediment to healthy attachment is fear.  If an infant is distressed due to pain, pervasive threat, or a chaotic environment, they will have a difficult time participating in even a supportive caregiving relationship.  Children in violent, dangerous circumstances are vulnerable to developing attachment problems: be it a war zone, community violence, domestic violence, or refugee infants and children. 


Fit: The "fit" between the temperament and capabilities of the infant and the mother is crucial.  Some caregivers can be just fine with a calm infant but are overwhelmed by an irritable infant.  The process of paying attention to another, reading each other's non-verbal cues, and responding appropriately is essential to maintain the bonding experiences that build in healthy attachments.  Sometimes, a style of communication and response style used by a mother with one of her other children may not fit her newborn infant.  The mutual frustration of being "out of sync" can impair bonding.


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