In order to provide guidance for your question on attachment in the first two years of life and whether these early experiences affect attachment styles in adulthood, let us first review some important background information. Attachment Theory in psychology explains how and why human infants and young children bond to a primary caregiver (usually a parent) and how the quality of that bond profoundly influences the child’s emotional, cognitive, and social development .
From an evolutionary perspective, an infant’s or child’s innate need to seek proximity (closeness) to the primary caregiver (or members of a caregiving group) exists in order to ensure his or her survival. Attachment Theory is based on research indicating that a primary caregiver who consistently and appropriately responds to an infant’s needs allows him or her to develop a secure base for exploring and understanding the world. When the caregiver is inconsistent, unreliable, or abusive, an ideal attachment style does not develop. Some studies suggest that these very early experiences affect attachment styles in adult relationships.
John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth stand out as pioneers of Attachment Theory. Bowlby (1907–1990) was a psychoanalyst who believed that early childhood events have a profound effect on subsequent mental health and behavior. His evolutionary theory of attachment presents the idea that humans are born with the drive to form attachments for the sake of survival. Bowlby also believed that the quality of a child’s attachment to a primary caregiver creates an “internal working model” or “cognitive framework” for understanding the self, others, and the world. The primary caregiver becomes a prototype for how the child will relate to others in the future.
I highly recommend that you review Mary Ainsworth’s groundbreaking study, the Strange Situation Procedure (SSP), published in 1969. Ainsworth identified three different attachment styles in children between the ages of twelve and eighteen months: Secure, Ambivalent, and Avoidant. You can read details of the study here:
Ainsworth observed that attachment styles reflect what a child has learned through his or her relationship with a primary caregiver. She called a mother’s ability to understand and respond promptly and “harmoniously” to a child’s needs “maternal sensitivity.” The mothers of children with secure attachment styles were observed to have high levels of maternal sensitivity. In her study, these children were momentarily distressed when their mothers left the room, but soon began to engage with the environment. When their mothers returned, they were joyful. A secure attachment style is associated with the best long-term outcomes.
Ambivalently attached children showed a great deal of distress in the SSP study when their mothers left the room. In Pediatric Disorders of Affect and Behavior (second edition, 2017), psychologist Georgia A. DeGangi writes that “ambivalent attachment forms when a child has a mother who is unpredictable in her reliability, not sensitive to the child’s emotional needs, and who discourages the child’s autonomy.”
You can read DeGangi’s in-depth explanation of the ambivalent attachment style here:
In the SSP study, avoidantly attached children tended to ignore their mothers and showed little emotion when the mothers left or returned. Avoidant attachment is thought to take place when a child’s primary caregiver is typically unresponsive or rejects a child’s need for emotional connection. Details can be found in the following article:
In 1990, Ainsworth’s colleague Mary Main recognized a fourth attachment style that is called disorganized attachment. Disorganized attachment is characterized by the confusing and ambivalent behavior of a child towards a primary caregiver and may be the result of trauma. I recommend you read the following article in Psychology Today, which also offers insights on how this attachment style may hinder adult relationships:
In addition to attachment styles, psychologists have recognized attachment phases. In 1964, Rudoph Schaffer and Peggy Emerson studied sixty babies at monthly intervals over their first eighteen months of life. They observed the following four distinct attachment phases.
1. Pre-attachment, the first stage, takes place from birth to three months. At this stage, babies do not yet show a special attachment to a specific caregiver. They cry to signal their needs.
2. Indiscriminate Attachment, the second stage, takes place between about six weeks to seven months of age. In this stage, infants begin to show preferences for their caregivers. At this point, under normal circumstances, they begin to develop a feeling of trust that their needs will be met.
3. Discriminate Attachment, the third stage, takes place from about seven to eleven months of age. At this stage, children develop a strong attachment to a particular caregiver and become very upset when separated. They also become anxious around strangers.
4. Multiple Attachment is the fourth stage. After approximately nine months, children in the study began to form strong bonds with other significant people in their lives, such as fathers, siblings, and extended family members.
In terms of how early attachment affects adult relationships, in the 1980s, researchers Cindy Hazen and Philip Shaver studied attachment patterns in adults. According to these researchers, those who had formed secure attachments very early tended to have good self-esteem and happier, healthier adult relationships. You can read more about Hazen and Shaver’s findings here:
Keep in mind, as you form your own ideas, that Attachment Theory may have its limitations and biases. Read some of the criticism and express your own opinion in your assignment.