When looking at infant and childhood attachment from a biopsychosocial perspective, there are several implications for a child’s psychological development as well as future interpersonal relationships. First, it is necessary to examine the relationship between the primary caregiver and the infant. Caregivers that provide comfort, nurturing and are attuned to the infants’ needs help infants form secure attachments in which the infant feels safe and secure. Infants begin to learn to self-regulate as their fears and anxieties are reduced due to empathetic attunement from the primary caregiver thus providing the best learning environment for the infant’s neurobiological development.
This is ideal learning environment for the infant because mild-to-moderate levels of stress or anxiety when an infant is in distress are extinguished when the caregiver is empathetic and responsive allowing for the infant to begin to integrate attachment schemas in which the infant can predict that the caregiver will be attuned and responsive to his/her needs. This is evidenced by Bowlby’s idea of a secure base in which infants will begin to explore their environment away from their caregiver or attachment figure, however return when anxiety arises to the caregiver or secure base for comfort; the secure attachment then helps the infant learn to be alone and feel safe and secure when in the presence of a responsive caregiver.
In terms of neurobiological development, the bonding and attachment that takes place between a responsive caregiver and infant strengthen social networks in the brain because when a caregiver is responsive, the infant’s sympathetic nervous system is activated producing high levels of norepinephrine and dopamine that give the infant pleasure. Pleasurable experiences further lend themselves to implicit memory that is present at birth which provides the framework for neural networks in the child’s first few years of development (Cozolino, 78).
Neurogenesis and neuroplasticity is strengthened through affect attunement and regulation in secure attachments which allows for the continual activation and extinguishment of anxiety that promote the growth of new dendrites leading cognitive flexibility and learning. Because neurons fire in response to stimuli, the responsiveness of a caregiver to an infant strengthens the connections in brain.
The amygdala located in the limbic system which is the emotional nervous system is responsible for the fight or flight response when one is faced with danger. For infants, this response is triggered when the infant is in distress or afraid. As a child grows the amygdala works in concert with the hippocampus to form explicit memories by which the child learns from the emotional experience A secure attachment from an attuned caregiver again provides an ideal learning environment where the amygdale and hippocampus work together to form strong neural connections. However, infant neurobiological development can go awry if the infant is unable to form a secure attachment with a primary caregiver which could lead to later psychopathology.
In infants that have insecure attachments, the infants’ primary caregiver is unresponsive to the infants needs leaving the infant in a state of anxiety and distress. Overtime, the lack of attunement results in the infants’ difficulty and/or inability to regulate their emotions. In Ainsworth’s Strange Situation, infants that were neglected or abused remained in a state of fear and anxiety despite their desire to be comforted by their caregiver because their caregiver was the source of the infants’ distress. Prolonged infant fear and distress becomes traumatic having a negative impact on the development of the neural networks in the brain leading to dissociation and defensive coping strategies over time. Further, insecure attachments have been shown in research to affect neuroplasticity, impair learning due to high levels of stress that activate the fear response in the amygdala. These high levels of stress actually impinges on the cognitive process in the hippocampus producing an imbalance whereas the fight or flight response interrupts conscious learning resulting in emotional or fear-based learning. As adults, children with insecure attachments whose brains have been wired for emotional or fear-based learning struggle in interpersonal relationships because they don’t know if it safe to have relationships with others.
In terms of culture, attachment styles may vary. In cultures that are more communal, the idea of child independence and autonomy may not necessarily reflect a secure attachment to a primary, responsive caregiver. Additionally, in some cultures where infants have multiple caregivers and are always in the care of the caregiver, Ainsworth’s Strange Situation may evoke more stress and anxiety for the infant because the infant has never been left with a stranger. An example of the cultural impact on attachment can be found in children of holocaust survivors whose parents, due to their trauma, were disorganized leading to disorganized attachment in their children.
Attachment disorders have been consistent with psychiatric disorders like borderline personality disorder and narcissism as a result of children that grow up with insecure attachments that lead to difficult and strained interpersonal relationships. In narcissism for example, insecure attachments at childhood result in an impaired sense of self in which the child is unable to integrate and consolidate their own feelings and emotions leading to affect regulation. Instead, the child becomes responsible for the caregivers emotions resulting in an inflated sense of self while feeling emotional emptiness and abandonment due to the caregivers unresponsiveness and lack of attunement.
My experience in this area comes from my professional experience as a family child care provider. Though I often provide care for children that have some fears and anxieties when first entering child care, I have found and seen over the years how a secure attachment to a primary caregiver helps reduce anxiety in infants that ultimately help children self-regulate. Myself and my staff also contribute to this process as secondary caregivers that provide attunement and affect regulation for infants.
I did however have a child in my care that suffered from extreme separation anxiety as a result of early insecure attachment. The child was a victim of early infantile trauma in which he was physically and sexually abused from birth until 4 months of age. He was placed in what was to be temporary foster care at 8 months of age until an adoptive family was identified. Due to the child’s early trauma, frequent visits by social workers to the family home and the constant threat of removal from his foster home to an adoptive family he did not know, the child stayed in constant state of fear that was so debilitating the child screamed and cried when strangers came into the home and the child would not leave the home or presence of his primary caregivers.
The foster parents decided against the wishes of his social workers to place him in a stable, nurturing learning environment at my child care to help the child when he was 2 years of age to help him overcome his aversion to