Different Types of Attachment and Socio-emotional Development Throughout the Lifespan

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An infant requires a stable establishment of relational trust that is nourished by positive emotional and social connections with a primary caregiver (e.g., father, mother, or grandparent, etc.). Attachment types, such as the healthiest secure attachment style, determine the socio-emotional development and how someone manages social relationships across the lifespan. Differences in parenting and resulting attachment styles need to be put into cultural perspective. Secure attachment at any age can be promoted to support individuals in the achievement of their full potential of well-being and personal growth.

Building trust between child and the caregiver

John Bowlby’s theory of attachment is based on biology and is also studied in animal research [1]. It follows a cross-culturally valid evolutionary explanation [2] from the perspective that whole-organism interactions in early human development between the infant and the primary caregiver are imperative for survival [3]. Erik Erikson’s social development theory builds on the same premise of an infant requiring a stable establishment of relational trust. Erikson emphasizes that emotional and social connections, rather than biological ones, matter most [4]. Bowlby focused only on the importance of mothers in the child-caregiver dyad, while opponents like Harlow flagged already around the mid of the last century that anybody else (e.g., fathers, grandparents, or sisters) could provide the necessary care for secure attachment development too [5].

Attachment types priming for relationships throughout lifespan

According to Mary Ainsworth’s research rooting in the 1960s, there are three different qualities of attachment: secure, insecure-avoidant, and insecure-resistant [4]. Secure attachment tends to lead to successful stress management and relationships, and insecure attachment style risks to result in rather maladaptive behavior and relationships [6]. Infants’ emotions also originate from social interactions rather than only from within [4]. Feeling secure is a precondition for confidence as the basis for independent exploration [7]. Such socio-emotional development determines how somebody becomes emotionally primed even from a neuro circuitry development point of view as measured with fMRI analysis, i.e., how someone is inclined to seek for and respond to social relationships across the lifespan [8].

Parenting styles and cultural context

The promotion of the perception of self-worth is preventive of mental, emotional, and behavioral problems [9]. In Western contexts, authoritative (demanding and responsive) parents seem to be best able to support children’s development towards culturally favored behavior [4].  Differences in parenting and resulting attachment styles need to be put into cultural perspective. For example, a child’s shy behavior in an Eastern context where more authoritarian parents are the norm, wouldn’t necessarily mean attachment “avoidance” as it would be the case in the West [10]. Psychological control and dis-involvement in parenting cause child relational aggression [11]. Parents with insecure attachment more likely show negative parenting behavior [12]. Care-providers’, as well as society’s considerate support of an individual’s coherent body image, is especially important as body esteem influences the overall self-evaluation significantly throughout the life stages [13].

Different attachment symbols and effects on well-being and personal growth

Attachment security represents the main factor predicting subjective well-being in a US and European adult sample, while for the Mozambican study participants it was passionate love [14]. Satisfaction for women primarily depends on interpersonal interaction, compared to a more intra-personal focus of males [15]. Relationship attachment can also apply to places [16] and celebrities [17].  God is an attachment symbol that often becomes especially important for the socio-emotional life of older people [18]. All these benefits of secure attachment suggest that the promotion of it should be used for effective support of individuals of any age to achieve their full potential of well-being and personal growth [7].

Photo credit: Holgi (pixabay.com)


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[17] Stever, G. S. (2011). Fan behavior and lifespan development theory: Explaining para-social and social attachment to celebrities. Journal Of Adult Development, 18(1), 1-7. doi:10.1007/s10804-010-9100-0

[18] Homan, K. (2014). Symbolic Attachment Security and Eudemonic Well-Being in Older Adults. Journal Of Adult Development, 21(2), 89-95. doi:10.1007/s10804-013-9182-6 doi:http://dx.doi.org.liverpool.idm.oclc.org/10.1007/s11205-013-0512-7