Child Myths

Straight talk about child development.

The Forgotten Step in Attachment: Negotiation

"Five more minutes": is that plea related to attachment?

Attachment theory, as originally proposed by John Bowlby, describes a number of stages by which an individual progresses from early relationships to adult connections and attitudes toward his or her own children. As the concept of attachment has become a focus of popular and professional interest, many authors have stressed the early stages of emotional and social development rather than later events. It seems that readers too are attracted to discussions of the first years of life, with their emphasis on children's needs for contact with familiar caregivers and their grief when separated from familiar people. In part because of our assumptions about "infant determinism"-the idea that events early in life are more influential than those that occur later--- many of us are very ready to accept the idea that early attachment history, including separation, adoption, or child care experiences, is the major determinant of who we are as adults.

But, of course, one does not have to read all of Bowlby to be aware that human beings do not move directly from early attachment experiences to adult attitudes. Like other aspects of development, the change is a gradual one, involving later experiences as well as maturation of cognitive and emotional characteristics. Although Bowlby concentrated on his description of early attachment and separation anxiety, he also discussed some later developments which are significant to personality and social relationships. One of the most intriguing of these occurs in the late toddler and early preschool period. It's an often-forgotten part of the individual's development of attachment.

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This later attachment development, often ignored or considered a nuisance by caregivers, is called "negotiation of separation" and can be seen as the foundation of bargaining and compromise of all kinds. Young children are negotiating separation when they beg for five more minutes before bed, one more story, or a precise adjustment of the closet door (whose shadow convinces them that a witch lives in there). They are truly anxious about being left alone by the parent, but they can accept this discomfort when they feel that it is a little bit under their control because they can delay the moment of separation. Their developing skills of negotiation are evident in the fact that they ask for things that the parent is not entirely unwilling or unable to give. A glass of water, another trip to the bathroom, two more kisses-- these are all very reasonable demands, and in the case of the bathroom the parent may even feel more comfortable that the event is occurring now rather than later. Children do not usually ask for a slice of birthday cake, high-heeled shoes, or a dragon's egg when they are negotiating; they use their abilities to decide what an adult might consider to be a legitimate demand .

What does negotiation of separation have to do with attachment? The "separation" part is obvious enough, as a concern with separation is one of the main ways we know whether a child has formed an attachment to someone. But why negotiation, rather than just clinging or crying as a younger child does? The older toddler or preschooler certainly has a better memory and more ability to take comfort from thinking about an absent parent than an infant does, so we can see why he or she does not fuss in the same way. Why the child tries to negotiate is less obvious until we think about attachment as the basis for the "internal working model of social relationships"--- the set of thoughts and emotions that we use in planning and organizing our relationships with other people. The ability to negotiate involves that working model in a still-simple form, because negotiation cannot be done unless we can guess something about other people's thoughts and wishes and the ways they jibe with our own. We especially need to know whether other people care for us.

The negotiating child has figured out that caregivers usually want to make the child comfortable and reasonably happy, and will yield to requests that can be expected to accomplish this. But he or she also knows that adults have their limits, will not drop everything and buy barbecue, or stay in the child's room all night, and in fact will get mad if things go too far. Negotiating separation shows the child the adult's concern (satisfying some attachment needs) and at the same time gives a sense of control over separation, but its developmental importance may have most to do with adding to the internal working model of social relationships. This model will continue to be elaborated through childhood and probably throughout life, and will certainly be used to organize emotional interactions as well as all the bargains and compromises needed in real life.

Does this mean that parents have to negotiate bedtime until midnight? Of course not. Learning about people's limits is a very real part of the development of adult working models of attachment and other aspects of relationships, and parents' limits are probably among the first the child learns.

Jean Mercer is a developmental psychologist with a special interest in parent-infant relationships.


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