The emotional bond that typically forms between infant and caregiver is the means by which the helpless infant gets primary needs met. It then becomes the engine of subsequent social, emotional, and cognitive development. The early experience of the infant stimulates growth of neural pathways that will sculpt enduring patterns of response to many people, life events, and things in general. The attachment experience affects personality development, particularly a sense of security, and research shows that it influences the ability to form stable relationships throughout life. Neuroscientists believe that attachment is such a primal need that there are networks of neurons in the brain dedicated to setting it in motion and a hormone—oxytocin—to foster the process. The genius of the attachment system is that it provides the infant's first coping system; it sets up in the infant's mind a mental representation of the caregiver, one that is wholly portable and can be summoned up as a comforting mental presence in difficult moments. Because it allows an infant to separate from the caregiver without distress and begin to explore the world around her, attachment contains within it the platform for the child's ability to survive independently.
What Is Attachment?
The Four Different Attachment Styles
Research shows that people develop one of four relatively enduring attachment styles based on early experience with a caregiver. In their studies, researchers separate infants from their caregivers for brief periods of time and observe their behavior when reunited with the caregiver. Infants with a secure attachment style are distressed when their caregiver leaves, but welcome the caregiver back and recognize that their needs will be met. Such infants tend to go through life stable and secure and are generally trusting of new adults. Anxious-resistant attachment describes a child who is frightened to stray from the parent and continues to display anxious behavior once they return. Anxious-avoidant attachment denotes a child who reacts fairly calmly to a parent’s separation and does not embrace their return. Disorganized attachment style represents atypical behavior during the separation, does not cleave to one of the three primary forms of attachment, and may be the result of childhood trauma. One’s attachment style may carry through to adulthood and help shape future romantic relationships.