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Sunday, December 26, 2010

Fear of strangers

Anyone with an interest in babies and a little patience could provide much of the stimulation (coos, cuddles, facial displays, gentle handling) that infants enjoy, and babies will generally respond to opportunities for interaction with others. However, quite early in life, infants begin to show one of the distinguishing features of human social behaviour – selectivity (Schaffer, 1996). During the first few months, much of the infant’s early social experience takes place in the microcosm of the family, and the most intensive interactions will usually be with the primary caregiver(s). But other people appear from time to time (healthcare professionals, visitors, neighbours) and the infant’s social world gradually broadens. However, before long, it becomes very clear that the infant prefers the company of particular individuals – not surprisingly, but importantly, the primary caregivers. Schaffer and Emerson (1964) followed a sample of Scottish infants during the first year, observing them in various social situations at home with their primary caregivers (mother, father, grandparents, etc.) and with female strangers. By monitoring the babies’ nonverbal reactions, they found a gradual increase in preference for specific individuals from around the age of five months. It appears from research such as this that, by at least the middle of the first year, the child has formed an attachment (or attachments) to a specific person (or persons). At around the same time, the child begins to show a quite different reaction – anxiety – when approached by unfamiliar people. At this point, spare another thought for the tadpole. One of the gravest problems about being a tadpole is that fish consider them a gourmet delight. As a result, tadpole survival rates are poor. But evolution has given tadpoles a chance of escaping the unwelcome attentions of passing fish. Tadpoles respond to chemical and tactile cues from predators, and swim fast to get as far away from them as they can (Stauffer & Semlitsch, 1993). This response appears t be built in, as it has been observed in laboratory-reared tadpoles, which have had no opportunities to learn about escape tactics. What does this have to do with the human infant? At around five to eight months, human infants begin to display a form of behaviour that has much in common with that of the cues sensitive tadpole: they start to show wariness of strangers and strive to maximize their distance from them. Human infants also seem to be sensitive to a number of cues emitted by the stranger. All of their perceptual capacities seem to help them to determine that ‘this person is not mum or dad’. But, unlike the tadpole, the human infant’s reaction also entails a cognitive component. The child tends to cease other activity and monitors the stranger carefully. If the stranger attempts direct interaction (e.g. by picking the child up), there may be resistance, protest and distress on the part of the infant. When this happens, the infant can usually be calmed only by being returned to the caregiver. Forming a relationship model

The development of the two aspects of social selectivity – attachment and wariness of strangers – are closely related in onset and developmental significance (Schaffer, 1996; Schaffer & Emerson, 1964); Many social developmentalists believe that the formation of attachments is a vital aspect of early relations. Through attachment, the infant maximizes opportunities for nurturing and protection, establishing a secure base from which to explore the rest of the world (Bowlby, 1988). According to Bowlby (a British psychiatrist who developed an influential theory of attachment and its consequences), through the course of the first attachment (i.e. to the principal caregiver) the infant also begins to formulate an internal working model [internal working model a set of basic assumptions (a schema) about the nature of relationships] of what a relationship involves. If this is correct, early attachment could be the most important relationship that the child ever forms. In fact, a great many studies by attachment researchers indicate that the type of attachment formed during this first relationship has long-term implications. Mary Ainsworth, an American colleague of Bowlby’s, proposed that there are three main types of attachment relationship formed by infants and their caregivers (Ainsworth et al., 1971). She tested her typology by observing infants’ reactions to a laboratory test – the ‘strange situation’. The baby is initially playing with his mother and is then approached by a stranger. After a while the mother leaves, and later she returns. This departure– return sequence may be repeated. Based on a careful coding system for scoring details of the child’s responses throughout the session, Ainsworth identified the following three types of relationship:
Type A
Insecurely attached/avoidant. This infant is relatively indifferent to the mother’s presence, does not seem greatly disturbed by her departure, and does not show enthusiasm for contact on her return.
Type B
Securely attached. The infant plays happily in the new environment, shows some distress when the mother departs (especially for a second time), but responds positively to her return.
Type C
Insecurely attached/resistant. The infant tends to explore less, is greatly distressed by the mother’s departure, is difficult to console upon her return, and may struggle to be released from her embrace.

[Mary D. Salter Ainsworth (1913–99) was one of the leading scientists in the study of human attachment. Born in Ohio, she grew up in Toronto, Canada, where she studied, and then taught, psychology. In 1950, she joined John Bowlby at the Tavistock Clinic in London, initiating a lifelong interest in the relationship between child and caregiver. She moved in 1954 to the East African Institute for Social Research, Uganda, where she conducted a longitudinal study of mother–infant attachment. In 1962, she began the Baltimore longitudinal study, which proved a seminal investigation and introduced new techniques for classifying attachment types.]

Much subsequent research has supported this classification, which has been used in studies of early child development around the world (Van Ijzendoorn & Sagi, 1999). Ainsworth and colleagues (1978) found that approximately 70 per cent of infants form Type B relationships, about 20 per cent fall into the category referred to as Type A, and around 10 per cent of infants form Type C relationships. If it is true that the primary attachment is the base from which the infant begins to tackle the rest of life’s challenges, then you can see at once that the Type B child appears to have an advantage. Feeling secure and supported, she is ready to explore and learn. If problems occur, the caregiver is there, but the child feels confident to try things out. Furthermore, because the basic relationship is a positive and enjoyable one, the child should expect (i.e. have an internal working model) that other relationships will be enjoyable, and hence respond favourably to opportunities to interact with other people. Many stu dies show that Type B infants tend to demonstrate higher levels of cognitive and social skills during their preschool or later years (Meins et al., 1998; Suess, Grossman & Sroufe, 1992; Youngblade & Belsky, 1992). The topic is controversial (Schaffer, 1996), but it does appear that the quality of the infant’s initial relationship can help predict aspects of subsequent development.

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