Child’s Social and Emotional Development
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In the following essay I plan to explore how early experiences of relationships relate to a child’s later social and emotional development. Early relationships take the form of attachments. Once a child is born they develop a special bond with another human being, this I believe is a relationship that provides a feeling of safety and security for the child and one that relies on the trust a child has for the person who they share this bond with i.e. their attachment figure from which exploration of the world begins. “Attachment theory is a way of explaining the emotional bonds that children develop with their carers, how crucial these are to their personal, social and emotional development and what we observe when a child is separated from the secure relationship of their primary caregiver.” (Read, 2010, p. 8)
The key question I aim to address is ‘are early relationships key in later social and emotional development?’ In other words, do the attachments formed in early childhood have an effect on adolescent and adult relationships? I plan to look into leading psychologists theories on the importance of early relationships including that of John Bowlby and will look at contrasting and supporting evidence and opposing theories. By looking at adoption and deprivation studies I hope to uncover the effects of disruption to the formation of early relationships and from looking at different types of relationships I hope to discover how each effect the social and emotional development of a child differently. When exploring attachments, we must first ask ourselves what exactly attachments are and how are they formed. Firstly, it is widely agreed that attachments are reciprocal bonds between two people that develop over time and through interaction (Bailey, et al., 2008). Psychologists differ in their theories of how and why attachments are formed and the importance of forming them in a child’s early years. The main, most known theory that aims to account for attachments is Bowlby’s Evolutionary Theory (1951, 1969).
His original exposition argued that affectional ties between children and their caregivers have a biological basis that is best understood in an evolutionary context. He believed that attachment is adaptive and innate and that infants and carers are programed to become attached. He notes (Parkinson, 2009) that an infant elicits caregiving through social releasers such as crying and smiling, these social releasers encourage interaction and bonds are formed with caregivers that respond sensitively. From Bowlby’s perspective, attachment is a biological process, there is a critical period for forming attachments and after this time it is no longer possible. He believed that this critical period is between birth and three years of age. However, after continuing his studies for many years he changed his theory to include a sensitive period rather than a critical period (Holmes, 1993), he recognised that multiple attachments are possible and that attachments to a parent/parent figure can be formed after the period of birth to three years but will not have such a large influence on the child’s later social and emotional development.
Bowlby believed that attachment plays a large role in later life – that a child forms one special attachment (monotropic) usually to their mother that provides the basis for an internal working model, i.e. the basis of all subsequent relationships (Parkinson, 2009). He named this the continuity hypothesis. Pennington (1986) agrees in saying that many social psychologists regard the first relationship as a prototype (blueprint or model) for future relationships in that it determines the way a person approaches and behaves and interacts with other people. Following on from Bowlby’s work on attachment theory, Ainsworth et al. (1978) developed a method for assessing how well attached a child is to their mother or caregiver. In order to observe the child’s attachment strength she used a method called the strange situation, this method is made up of eight steps with a main focus on the behaviour the child demonstrates at the separation and reunion with their mother (or key care giver).
The method also looks at how well the child uses their mother/caregiver as a secure base for exploration and how well the child is comforted by them following a mildly stressful experience (such as being left alone). The strange situation has been used as an assessment for 12 to 24 month olds in many countries and on the basis of the child’s shown behaviour they are categorised as having one of four attachment types that Ainsworth et al developed. These are; secure, insecure- avoidant, insecure- resistant and disorganised. A child with a secure attachment means a strong attachment bond between the child and their significant other and in most western cultures is considered the ideal attachment. A child who is securely attached is more likely to explore and socialize with the world around them, therefore giving them more opportunities to enhance their social and emotional development.
On the other hand, the insecure infants explore less, which will inevitably have an impact on their early social and emotional development by restricting their experiences of the world. Kochanska (2001) carried out a longitudinal study of children aged 9 to 33 months; he observed their emotions during standard laboratory episodes that were designed to elicit fear, anger and joy. He found that over time insecure- avoidant children became more fearful, insecure- resistant children became less joyful and disorganised children became angrier, but those children with secure attachments showed less fear, anger or distress. We could use these findings to predict that those children who do not have secure attachments, their behaviour and emotions will progress from what was seen in the study, for example, the insecure-avoidant children became more fearful, this may suggest an anxiety problem in later life. This being the case, initial secure attachments seem to be rather important to a child’s emotional development.
Oppenheim et al (1988) used the strange situation showing a secure attachment at the age of 12months to the mother, to predict that curiosity and problem solving occurred at age 2, nursery school social confidence developed at age three with independence and empathy being predicted to take place at age 5. This study highlights the rewarding effects of a secure attachment being formed, however we cannot say that it is specifically a secure attachment in very early childhood that leads to these results, it could be that at whatever age a secure attachment is formed it has positive effects on later development. By flipping this study to consider the effects of having an insecure attachment in early childhood, we could say that the results suggest that an insecurely attached child would be less curious, less socially confident and less capable at problem solving and showing empathy. There has been research into the relationship between attachment style in early childhood and parenting style and attachment types as adults. Main et al. (1985) developed a technique to measure attachment in older teenagers and adults; they named it the Adult Attachment Interview, which is a semi-structured interview that looks at memories of early childhood experiences.
The coding of the transcripts does not focus on the experiences themselves but the interviewee’s evaluation and reflections of them. It was reported that the interview produced four main patterns; Autonomous, Dismissive, Enmeshed and Unresolved. The patterns express different parenting styles, Baumrind (1967) conceptualized a table with warmth and control dimensions (see appendix 1) expressing the characteristics of each of these styles. Research into parenting styles confirmed that authoritative parents were more likely to have popular, pro-social children whereas Authoritarian parents tended to have more socially rejected children (Dekovic and Jassens 1992). There have been several studies over the last 20 years that have examined whether strange situation classification in early childhood predict adult attachment interview classification. Some of the studies do find significant continuity of the three main attachment types; secure attachments lead to autonomous ones, avoidant to dismissive and resistant to enmeshed.
Studies with these results highlight the importance of a secure attachment as a child without one may develop into an adult with a particular attachment type that may hinder their lives socially and emotionally. By looking into studies of disruption to attachments we can specifically look at the effects of having or not having a monotropic attachment in early childhood. There are three examples of disruption: separation, privation and institutionalisation. The term privation literally means the lack of something; in this case emotional privation is the lack of attachment. Privation can result from circumstances where children lose their parents at an early age and spend time in institutional care, alternatively, from circumstances in which children are neglected because their caregiver is unable to care for them. There are two different types of study that can be undertaken to uncover the effects of privation, the first is case studies of children who have been in extreme conditions such as neglect and have not been able to form attachments.
The second type of study is a study of children who have been brought up in institutions and adopted in later childhood. Koluchova’s(1972) case study of two twins who were brought up by their father, neglected from the age of 18 months to 7 years due to the death of their mother, showed that when they were discovered and taken into care, given intensive rehabilitation and a secure home they, after time, attained an average IQ and became happy and social boys. This greatly suggests that an early monotropic attachment with a mother or mother figure is not necessary to develop good social skills and an average IQ later on in childhood. It could be concluded that in this case it was a secure home that promotes good development.
That is not to say secure relationships do not have an effect on a child’s social and emotional development, the study just shows that important, influential relationships can be formed at different stages of life, not just in the first three years as Bowlby suggested. Clarke & Clarke (1976) claim that if early experiences were so important then the twins would be emotionally disturbed for the rest of their lives. They conclude that at the very least they would suffer severe affectionless psychopathy, but according to Koluchova’s review, they did not. Koluchova (1972,) mentions in this review that “The awareness of the relations with the family is really profound and makes the boys feel safe and assured. Natural emotional bonds with all members of the family have arisen; apparently the relation with their foster mother, who is in a dominant position in the family, is emotionally deepest.”
This tells us that deep bonds are possible even after privation in early childhood and it demonstrates that not having these bonds in early childhood doesn’t hinder a child’s social and emotional develop, it may only delay it until they are able to form close bonds with an attachment figure.
Tizard and Hodges (1989a, 1989b) examined the effects of emotional privation on 65 children brought up in a children’s home until they were 4yrs old. During this time they were unable to form attachments to any of the adults. By the age of 16 the children had left the institution, some had been adopted and some had been restored to their biological parents. The two groups were compared with a comparison group of children reared in ordinary circumstances. The adopted children developed close attachments to their adopting parents but only half the restored children formed close attachments to their biological parents. This can be interpreted by questioning whether failed first attachments can ever be re-built as in the case of the restored children and late first attachments for the adoptee’s were successful because they were new and did not have previous failure. Compared with the control group, both the adopted group and the restored group showed anxiety symptoms and emotional problems, which perhaps reflects insecurity of their situation. Alternatively, the symptoms could be a result of a lack of initial attachment in the first three years of their lives as theorised by psychologists.
As I mentioned above, during the Tizard and Hodges study the children were not able to form attachments with any of the adults in the institutions they were in. It is difficult to know the reasons for this, but from my experience in foster care, I can personally understand why it may have been difficult for the children to form attachments with the adults at their institution. In my case of fostering (for a year in France), I didn’t form any attachments with the family I was with and we did not have a particularly good relationship. I would say that my experience supports the idea that relationships are important for social and emotional development, without the attachment and positive relationship, I feel my social and emotional development was hindered as it resulted in withdrawal and a loss of confidence.
“Young children experience their world as an environment of relationships and these relationships affect virtually all aspects of their development – intellectual, social, emotional, physical, behavioural and moral”
(National Scientific Council on the Developing Child, 2004) Personally I feel that this quote concludes nicely the theory of Bronfenbrenner (1986; 1995), who developed the Ecological Model of Human Development (see appendix 2). He described the spheres of influence in terms of concentric circles with the child at the centre. Bronfenbrenner believed that relationships for children link them to their community and so the first circle around the child is the family as they are the most influential in terms of development. After this comes friends, school peers, neighbourhood, family social network, the media and onto general social norms. These factors all influence each other and all influence the child. Parents are influenced by all the outer circles and by those that influence their child. One of the advantages of this model is that it accounts for different cultures. The Macrosystem (outer circle of beliefs, ideology and social norms) is different for every culture and therefore affects the inner systems (circles) in a specific way – indirectly having a specific effect on the child at the centre.
This means that the Macrosystem can even have an effect on the relationship between a mother and child; this is demonstrated in an article named Death without Weeping written by Nancy Scheper-Hughes. In the article she describes how low infant mortality rates in Brazilian shanty towns leads to the delay of attachments being formed as it is considered inappropriate and devastating in some cases to form early attachments before the age of 5. This shows how a culture’s social norms can have such a large effect on a relationship, in this case it was not only the fact that their children were likely to die but also part of the general beliefs of the culture.
The mothers believed that their children were little angles taken by god and that if no attachment was formed then they would not be upset when they departed. But does this delay in attachment formation affect the mother and child’s later relationship? Scheper-Hughes interviewed a young man called Ze whose life she saved as a baby after his mother declared him a lost cause. When she inquired who his best friend was he answered “My mother, of course”. This opposes Bowlby’s critical or sensitive period theory and shows that even though the attachment process began later than the critical period, Ze managed to form a secure attachment with his mother thus suggesting strong, secure attachments can be made after the critical period.
Young children’s emotional reactions are often affected by the emotional reactions of those around them. Empathy may account for the phenomenon of social referencing. The lack or absence of interaction with another human being can be considered damaging to a child’s emotional and maybe even social development. Children often use a basic level of social referencing with their significant others (parents or key care giver) as an indication of whether they are behaving correctly, whether a situation is safe or to gage how they should be feeling, it is easy to see how social reference is very influential in terms of emotional and social development. Boccia and Campos (1989) showed 8 month old babies reacting in a friendly way to strangers when their mothers showed warm facial expressions and not so when their faces were worried.
I’m interested in looking at the specific influences relationships with siblings and peers have on a child’s emotional and social development. Sibling relationships are usually the longest a child will ever have; they occur early and exert a profound effect on a child’s overall development. When looking at children’s social adjustment capabilities, Moore et al. (2001) found that relationships with parents, siblings and other family members are important indicators of a child’s ability to develop effecting social skills. The early interactions with siblings can also indicate future success in other domains as well.
The ability to negotiate conflict is one type of sibling interaction, from this interaction a child can learn to regulate their emotions and also learn social skills such as turn taking and sharing. From my observation of four sisters completing a group activity, I saw that the youngest (6 years old), not only had to work to regulate her emotions around her sisters, she also observed and picked up techniques from them. This would suggest that it is not only emotional development that is enhanced by sibling relationships and interactions but cognitive development as well. The older girls demonstrated turn taking and idea sharing; the youngest could imitate and display in other social settings such a school.
Peers play a different, but equally important role in a child’s social and emotional development. Contrastingly to siblings, a child is able to choose the peers that they wish to develop a relationship with. Ladd (1983) found that 8 to 9 year olds who were rejected by their peers engaged less in cooperative play and conversation and spent more time arguing and fighting. From these findings, it could be concluded that being rejected by peers at an early age could lead to the development of anti-social behaviour, this would clearly have an effect on the child’s later social and emotional skills.
“Psychologists have increasingly acknowledged the importance and significance of childhood, especially the early years, as a foundation for later adolescent and adult functioning” (Pennington, 1986, p. 18) and this can be seen in current practice today. The term key worker is relatively new but is becoming more commonly used these days; the role of keyworker is where a certain number children are specifically assigned to a practitioner. The practitioner is then in charge of their group of children’s welfare within that setting. These days, there are two different approaches to handling attachments within a setting. If a child has a key worker, then that person acts as an attachment figure to the child, providing the child with a ‘secure base’ within the setting and therefore promoting social and emotional development. In certain nurseries, parents can pay extra for their child to have this attachment figure and in these cases the practitioner will have little to do with the other children at the setting.
The second approach is the avoidance of attachments altogether, reasons for this may include a strict child safety policy in which close relationships are frowned upon or else to avoid acts of jealousy and rivalry for attention amongst the children. In summarising and concluding this discussion, it could be said that early experiences of relationships (attachments) can have profound effects on a child’s social and emotional development. We have looked at a number of studies that suggest if a child misses out on certain experiences in early childhood such as a good peer relationship and a secure attachment to a care giver then this can result in a disruption to their development. The studies I have analysed highlight the importance of early attachments as Bowlby suggested in his theory; however some of the studies challenge the idea of a critical or sensitive period such as the Tizard and Hodges adoption study and Scheper-Hughes findings in Brazil. It is seen that there can be many factors effecting a child’s development and that even their attachments can be influenced by culture or by the child’s Macrosystem. We can see in current day practice how important early relationships are considered to be and from the evidence I have seen I believe, as do many psychologists (Bowlby 1969, Pennington 1986, Rutter, 1980) that early experiences of relationships do form a blueprint for future experiences of relationships and we must hope that these early experiences are positive ones otherwise the results could be harmful for the child’s development.
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