A freeze-frame from the Child of Our Time credits Copyrighted image Credit: Production team

Something special can happen early in an individual’s development whereby certain specific objects come to have an exceptional significance. Close contact with these objects is used as an important source of comfort and support at times of stress and the absence of these attachment objects at such times can lead to distress and anxiety.

Objects of attachment
The word ‘object’ is being used here in a broad sense to include human beings as well as other sorts of comfort objects. While not all children do so, many make use of objects like favourite feeding bottles or a comfort blanket to which they develop a strong attachment. Winnicott (1953) described such attachments as involving ‘transitional objects’. He argued that such attachments represent a developmental stage whereby the infant makes use of an object over which they have control to deal with and move on from their early attachment to the mother, who is less under the infant’s control. In both cases, attachment to mother and attachment to transitional object, the significant point is that they are attachments to specific, single objects.

Internal working models

A central premise of attachment theory is that infants learn about ways of relating from these early relationships with their attachment objects and build up a set of expectations about themselves in relation to others. On the basis of these first experiences they build what has been termed an ‘Internal Working Model’ (IWM), which means they can approach new situations with some prior ideas about how they can cope in the face of threat. This IWM has three elements: a model of the self, a model of ‘the other’ and a model of the relationships between these (Bowlby, 1969, 1973, 1988; Bretherton, 1990, 1991, 1993).

For example, one infant might have a father as the primary carer who is quite devoted and, as well as being with the infant most of the time that she is awake, is also very responsive to the infant’s distress. This infant will thus be likely to construct an IWM in which self is seen as capable of calling for comfort when needed and as worthy of receiving comfort. The model of other will represent an expectation that comfort will be given when needed and that the other will show concern for the infant’s state. The relationship part of this IWM will include an expectation of satisfactory resolution of crises, with mutual communication.

By contrast, another infant may have a carer who is quite depressed, spending a lot of time in a self-absorbed state and with a generally low mood. This infant may spend long periods of time alone, or with an emotionally unavailable carer, where distress goes unacknowledged. When infant distress is responded to, it may sometimes be that the carer feels the distress as being invasive and the infant is handled roughly as a result. On other occasions, the infant’s distress may trigger a need in the carer for them to be cared for and the carer will seek to reverse roles. In this situation, the infant’s IWM will have an ambivalent model of self, as sometimes worthy of attention, but not always; as sometimes receiving comfort, but at times also expected to give comfort when distressed. The model of other will be similarly confused, between availability, ignoring and rejecting aspects. The relationship model will also have multiple expectations. So an infant in this latter situation will have an IWM that is less able to generate accurate predictions of what will happen in the case of distress.

 

Comment:
In none of these vignettes are we suggesting that there are inevitably positive or negative outcomes; rather, we are encouraging you to consider the differences in expectations about self, other and relating that might arise in each. We would also stress that much depends on the quality of relatedness between parent and infant; warm, supportive relationships can be formed even in the most adverse circumstances. Comments on each vignette follow:

 

1. An infant who is one of a pair of identical twins, with a single parent who is not working and struggles on a low income

There are two elements in this vignette; the twins and the parent’s situation. With respect to the twin element, each twin is going to experience the division of parental attention between them and their twin, hence the IWM is likely to contain an expectation that sometimes attention will be available and sometimes not. Thus, compared with the situation for a single child, the infant will probably be able to tolerate waiting for attention. The fact of low income in itself might only be relevant if it means that the parent is self-absorbed in the problems that low income might cause. This might then lead to the infant’s IWM also including an expectation of the other not always being emotionally available. But the fact of having a single parent can also contribute to a more unified view of self, since the reactions of the other are more likely to be consistently predictable than for two or more carers. The presence of the twin might add some expectation of companionship and empathy from a peer to the IWM.

2. An infant who is an only child with two working parents who sharecaring roles but also have an au-pair who cares for the infant duringthe day

An only child will not have the twins’ experiences of peer companionship that could contribute to their IWMs and, in the vignette described, is likely to develop an IWM that has multiple facets, representing the relationships with each of the parents and the au pair. To the extent that these differ from each other, the infant may also develop a more diversified sense of self.

3. An infant with an illness that necessitates long periods in hospital with painful treatments that require periods of isolation

The infant in hospital might come to associate pain with relating to others, thus the IWM might incorporate fearful feelings around relating. There is a possibility that the isolation and lack of contact with parents could lead to a view of self as unworthy and that relating to others is rarely and unpredictably available. However, the risks to attachment formation during hospitalisation of children are better recognised nowadays as is the need to foster and maintain supportive relationships with parents and nursing staff.

4. An infant in a nomadic ethnic group where all adults take shared responsibility for the care of infants

In this situation, the infant’s IWM is likely to hold an expectation that care will be available no matter who is turned to. To the extent that the different members of the group relate in different ways to the infant, the image of self may become somewhat diffuse and varied. This sort of caring environment can still lead to an infant feeling security in relations with others, but in a contrasting way to the single parent-infant bond situation.

A second central premise of attachment theory is that IWMs arise out of the oft-repeated experiences of the specific nature of the early relationships between infants and carers and, crucially, that the IWMs persist onwards into childhood and beyond. The argument goes that these expectations about self, other and relationships are carried onwards and outwards to subsequent interactions with other people, providing a template to make initial sense of new encounters:
“No variables have more far-reaching effects on personality development than a child’s experiences within the family. Starting during his first months in his relation to both parents, he builds up working models of how attachment figures are likely to behave towards him in any of a variety of situations, and on all those models are based all his expectations, and therefore all his plans, for the rest of his life.” Bowlby (1973, p.369)

Thus, in typically bold fashion, Bowlby set out this central tenet of attachment theory.

Activity: IWMs and new relationships
Allow about 10 minutes
This activity should help you to begin to think about how IWMs, formed during infancy, might affect later relationships.

For each of the four infant vignettes outlined in the previous Activity, consider how the IWM that the infant formed might influence the form of a first romantic attachment when the infant becomes a teenager.

1 An infant who is one of a pair of identical twins, with a single parent who is not working and struggles on a low income

2 An infant who is an only child with two working parents who share caring roles but also have an au-pair who cares for the infant during the day

3 An infant with an illness that necessitates long periods in hospital with painful treatments that require periods of isolation

4 An infant in a nomadic ethnic group where all adults take shared responsibility for the care of infants

Comment:
Again, we would emphasise that the suggestions we give on each vignette simply point to possible scenarios as illustrative of particular outcomes out of the many possible.

1. An infant who is one of a pair of identical twins, with a single parent who is not working and struggles on a low income

As a teenager, this infant’s IWM might prepare them well to enter a single, exclusive attachment, which nevertheless allows for other simultaneous close peer relationships. This teenager might be less well prepared for accepting other relationships that their partner has.

2. An infant who is an only child with two working parents who sharecaring roles but also have an au-pair who cares for the infant duringthe day

One outcome here might be that the IWM allows for a number of different close relationships, hence the teenager might be more likely to form a relationship with a partner within a small group of very close friends.

3. An infant with an illness that necessitates long periods in hospital with painful treatments that require periods of isolation

This infant might be somewhat wary of entering a new relationship until reassured that it is safe. There might be some fears of loss and unavailability of other, but adequate support and care during the hospitalisation could well have alleviated that and helped them to hold a view of self as worthy of affection.

4. An infant in a nomadic ethnic group where all adults take shared responsibility for the care of infants

Here, the IWM might be most likely to support strong bonds with many members of the community, which is clearly important for a nomadic group. The romantic relationship might only form a small part of the teenager’s web of attachments. This vignette brings out the significance of the context within which attachments form and operate.

 

 

References
Bowlby, J. (1969) Attachment and loss: Vol. 1. Attachment, New York, Basic Books.
Bowlby, J. (1973) Attachment and loss: Vol. 2. Separation: Anxiety and anger, New York, Basic Books.
Bowlby, J. (1988) A secure base: Parent-child attachment and healthy human development, New York, Basic Books.
Bretherton, I. (1990) ‘Open communication and internal working models: Their role in the development of attachment relationships’, in Thompson, R. A. (ed.), Socioemotional development, pp. 57-114, Lincoln U.S.A., University of Nebraska Press.
Bretherton, I. (1991) ‘Pouring new wine into old bottles: The social self as internal working model’, in Gunnar, M. R. and Sroufe, L. A. (eds), Self process and development: Minnesota symposia on child psychology, vol. 23, pp. 1-41, Hillsdale, NJ, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Bretherton, I. (1993) ‘From dialogue to internal working models: The co-construction of self relationships’, in Nelson, C. A. (ed) Memory and affect in development: Minnesota symposia on child psychology, vol. 26, pp. 237-263, Hillsdale, NJ, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Winnicott, D. W. (1953) ‘Transitional objects and transitional phenomena’, International Journal of Psychoanalysis, vol. 34, pp. 89-97.

 

This extract from course ED209 is © Open University 2005