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Attachment in the early years
Attachment in the early years

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2.1 Internal working models

A central premise of attachment theory is that infants learn about ways of relating from 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 Bowlby 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.

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 into 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 have a child’s experiences within his family: for, starting during his first months ... in his relations with 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 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, and this now serves as a springboard to the topics that are considered in the rest of this course.