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Parental Responsiveness & Attachment Theory

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The parent-child relationship is perhaps the most important and certainly the most fundamental relationship for the healthy development of any human being. Almost every branch of psychology has its view on parenting and child development, each with its suggestions and guidelines for how to successfully raise children. Behavioral psychology is built upon the idea that behaviors are the result of conditioning, a cause and effect relationship, principally shaped through reward and punishment. In terms of the given parenting situation, behaviorism might suggest that the parent let the child cry, and not go to him to offer physical comfort because his physical needs have been met and doing so is superfluous. For example, a behaviorist might say that if the parent responds, then the baby thinks that crying works and will cry in order to gain the parent’s attention. This is called reinforcement, and the baby will be conditioned to cry for help. Yet, if the parent ignores the child, the child will eventually stop crying and learn that it does not work (no reinforcement). After crying has subsided, the parent should respond, in order to reinforce good behavior (not crying) and not “spoil” a child (Ablow & Measelle, 2008).

The basis of psychoanalytic theory is that the origin and explanation of neuroses and psychoses are found in early childhood experiences and trauma. Therefore, psychoanalysts such as Freud, Klein, Ainsworth and Bowlby place extreme importance on early affection, attachment and creating a loving environment during infancy and childhood to avoid trauma and fixations that later cause mental illness (Silverman, 1994). A psychoanalyst would suggest that the mother respond promptly to the infant’s cries and to offer the breast, which is a symbol of ultimate comfort and security for a baby.

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Bowlby asserted that attachment is an “essential, human life-long need” and that all humans search for a specific individual who is considered better equipped to handle the world and offer comfort and care in times of uncertainty, sickness or danger (Silverman, para. 2-3). Bowlby and Ainsworth, the primary forerunners of attachment theory, professionally came from psychoanalytic theory. It is based on the infant’s need to feel safe, secure and cared for, and this is primarily shown in parental responsiveness. An infant’s only way to communicate its needs is through crying, so parents’ responses to crying largely shape the relationship and affect the attachment.

In order to support secure attachment, the mother is advised to respond to her infant’s crying promptly and soothe the child. According to attachment theory infants associate parental absense with “loss, fear, anxiety and anger” while the presence of the mother or father is associated with “feelings of security and joy” (Adam, Gunnar & Tanaka, 2004, p. 110). For creating a secure attachment, the mother’s job during the first year of life, but especially during infancy is to nurture, show dependable and predictable behavior, and respond to their baby’s cries.

Some characteristics of the baby that could disrupt a secure attachment are colic, incessant crying or a developmental illness ((Ablow & Measelle, 2008). However, many experts agree that crying and even excessive infant crying often go unexplained but that it is most likely a coping strategy for adapting to life outside the womb ((Ablow & Measelle, 2008; Sears, 2013).

A solution to this common parenting dilemma is to continue offering care to the child, and be close, do not just place the child in his crib and let him “cry it out.” Try to soothe him and go through the steps of checking his diaper, feel his temperature, change his clothes if appropriate, offer him the breast or a bottle, and if he still cries and you are growing fatigued or frustrated, call someone in for help. Sometimes, a break from a crying infant is what is necessary to be able to resume with a mother’s responsibilities but in a calm state of mind.

  • Ablow, Measelle, (October, 2008). When Babies Cry: Parental Responses. Unpublished paper presented at the Healthy Brain Development Conference, University of Oregon, Eugene, Oregon.
  • Adam, E. K., Gunnar, M. R. and Tanaka, A. (2004). Adult Attachment, Parent Emotion, and Observed Parenting Behavior: Mediator and Moderator Models. Child Development 75 (1): 110-122.
  • Darling, N. (1999). Parenting styles and its correlates. Clearinghouse on Elementary and Early Childhood Education. Retrieved from
  • Sears, W. D. (2013). 7 Things Parents Should Know About Baby’s Cries. Retrieved from
  • Silverman, D. K. (1994). Attachment Themes: Empirical Work, Analytic Implications, and Future Directions. Bulletin of the Psychoanalytic Research Society 3(1). Retrieved from!4.htm