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Sensitive Mothering Essay Sample

Sensitive Mothering Pages
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‘Sensitive mothering’ is defined by Ainsworth (Brandon et al., 1999), as the interaction style between the mother or primary caregiver and the baby. It involves the ability to understand the baby’s emotions and cues, creating a synchronised and attuned relationship where the baby learns to regulate her/his emotions and behaviour.

When babies are born they do not talk, they need to use other signals to communicate their needs. They smile, seek eye contact, reach, grasp, babble, cry…. If caregivers are sensitive to this signals they become more involved with the infant. Babies love to imitate adults faces and enjoy listening to the human voice. Infants are pro social beings who love to interact with adults (Davenport, 1994).

New born babies have some incomplete systems of body function and behaviour which will only develop through social interaction (Gerhardt, 2004). Baby’s emotions start at a basic level, they feel contentment or distress comfort or discomfort and they rely on their primary caregiver to manage their states. A sensitive mother reads the infant emotional signals and helps her/him to calm her/his distress and recover a feeling of comfort. If someone does it for them they develop the ability to do it for themselves when they grow up.

Depending on the caregiver response to the infant states, patterns start to appear and ‘internal working models’ (Bolwy, 1988) emerge. The ‘internal working model’ gives an understanding of the self, other people and relationships. It is the infant’s mental representation “of their own worthiness based on other people availability and their ability and willingness to provide care and protection” (Brandon et al, 1999, pg21). It forms during the first months and years of life as children experience the behaviour and feelings of their main caregiver. Children’s personalities begin to acquire a regular enduring quality, they begin to expect certain things of themselves and others.

When the caregiver is sensitive, responsive and fulfils the baby’s need for comfort, warmth and regulation the infants develop an ‘internal working model’ that view themselves as lovable and worthy of care. They see other people as available and supportive and can value others and cooperate. They develop a sense of trust that they will be safe and cared for, they are willing to explore the world because their caregiver is a secure base that will be there in case they need support.

But in the opposite situation if parents are insensitive, rejecting, interfering or emotionally unavailable the infant will develop a poor sense of self. They will experience other people as unpredictable and unreliable. They lack a secure foundation to support their explorations.

The most relevant theory in the field of emotional and social development is the ‘attachment theory’ devised by John Bolwy (1988). ‘Attachment’ is the emotional bond that develops between the caregiver and the infant during the first year of life providing emotional security and protection. He believed that children who had been separated from their primary caregiver or suffered emotional neglect where likely to suffer behavioural and emotional problems (Davenport, 1994).

Growth of attachment in babies is gradual (Deacon, 2007), they show attachment to the person who shows them affection and interacts with them, not to those who attend purely their physical needs, although it is usually the same person. Between three and six months the infant starts showing preference for their caregiver, the interaction with the mother is increasingly attuned and the baby is able to read her behaviours and moods better than those of anyone else. At around 7 months the baby shows attachment to one figure and her/his ‘attachment behaviour’ (Bolwy, 1988) like smiling, crying, clinging, following… is fully consolidated. The child becomes purposeful in choosing behaviours to bring about a response from the carer and as the child mobility increases s/he seeks to maintain close contact with the attachment figure.(Brandon et al., 1999)

Ainsworth who worked with Bolwy amplified and clarified the attachment theory. She developed a test to measure the quality of attachment in children aged between 12 and 18 months called the ‘Strange Situation’ (Ainsworth in Macleod-Brudenell & Kay, 2008). It consists in providing and unfamiliar but interesting environment where the child is motivated to explore with her mother in the room, a stranger comes in and interacts with the child, after the mother leaves and the child is left with the stranger and then the mother comes back. During the whole procedure which lasts around 20 minutes the child’s reactions are observed. When the mother leaves the room most infants stop playing and show ‘separation anxiety’ (Bolwy, 1988) which activates their attachment behaviours, they cry and try to follow their mothers. This pictures that when attachment behaviour is activated exploratory behaviour stops. The quality of attachment is significantly correlated with maternal sensitivity. (??)

Studying children’s reactions Ainsworth recognised three types of attachment (Gazzaniga and Heatherton, 2006). The ‘securely attached’ children explore when their mother is in the room, interact with the stranger and show distress when she leaves. When the mother comes back they are easily comforted and resume playing. This children have empathetic, responsive and cooperative mothers who generate a soothing and predictable environment. There is an attuned relationship between carer and child and a fluid balance between attachment and exploration. This children develop self-esteem and trust in relationships.

The other two patterns that she recognised are ‘insecure attachments’. She categorised the first one as ‘insecure avoidant attachment’, children under this category did not show distress when the mother left the room and ignored her when she came back. Avoidant infants do not experience a sensitive mothering, when they display attachment behaviour they are rejected. Instead of receiving attention when they feel distress, cry or cling it annoys and agitates their caregiver. Therefore the child suppresses and hides his/her distress to keep closeness with their carer.(Brandon et al., 1999)

The second one is the ‘anxious-ambivalent attachment’. Children with this pattern during the test were not eager to explore but to cling on their mothers, when she leaves they get very upset and when she returns it is hard to comfort them. This children have insensitive and inconsistently responsive carers, they need to exaggerate their attachment behaviour in order to get attention, crying, whining, clinging, fretting, shouting…. They are so distress and preoccupied in achieving their carers approval that they have less energy to explore their environment in a relaxed way.(Barnes, 1995)

The ‘disorganized attachment’ (Main and Salomon in Brandon et al., 1999) has been identified recently. Children with this pattern show inconsistent or contradictory behaviours, they find it difficult to maintain a positive relationship with their caregivers. This usually happens when the attachment figure is the cause of the initial distress. For example parents that are abusive, depressed or heavy drug or alcohol abusers.

Erickson is another relevant researcher in the field of social and emotional development. He approaches development as a process extending from birth to death. He proposed the ‘psychosocial stages’ (Erickson in Atkinson et al., 1990) believing that personality development depends on the different social relations established at different points in life. According to Erickson everyone must pass over eight interrelated stages during the entire life cycle. In each stage the individual confronts a conflict which may affect later development if it is not handled favourably (Macleod-Brudenel & Kay, 2008).

Relevant to this essay are the first three psychosocial stages. The first one is ‘trust versus mistrust’ (Erickson in Macleod-Brudenel & Kay, 2008). In this stage, from birth to around one year, the infant learns whether the world in which he lives can be trusted. If her/his physical and emotional needs are met in a consistent, sensitive and caring way, s/he learns that her/his mother or caregiver can be counted on and s/he develops an attitude of trust in people. If her/his needs are not met, an infant may become fearful and believe that the world is inconsistent and unpredictable and will not trust people around him. This stage can be related to Ainsworth words: “An infant whose mother has responded to his cries promptly in the past should develop both trust in her responsiveness and confidence in his increased ability to control what happens to him” (Davenport, 1994 pg. 32).

The second stage, from around one to three years, is ‘autonomy versus shame and doubt’ (Erickson in Macleod-Brudenel & Kay, 2008). During this stage the child learns to master skills for her/himself. S/he has the opportunity to build self-esteem and autonomy and gain control over her/his body like the toilet training. In this stage children are very vulnerable, if parents are sensitive and support the child in her/his attempts children will develop independence and a strong sense of self, but if children are shamed in the process of toilet training or in learning other important skills, they will feel shame or doubt of their capabilities and suffer low self-esteem as a result.

The third stage, from 3 to 6 years, is ‘initiative versus guilt’ (Erickson in Macleod-Brudenel & Kay, 2008). During this stage children progress from self-control to an ability to initiate activities and carry them out. Parental attitudes encouraging or discouraging can make children feel inadequate or guilty. Again in this stage we can see the importance of a sensitive, supportive and empathetic care in order to deal with this conflict in a favourable way.

As we have seen sensitive mothering is crucial to promote a healthy social and emotional development. Children which had it during their infancy and enjoy a secure attachment, during toddler hood and pre-school years learn to name their emotions and regulate them in a constructive way (Gerhardt, 2004). They show increasing independence because they trust their carers emotional availability, they develop self-esteem, they will expect a positive response from others and value close relationships.

Children which experienced an insensitive care grow up with a worthless sense of self and do not rely on others or in relationships. Avoidant children focus in activities rather than in relationships and do not show any emotions. Ambivalent children find it difficult to focus, their emotions overflow and are a bit exaggerated, even by school age they find it difficult to separate from their attachment figure because they haven’t developed trust in their availability. (Brandon et al., 1999) Attachment theorists (Barnes, 1995) found that the patterns of attachment and internal working models established during childhood are likely to prevail during adulthood relationships and influence parenthood. Usually insecure attached parents will have insecure attached children, but the transmission is not automatic, this patterns are created within relationships and can be modified if the individual experiences a influential attachment relationship. (Brandon et al., 1999)

In this essay I have explained the great importance and influence that a sensitive mothering has in further social and emotional development. Emotional availability, responsiveness and empathy give the child a strong secure foundation for their future development and well-being. As Bolwy’s said: “An unthinking confidence in the unfailing accessibility and support of attachment figures is the bedrock in which stable and self-reliant personality is built”( Dunn, 1993, pg 18)

SENSITIVE MOTHERING IS ESSENTIAL TO THE SOCIAL AND EMOTIONAL DEVELOPMENT OF THE CHILD. DISCUSS THIS STATEMENT IN THE CONTEXT OF RELEVANT DEVELOPMENTAL THEORY In this essay I will explain that sensitive mothering is essential to the social and emotional development of the child and I will discuss this statement in the context of relevant developmental theory.

‘Sensitive mothering’ is defined by Ainsworth (Brandon et al., 1999), as the interaction style between the mother or primary caregiver and the baby. It involves the ability to understand the baby’s emotions and cues, creating a synchronised and attuned relationship where the baby learns to regulate her/his emotions and behaviour.

When babies are born they do not talk, they need to use other signals to communicate their needs. They smile, seek eye contact, reach, grasp, babble, cry…. If caregivers are sensitive to this signals they become more involved with the infant. Babies love to imitate adults faces and enjoy listening to the human voice. Infants are pro social beings who love to interact with adults (Davenport, 1994).

New born babies have some incomplete systems of body function and behaviour which will only develop through social interaction (Gerhardt, 2004). Baby’s emotions start at a basic level, they feel contentment or distress comfort or discomfort and they rely on their primary caregiver to manage their states. A sensitive mother reads the infant emotional signals and helps her/him to calm her/his distress and recover a feeling of comfort. If someone does it for them they develop the ability to do it for themselves when they grow up.

Depending on the caregiver response to the infant states, patterns start to appear and ‘internal working models’ (Bolwy, 1988) emerge. The ‘internal working model’ gives an understanding of the self, other people and relationships. It is the infant’s mental representation “of their own worthiness based on other people availability and their ability and willingness to provide care and protection” (Brandon et al, 1999, pg21). It forms during the first months and years of life as children experience the behaviour and feelings of their main caregiver. Children’s personalities begin to acquire a regular enduring quality, they begin to expect certain things of themselves and others.

When the caregiver is sensitive, responsive and fulfils the baby’s need for comfort, warmth and regulation the infants develop an ‘internal working model’ that view themselves as lovable and worthy of care. They see other people as available and supportive and can value others and cooperate. They develop a sense of trust that they will be safe and cared for, they are willing to explore the world because their caregiver is a secure base that will be there in case they need support.

But in the opposite situation if parents are insensitive, rejecting, interfering or emotionally unavailable the infant will develop a poor sense of self. They will experience other people as unpredictable and unreliable. They lack a secure foundation to support their explorations.

The most relevant theory in the field of emotional and social development is the ‘attachment theory’ devised by John Bolwy (1988). ‘Attachment’ is the emotional bond that develops between the caregiver and the infant during the first year of life providing emotional security and protection. He believed that children who had been separated from their primary caregiver or suffered emotional neglect where likely to suffer behavioural and emotional problems (Davenport, 1994).

Growth of attachment in babies is gradual (Deacon, 2007), they show attachment to the person who shows them affection and interacts with them, not to those who attend purely their physical needs, although it is usually the same person. Between three and six months the infant starts showing preference for their caregiver, the interaction with the mother is increasingly attuned and the baby is able to read her behaviours and moods better than those of anyone else. At around 7 months the baby shows attachment to one figure and her/his ‘attachment behaviour’ (Bolwy, 1988) like smiling, crying, clinging, following… is fully consolidated. The child becomes purposeful in choosing behaviours to bring about a response from the carer and as the child mobility increases s/he seeks to maintain close contact with the attachment figure.(Brandon et al., 1999)

Ainsworth who worked with Bolwy amplified and clarified the attachment theory. She developed a test to measure the quality of attachment in children aged between 12 and 18 months called the ‘Strange Situation’ (Ainsworth in Macleod-Brudenell & Kay, 2008). It consists in providing and unfamiliar but interesting environment where the child is motivated to explore with her mother in the room, a stranger comes in and interacts with the child, after the mother leaves and the child is left with the stranger and then the mother comes back. During the whole procedure which lasts around 20 minutes the child’s reactions are observed. When the mother leaves the room most infants stop playing and show ‘separation anxiety’ (Bolwy, 1988) which activates their attachment behaviours, they cry and try to follow their mothers. This pictures that when attachment behaviour is activated exploratory behaviour stops. The quality of attachment is significantly correlated with maternal sensitivity. (??)

Studying children’s reactions Ainsworth recognised three types of attachment (Gazzaniga and Heatherton, 2006). The ‘securely attached’ children explore when their mother is in the room, interact with the stranger and show distress when she leaves. When the mother comes back they are easily comforted and resume playing. These children have empathetic, responsive and cooperative mothers who generate a soothing and predictable environment. There is an attuned relationship between carer and child and a fluid balance between attachment and exploration. These children develop self-esteem and trust in relationships.

The other two patterns that she recognised are ‘insecure attachments’. She categorised the first one as ‘insecure avoidant attachment’, children under this category did not show distress when the mother left the room and ignored her when she came back. Avoidant infants do not experience a sensitive mothering, when they display attachment behaviour they are rejected. Instead of receiving attention when they feel distress, cry or cling it annoys and agitates their caregiver. Therefore the child suppresses and hides his/her distress to keep closeness with their carer.(Brandon et al., 1999)

The second one is the ‘anxious-ambivalent attachment’. Children with this pattern during the test were not eager to explore but to cling on their mothers, when she leaves they get very upset and when she returns it is hard to comfort them. This children have insensitive and inconsistently responsive carers, they need to exaggerate their attachment behaviour in order to get attention, crying, whining, clinging, fretting, shouting…. They are so distress and preoccupied in achieving their carers approval that they have less energy to explore their environment in a relaxed way.(Barnes, 1995)

The ‘disorganized attachment’ (Main and Salomon in Brandon et al., 1999) has been identified recently. Children with this pattern show inconsistent or contradictory behaviours, they find it difficult to maintain a positive relationship with their caregivers. This usually happens when the attachment figure is the cause of the initial distress. For example parents that are abusive, depressed or heavy drug or alcohol abusers.

Erickson is another relevant researcher in the field of social and emotional development. He approaches development as a process extending from birth to death. He proposed the ‘psychosocial stages’ (Erickson in Atkinson et al., 1990) believing that personality development depends on the different social relations established at different points in life. According to Erickson everyone must pass over eight interrelated stages during the entire life cycle. In each stage the individual confronts a conflict which may affect later development if it is not handled favourably (Macleod-Brudenel & Kay, 2008).

Relevant to this essay are the first three psychosocial stages. The first one is ‘trust versus mistrust’ (Erickson in Macleod-Brudenel & Kay, 2008). In this stage, from birth to around one year, the infant learns whether the world in which he lives can be trusted. If her/his physical and emotional needs are met in a consistent, sensitive and caring way, s/he learns that her/his mother or caregiver can be counted on and s/he develops an attitude of trust in people. If her/his needs are not met, an infant may become fearful and believe that the world is inconsistent and unpredictable and will not trust people around him. This stage can be related to Ainsworth words: “An infant whose mother has responded to his cries promptly in the past should develop both trust in her responsiveness and confidence in his increased ability to control what happens to him” (Davenport, 1994 pg. 32).

The second stage, from around one to three years, is ‘autonomy versus shame and doubt’ (Erickson in Macleod-Brudenel & Kay, 2008). During this stage the child learns to master skills for her/himself. S/he has the opportunity to build self-esteem and autonomy and gain control over her/his body like the toilet training. In this stage children are very vulnerable, if parents are sensitive and support the child in her/his attempts children will develop independence and a strong sense of self, but if children are shamed in the process of toilet training or in learning other important skills, they will feel shame or doubt of their capabilities and suffer low self-esteem as a result.

The third stage, from 3 to 6 years, is ‘initiative versus guilt’ (Erickson in Macleod-Brudenel & Kay, 2008). During this stage children progress from self-control to an ability to initiate activities and carry them out. Parental attitudes encouraging or discouraging can make children feel inadequate or guilty. Again in this stage we can see the importance of a sensitive, supportive and empathetic care in order to deal with this conflict in a favourable way.

As we have seen sensitive mothering is crucial to promote a healthy social and emotional development. Children which had it during their infancy and enjoy a secure attachment, during toddler hood and pre-school years learn to name their emotions and regulate them in a constructive way (Gerhardt, 2004). They show increasing independence because they trust their carers emotional availability, they develop self-esteem, they will expect a positive response from others and value close relationships.

Children which experienced an insensitive care grow up with a worthless sense of self and do not rely on others or in relationships. Avoidant children focus in activities rather than in relationships and do not show any emotions. Ambivalent children find it difficult to focus, their emotions overflow and are a bit exaggerated, even by school age they find it difficult to separate from their attachment figure because they haven’t developed trust in their availability. (Brandon et al., 1999) Attachment theorists (Barnes, 1995) found that the patterns of attachment and internal working models established during childhood are likely to prevail during adulthood relationships and influence parenthood. Usually insecure attached parents will have insecure attached children, but the transmission is not automatic, this patterns are created within relationships and can be modified if the individual experiences a influential attachment relationship. (Brandon et al., 1999)

In this essay I have explained the great importance and influence that a sensitive mothering has in further social and emotional development. Emotional availability, responsiveness and empathy give the child a strong secure foundation for their future development and well-being. As Bolwy’s said: “An unthinking confidence in the unfailing accessibility and support of attachment figures is the bedrock in which stable and self-reliant personality is built”( Dunn, 1993, pg 18)

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