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Nature vs Nurture: Is Baby's separation anxiety from temperament or insecure attachment?

Submitted by Rita Brhel on 30 December 2021

Does the Strange Situation measure attachment quality (nurture) or temperament (nature)? This question still reverberates in some scientific circles, but available evidence may begin to reveal an answer.

The deceptively simple Strange Situation is the gold standard measure of infant-parent attachment quality. It essentially captures a snapshot of a complex relationship dynamic in approximately eight minutes of lab interaction. Parent-infant attachment research uses this measure to observe the way in which the parent-child relationship quality affects the child's stress-coping. In turn, patterns of stress-coping have important implications for later development.

Like temperamental assessments, the Strange Situation evokes ethically mild stress in the child participants and observes the child's responses. The Strange Situation requires brief parent-child separations, which usually trigger a negative child reaction and some form of protest.

The level, degree, and duration of the stress reaction are important to the observation, but the highly trained observers finely comb through the video footage seeking the subtle and overt evidence of the child's coping styles. Coping evidence, more than the overt protest behaviors, will ultimately provide the more meaningful indicators of attachment quality.

Novel, cross-disciplinary studies have shown that fearfulness, as characterized by displays of greater (or more intense) protest, is not associated with any particular attachment classification. In addition, they found that fearful infants classified with insecure attachment quality (fearful-insecure) had elevated levels of the stress hormone cortisol. 

Securely attached infants who are naturally fearful did not experience elevated cortisol.

Not only do these relationships seem to indicate a clear difference between temperament and attachment, but they also provide greater clarity of the importance of the interactions between attachment and temperament.

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Artimesia Yuen is a Certified Attached the Heart Parent Educator in New York City, USA. She is the KnowledgeBase Coordinator and a Board of Directors member for Nurturings.org.

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