The baby's first relationship is generally with family members, to whom the infant expresses a range of emotions (and vice versa). If the social and emotional bonding between infant and family is faulty in some way, the child may never develop the trust, self‐control, or emotional reasoning necessary to function effectively in the world. The quality of the relationship between child and parents—especially when the child is between the ages of 6 and 18 months—seems to determine the quality of the child's later relationships.
Family Relationships: Age 0–2
If physical contact between infant and parents is so vital to the emotional health of the infant, and important to the parents as well, most experts recommend that physical contact occur as soon after delivery as possible. Babies who are the recipients of immediate maternal contact seem to cry less and are happier and more secure than babies who do not receive immediate maternal contact. Fortunately, babies who are separated from their parents at birth are not necessarily doomed to a life of mental disorders. Immediate bonding is optimal, but infants and parents may later make up for an initial separation.
Attachment is the process whereby one individual seeks nearness to another individual. In parent‐child interactions, attachment is generally mutual and reciprocal. The infant looks and smiles at the parents, who look and smile at the infant. Indeed, communication between child and parents is basic at this level, but it is also profound. Psychologist John Bowlby suggests that infants are born preprogrammed for certain behaviors that guarantee bonding with their caregivers. Infants' crying, clinging, smiling, and cooing are designed to prompt parental feeding, holding, cuddling, and vocalizing. Parents may help instill trust in their infants as their infant children form attachments. Eye contact, touching, and timely feedings are perhaps the most important ways. These actions, of course, are also expressions of the love and affection parents have for their children.
Attachment is central to human existence, but so are separation and loss. Ultimately, relationships are eventually interrupted or dissolved on their own. Children must learn that nothing human is permanent, although learning this concept is not easy. Children between 7 and 24 months of age experience separation anxiety, or distress at the prospect of being left alone in an unfamiliar place. Related to separation anxiety is stranger anxiety, or distress in the presence of unfamiliar people. Separation and stranger anxieties are strong indicators of the attachment process, as the child may now distinguish between familiar and unfamiliar stimuli. Children without multiple attachments (lacking relationships with people other than the primary caregivers) seem more likely to develop separation and stranger anxieties.
According to Bowlby, children who are separated from their parents progress through three stages: protest, despair, and detachment. After first refusing to accept the separation, and then losing hope, the child finally accepts the separation and begins to respond to the attention of new caregivers.
Social deprivation, or the absence of attachment, has profoundly negative effects on children. For instance, children who have been institutionalized without close or continuous attachments for long periods of time display pathological levels of depression, withdrawal, apathy, and anxiety.
Cultural and community standards, the social environment, and their children's behaviors determine parents' child‐raising practices. Hence, different parents have different ideas regarding the raising of their children; the differences are seen in their communication methods or even in their decisions about the placement of their children in daycare.
Responding to an infant's needs through playing, vocalizing, feeding, and touching is certainly important to the child's psychosocial development. In fact, children who display strong attachments tend to have highly responsive mothers. But this important display of strong attachments does not always mean that caregivers should respond to everything infants do. Children must learn that all needs cannot be completely met all the time. The majority of caregivers respond to their infants most of, but not 100 percent of, the time. Problems seem to arise only when primary caregivers respond to infants less than 25 percent of the time. The children of nonresponsive mothers tend to be insecurely attached, which may simultaneously lead to overdependence upon and rejection of authority figures later in adulthood.
Strong communication between parents and children leads to strong attachments and relationships. Mutuality, or synchronous (back and forth) interaction, particularly during the first few months, predicts a secure relationship between parents and infants. Mutual behaviors include taking turns approaching and withdrawing, looking and touching, and “talking” with each other. However, infants may resist mutuality when overstimulated. Resistant behaviors in such instances include turning away, closing the eyes, wiggling, and crying. In the second year, mutual behaviors such as taking turns, give‐and‐take, and imitating predict later prosocial behaviors. Soon afterward, children learn more complex rules of social interactions—how to invite others to play games, how to follow rules, how to cooperate, and how to share toys.
Because the first few months and years of life are so critical to children's future psychosocial development, some parents worry about having to place their infants and toddlers in daycares and preschools. Research suggests, however, that children who attend daycares are not at a disadvantage regarding development of self, prosocial behavior, or cognitive functioning. In fact, daycares and preschools offer children enriched social environments, with structured opportunities to interact with diverse groups of youngsters. Many authorities argue that daycare placement, coupled with quality time with the parents whenever possible, provides for better and earlier socialization than may otherwise occur.