A secure attachment relationship is built through sensitive and responsive caregiving and promotes optimal physical, behavioural, social and emotional development, including a greater capacity for emotional self-regulation, positive social interactions and better coping skills. Over the first few months of life, infants form attachment relationships with other people with whom they have an ongoing relationship and who they experience as a provider of safety and nurture (for example, their father, grandparent, sibling, carer or babysitter). These relationships will be sought by the infant, according to their availability, when the primary caregiver is not available (Bunston & Sketchley, 2012, p15). If an infant is securely attached to their mother, they will be able to regulate emotions, seek help from others when distressed, adaptable to changing circumstances and able to explore their world (Bunston & Sketchley, 2012, p16).
Research indicates domestic and family violence during early infancy impacts greatly on the mother and infant attachment patterns. As domestic and family violence is a gendered crime and affects mostly women, it also specifically impacts on the mother’s ability to meet the needs of the infant. The stress and trauma due to the violent partner or family member place a burden on the mother/child attachment. Infants also suffer when they encounter abuse by the people they are supposed to trust. If a parent is acting violently infants will pull away as not to attach too firmly as the risk of rejection is high (Hartwig & Savill, 2013). There are three basic insecure attachment patterns that can be observed in infants who have experienced violence;
In avoidant attachment, an infant actively or passively avoids his or her mother or shows little emotion (Marvin et al., 2002). This may be due to the mother’s inability to provide a secure base from which her infant can explore their surroundings. Here the mother might be unwelcoming or not attentive to the infant’s needs. In the context of domestic and family violence, this can be influenced by the perpetrator’s use of violence to try and inhibit secure attachment. If an infant exhibits avoidant attachment they will show little distress on separation and minimal joy when reunited with the caregiver; reduced spontaneity of emotional expression and over-controlled emotions; avoidance of affection; focus on exploration of the environment to avoid closeness (Bunston & Sketchley, 2012, p16).
Where a mother is inconsistent in providing a secure a base for her infant to return to, the infant might develop an ambivalent attachment pattern (Buchanan, 2008). Here, the infant is confused, unsure about wanting to attach, distressed, finds it hard to trust and play with the mother and is uncertain about the mother’s availability (Bowlby, 1988; Buchanan, 2008). If an infant exhibits ambivalent attachment they will be overly engaged with an attachment figure and may feel too anxious about the caregiver’s emotional availability to freely explore the environment (Bunston & Sketchley, 2012, p16).
When an infant finds their mother both welcoming and frightening (she may look fearful because of the violence) they may develop disorganised attachment patterns (McIntosh, 2002). Here infants can be innately longing to attach but negative experiences include being scared of their mothers can leave them disorganised in their attachment style. ). If an infant exhibits disorgnised attachment the responses to the caregiver may look chaotic and contradictory; the infant is trying to reconcile the impulse to approach for care with their need to avoid seeing the caregiver as a source of fear; observable reactions and behaviours may include hyper-vigilance, freeze or fear when the parent appears, dissociative behaviours such as a dazed expression, appearing emotionally numbor cut off, or not crying when distressed or hurt (Bunston & Sketchley, 2012, p16).
In cases where infants have continuous affectionate bonds with their mother/carer positive development results. Where mother’s/carer’s are experiencing abuse from their partners or family member/s and are not able to fulfil the infant’s needs adequately, they are more likely to have difficulty attaching. This can influence a range of negative emotional experiences including feeling anxious (Tomison & Tucci, 1997). Practitioners who work with mothers and their child/ren must try to support and strengthen the mother-child bond and understand the weakened bond is a result of the abuse, not the mother wishing to be detached from her child/ren.