Sensitive mothering is essential to the social and emotional development

Sensitive mothering is essential to the social and emotional development of the child. Discuss this statement in the context of relevant developmental theory.

Sensitive mothering is sensitive and responsive caregiving from the primary caregiver. To be more precise, sensitive refers to how aware the mother is to the emotional and physical state changes in the child; how quickly she knows that they are troubled about something, for example.  The sensitivity extends to the responsive element, which requires knowing what to do about what they notice; an appropriate response to your child being upset is just as important as noticing what is wrong. An instance of this is noticing that a child is very shy, and responding by either encouraging them to develop on their own or forcing them into social activities; both responses work well, but for different children.

A positive emotional base is critical for our development as people. Without it, our potential in all relationships, both with other people and the world, is limited. The simplest way to think of this is in the consequential effects of an absence of empathy or self-respect. The foundation for this is in our interaction with our primary caregiver, and as such sensitive and responsive caregiving in childhood are always required for a lifelong positive emotional base; however, the nature of this caregiving is different between parents, with the mother required to be more responsive, protecting rather than directing, and more capable of causing harm through inattention. The result of a lack of sensitivity or responsiveness has sever long term effects on development, and which can be best outlined in reference to the internal model that the child develops of relationships in the world in response to their primary caregiver, and the basic kids of disorder that arise when these attachments are improperly formed.

Bowlby (1953) posited that there are three main features of this internal working model. It is a model of others a being trustworthy, the self as valuable, and the self as effective when interacting with others. The internal working mode is critical to almost all of our actions in the world, and problems with the internal working model can cause life-long problems, as Bowlby (1944) found in his study of juvenile criminals.

According to Bowlby, The child will absorb the behaviours of all caregivers in their environment, and the examples of relationships that they therefore encounter, but the primary caregiver, who is almost always the mother, is, , the prototype for all future relationships. This is fostered by Bowlby's belief that children exhibit monotropy, the innate need to attach to one main attachment figure.

This is primarily because a child's internal working model, which appears to integrate into the child's personality at about the age of three, is determined by the mother (or primary caregiver) and, without this foundation intact, long term emotional stability is difficult. The long term impact is the result of how basic the problem is; a stable working model is required for every form of human behaviour, and if you though that one plus one were equal to three, the consequences of this unstable and inappropriate model would affect your ability to make basic calculations, making basic interactions much more difficult and rendering any higher order behaviours or learning, such as calculus, impossible.

Bowlby (1953) states that a child should receive the continuous care of this monotropic attachment figure for around the first two years of their life. If mothering is delayed, or  the attachment anything other than sensitive and responsive, the long term impact is both severe and irreversible, with significant harm if mothering delayed until the age of one, and mothering being useless if delayed until two and a half. Consequences include delinquency, reduced intelligence, increased aggression, depression, and affectionless psychopathy.

This theory was later developed by Mary Ainsworth (1967), primarily with the development of the Strange Situation protocol. This observes attachment relationships between a caregiver, a stranger and child. Four aspects of the child's behaviour are observed: The amount of exploration the child engages in, their reactions to the departure of its caregiver, stranger anxiety when the baby is alone with the stranger and reunion behaviour with its caregiver. This process takes about 20 minutes, and requires close observation of the child's initial, ongoing interactions with the caregiver, with the stranger, and when alone. Special attention was paid to detachment and reunion behaviours.

From this study, Ainsworth concluded that there were three basic kinds of attachment. These three were joined a little later by a pathological fourth, added by a colleague of Ainsworth's, with Ainsworth's own agreement. Each of these types was found to have differing long-term consequences, and as a study of each disorder type will show, they can be traced to the nature of mothering, and in particular whether it is sensitive, responsive, and orderly enough.

The four attachment types that Ainsworth found are Secure, in which the child is properly cared for; Anxious-Resistant Insecure, in which there is resentment because the mother is sensitive but not properly responsive; Anxious-Avoidant Insecure, which results from insensitive and unresponsive caregiving and Disorganized/Disoriented, the result of a parent having a major trauma.

In secure attachment, the child will explore freely, engage with strangers, be visibly upset when the mother departs and happy to see the mother return. They exhibit strong connections with the mother, not engaging with a stranger if their mother is not in the room. This is what one sees when there is a sensitive and responsive primary caregiver, and leads to negligible long-term consequences for emotional and psychological development; it is the ideal norm, inasmuch as the term can be used.

With anxious-resistant insecure attachment, the child will be anxious of exploration and strangers, even when the  mother is there, and cannot make up their mind about what they want. Upon the mother's departure, the child will become extremely distressed, but will not show relief or joy on the mothers return, trying to stay close to her but being resentful, and resistant when she initiates attention. This probably develops from a mothering style which is engaged, but on the mother's own terms - that is, sensitive, but insufficiently responsive. It is indicative of maladaptive parenting, and carries a greater likelihood of attachment problems in later life.

In anxious-avoidant insecure attachment, the child will avoid or ignore the caregiver, and  may even run away from caregiver when she approaches, and do not treat strangers significantly differently from the caregiver. They are likely to have little emotional range, and will not explore much. This form of attachment is the result of more disengaged caregiving, in which the child's needs are often not met and they come to believe that they have no influence on the mother. This is where the mother is either insensitive or sensitive but unresponsive, and leads the child top assume that such insensitivity is what characterises close personal relationships in their future.

Finally, Disorganized/disoriented attachment is when a child may cry during separation but avoids the mother when she returns. It is also possible that they will approach the mother and then freeze or fall to the floor, and they may indulge in self-harmful behaviours such as hitting themselves. This is often the result of the mother undergoing a major trauma, such as having lost a parent while still young; this trauma then renders the mother both insensitive and unresponsive, causing severe developmental problems for the child which have a substantial impact through to adulthood.

Erikson (1950) took the ideas of development much further than the other thinkers considered here, extending them into adulthood and, later, old age. By doing so, he links these early maturational stages into the broader social environment in which the person may live. In each stage of life, a different significant relationship is critical for the person to navigate and operate within, and at each stage of development this significant relationship is a broader social category than the last. This cycle begins with the movement from the mother, to the father, and out into the family that defines the first stage of development (from birth til around 6). This awareness then extends to neighbours and people at school, developing into the proper negotiation of peers and role models in adolescence. Late adolescence, after school, is defined as the period in which friends, partners, the home and work social environments and finally mankind are the significant relationships.

For Erikson, passage from each stage of development to the next required overcoming the basic conflict that each posed, understanding the contradiction inherit in that stage's psychosocial crisis. For example, without successfully navigating the question of basic trust and mistrust that that marks the movement from the significant other as the mother to the parents, no further significant relationship can be sound, and all psychosocial development will be arrested. This has been reinforced by work such as Tuppett & Wekerle (2009) and van der Vegt (2008), both of which investigate the long term impact of emotional and psychological problems in early childhood.

As such, the role of the primary caregiver (ideally, as Bowlby shows, the mother) in early childhood development is critical; it forms the basis of the internal working model that the child will use as the basis for understanding relationships for the rest of their life. Any significant break in the primary caregiver being sensitive and responsive leads, as Ainsworth showed, into long term detriment; and if Erikson is correct, as contemporary research seems to indicate, this failure to resolve the very early conflicts in development arrest that person's progress through the rest of their life.


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