Research in child development and child to parent attachment has discovered that children’s attachment to their primary caregiver(s) is the most important aspect of their development. Perhaps surprisingly, it is not the same as the parent’s bonding with the child.
Attachment is the quality of the non-verbal emotional connection to a primary caregiver that is critical to a child’s development in all aspects physical, emotional, mental, and social. The attachment is created by caregivers responding to the child’s non-verbal cues with eye contact, a calm expressive face and tone of voice, positive touch, open and accepting body language, and adjusting their pace and timing to the child’s.
Secure attachment interactions look like the following. The child is oriented to the primary caregiver. From the caregiver there is a moment-to-moment focus on the child, responding to non-verbal cues with the emotional support of mirroring the child’s experience and positive physical touch. The caregiver slows down to the child’s pace. The child initiates and ends interactions and the caregiver respects the child’s now is not a good time. In the present moment, there is a connection through listening, talking, and playing with the child that is comfortable and free from distractions.
With secure attachment, when the child perceives a break in the attachment initially s/he will try to get the caregiver or parent’s attention, then turn away because stressed, and if that doesn’t work, go into attachment alarm reaching and crying. You can see this in the “Still Face” video on YouTube and my Facebook page.
Insecure attachment is very stressful and confusing for children and can cause difficulties in self-regulating emotions, development, learning, and adult relationships. The core experience for the child is “I can’t trust you to be there for me”. It is also frustrating for parents who don’t know what to do because in their own childhood they didn’t get what they needed to be securely attached as an adult (see my next blog on attachment and adult relationships).
Some difficulties related to insecure attachment are problems at birth, adoption, or if the child is inconsolable. There can be disruptions to the attachment as the child grows up if there are punishments, inconsistency of care, extended absences, and/or abuse. Caregiver aspects such as stress, trauma, addiction, or mental health problems also influence attachment. The distractions of modern life – technology, TV, working, or lack of downtime can also be obstacles to secure attachment. See my book review of Closer Together Further Apart in this month’s newsletter.
The good news is that if a caregiver persists in being calm, focused, and understanding the baby or older child will eventually relax enough for attachment to take place. Nor does it require perfect parenting – even the caregivers who are the best at promoting attachment miss many of the child’s cues.
For more information, you can go to helpguide.org and search “attachment”, they have several very helpful guides for parents.
I also have other parenting-related posts that may interest you.
Mindful Strategies for Parenting