Attachment: Nurturing the Connection
Written by Julie Bisnath, BSW RSW
It’s 3am and the baby’s crying…again. Your toddler is having a massive meltdown. Your preschooler is hurt and is panicked by the sight of her own blood. Your older child worries. A lot. At midnight, your distraught teenager comes to tell you that they are in crisis. Parenting is exhausting–emotionally and physically draining, there’s no question about it. Yet we persevere. We push through. We figure out how to give more when we once thought there was nothing left to give. This is the work of parenthood and of caregiving– caring for and meeting the needs of our children. Responding to those needs, especially in times of distress, in a kind, caring, and swift manner, builds and maintains what experts call a secure attachment.
Attachment can essentially be described as the component of an adult-child relationship relating to the child’s safety and security. It is the profound and enduring connection that a child forms–usually with their parent and/or primary caregiver. A secure attachment develops from a consistent, reliable, responsive, and caring relationship.
It is within this secure attachment that young children first learn to trust others. It also provides them with a safe place from which to explore and investigate the world. Feeling secure and having a strong sense of belonging allow children the freedom to learn and grow. As they mature, it is important that the secure attachment with their parent/primary caregiver be nurtured and strengthened. They still rely on us to be responsive and sensitive to their needs—to show affection, to model resiliency, and reinforce self-regulation skills.
Here’s what we know from the Ottawa Infant and Early Childhood Mental Health Initiative:
- Infants are hardwired to develop strong emotional connections or attachments to primary caregivers through face-to-face interactions and eye contact.
- Babies need to feel safe, cared for, and protected. When a parent or caregiver responds consistently in a manner that is warm and sensitive, a secure attachment develops.
- The parent or caregiver are the anchor from which young children can safely explore their world and develop to their full potential.
- When secure attachment needs are met, children develop trust and gain the knowledge that they are loveable and important.
- Children require a nurturing parent or caregiver to protect them from harm and the effects of toxic stress.
- A secure attachment is foundational to positive developmental outcomes and future relationships with peers and partners.
Attachment can also be nurtured at child care–especially in a home child care environment where a child might spend several years with one caregiver. Over time, and with a sensitive and responsive adult, a child learns to depend on their caregiver to meet their needs. Trust is established, and they feel safe and cared for. This can be particularly important if the child’s attachment to their parent is not secure. In her book Rest Play Grow, Deborah MacNamera states that “more than 60 years of attachment research has demonstrated that what every child needs is at least one strong, caring adult to attach to”(2016, 77). She uses Gordon Neufeld’s definition of attachment—“the drive or relationship characterized by the pursuit and preservation of proximity” to explain that attachment is the greatest need of a young child. Instinctively, children ask “Who will take care of me?” (pursuit) and “How can I be close (physically and emotionally) to that person?” (preservation of proximity).
Neufeld’s theory describes attachment as unfolding in six sequential phases whereby children seek to attach to others. Each phase is deeper and more complex than the one before it and should “deliver a new form of pursuing someone and being able to hold them close” (MacNamera, 2016, 81).
As children move through the phases, they develop roots, strong and deep, essential for maturation.
Neufeld’s Six Sequential Phases of Attachment—(MacNamera, 2016, 81-94)
- Attaching through the Senses—At Birth—with close contact, sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch
- Attaching through Sameness –Age 1+ —with imitation and mimicking, wanting to be “the same as”
- Attaching through Belonging and Loyalty—Age 2+ —displaying possessiveness over people and things, staying close by following rules, enforcing rules with others, and taking sides.
- Attaching through Significance—Age 3+ —needing to feel special, longing for approval, needing to be seen and heard, to matter
- Attaching through Love—Age 4+ —with emotional intimacy, and vulnerability. Tenderness and caring emerge—frequent proclamations of love
- Attaching through Being Known—Age 5+ —with the development of a separate consciousness, they actively seek a psychological intimacy—an inclination to reveal themselves—for example: the awareness that they could keep a secret but choose not too in order to be close —paving the way for truth telling, authenticity, and personal integrity
If you aren’t familiar with Neufeld’s “Attachment Roots”, I highly recommend watching his webinar for a more thorough overview of these phases of attachment and how they relate to a child’s behaviour.
We’ve touched a bit upon what attachment is and how children might move through the phases, but what about the why? Check out this pretty impressive list…
According to The Circle of Security Intervention (Powell, Cooper, Hoffman, & Marvin, 2016, 20), research has shown that children who are more securely attached:
- Enjoy more happiness with their parents.
- Feel less anger at their parents.
- Get along better with friends.
- Have stronger friendships.
- Are able to solve problems with friends.
- Have better relationships with brothers and sisters.
- Have higher self-esteem.
- Know that most problems will have an answer.
- Trust that good things will come their way.
- Trust the people the love.
- Know how to be kind to those around them.
In contrast, when an adult’s responses to a child’s needs are repeatedly (over time) and regularly inconsistent and/or insensitive, the attachment is not secure. This impacts the child’s developing brain negatively and can result in profound difficulties with emotion regulation, cognitive development, activation of the stress response system, lifelong learning, and/or behaviour.
Developing a secure attachment starts with safety and connection.
“If children feel safe, they can take risks, ask questions, make mistakes, learn to trust, share their feelings, and grow.” ~Alfie Kohn
But what exactly does “feeling safe” mean? The notion of safety is processed in the brain as a basic, instinctive, reaction to fear—used to protect us and ensure our survival. It is this part of the brain that activates our fight/flight/freeze responses and triggers our stress response system. We know and understand that this survival state can be triggered by a threat to our physical safety. It can also be triggered by a threat to our psychological and/or emotional safety. MacNamera comments that if “attachment is our most preeminent need; therefore, separation is perceived as the greatest threat and can activate a strong alarm response” (2016, 179). She goes on to explain that facing separation can be overwhelming for young children and that the separation alarm is “rooted in the loss of contact and closeness” (2016, 180). In other words, children don’t feel safe when they experience the actual or anticipated threat of not being with, not belonging, not being liked, not mattering, not being loved, or not being known as they relate to their closest attachments—parent/caregiver/grandparent etc. (MacNamera, 2016, 180).
So, what can we do in the early years to encourage a secure attachment? Here are some key strategies provided by Infant Mental Health Promotion for both parents and caregivers (download the full handouts here– https://www.imhpromotion.ca/Resources/Hand-in-Hand-Resources):
- Be engaged and engaging—cuddle, sing, talk, and play. Be available and interested.
- Be sensitive—listen, follow cues, acknowledge likes/dislikes, preferences, and feelings. Provide choices and support when trying new things.
- Be consistent—build routines that are predictable. Set limits, be consistent with rules. Be patient.
- Be responsive—respond quickly, use touch, your voice, your eyes. Be a play partner. Comfort and reassure.
- Be enjoyable to be with—take the time, enjoy the moment, cherish, and take pride. Be emotionally available. Keep your own emotions in check, ask for help if you need it.
- Be the baby’s/child’s voice—be the advocate, give words, intervene as needed, offer support. Be close and model handling big emotions.
To learn more about attachment, attachment theory, and nurturing the connection, please take a look at the references and resources below.
“If we who are responsible for children can give a sense of belonging, a sense of significance; if we can hold onto the heart and make it safe, if we can give them a sense of being known…this creates the womb for maturation.” ~Gordon Neufeld
- Kohn, A. (2006). Unconditional Parenting. Atria Paperback.
- MacNamera, D. (2016). Rest Play Grow Making Sense of Preschoolers. Aona Books.
- Powell, B., Cooper G., Hoffman, K., & Marvin, B. (2016). The Circle of Security Intervention. The Guilford Press.
- Best Start: My Child and I—Attachment for Life https://www.beststart.org/resources/hlthy_chld_dev/pdf/parent_attachment_eng.pdf
- Center on the Developing Child—Harvard University: 5 Steps for Brain Building Serve and Return https://developingchild.harvard.edu/resources/how-to-5-steps-for-brain-building-serve-and-return/
- Child Encyclopedia: Eyes on Parent-Child Attachment http://www.child-encyclopedia.com/sites/default/files/docs/coups-oeil/parent-child-attachment-info.pdf and http://www.child-encyclopedia.com/attachment/synthesis
- Circle of Security International https://www.circleofsecurityinternational.com/circle-of-security-model/what-is-the-circle-of-security/
- Infant Mental Health Promotion https://www.imhpromotion.ca/Resources/Hand-in-Hand-Resources
- Neufeld Institute—Webinar: Attachment Roots: Developing the Capacity to Hold On When Apart: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q8qt1rv7K9Q
- Ottawa Public Health—Infant and Early Childhood Mental Health https://www.ottawapublichealth.ca/en/professionals-and-partners/resources/Documents/iecmh/iecmh-attachment-en.pdf
- Parenting in Ottawa https://www.parentinginottawa.ca/en/babies-and-toddlers/Attachment.aspx https://www.parentinginottawa.ca/en/children/Attachment–Children-.aspx