Attachment is paramount because it’s the first and most important stage of infant development. It’s the cornerstone of psychological health that begins in utero. As the relational part of a child’s developmental process, it enables a baby to connect in a healthy way with his primary caregiver. It teaches his brain how to process and interpret the information provided by the five senses so that he can feel safe in this world. As a result, it’s fundamental to the growth of a healthy worldview.
Attachment: What Is It?
Attachment is not the same thing as bonding. Bonding is what a normal, healthy adult will naturally and unconditionally do when presented with the responsibility of caring for a helpless infant. Attachment, on the other hand, is conditional. It’s what happens if and when a normal infant feels safe enough in her environment to form a deep connection with an adult. Secure attachment depends upon the parent meeting three conditions so that the child knows
- I’m safe,
- I can trust my parent,
- I have a voice, which means I’m confident enough to speak my thoughts (appropriately) and ask for what I need, knowing my parents will respond and meet my needs. (If a child does not develop a voice, she will resort to some nonverbal form of communication to make her needs known. Usually these are actions of a negative kind.)
Ultimately, attachment requires a proper balance between structure and nurture. If your child needs structure (form, order, rules) and you instead give her nurture (comfort, nourishment, compassion), you limit her growth. If a child needs nurture but you give her structure, you limit her trust. All of these elements are essential to the formation of a lasting parent-child relationship.
Attachment: How It Grows
There are four different attachment styles, and they can be used to describe both infant and adult behavior. Secure attachment is the only healthy style. If a child doesn’t develop a secure attachment, he will have one of the three types of insecure or broken attachments.
In an adult, this attachment style is called free/autonomous. A secure infant wants to be near his parent and is easily consoled by the parent’s presence. Secure adults are comfortable being independent and self-directing. They’re able to resolve any fallout of past hurts and disappointments. A secure child grows up to become a free/autonomous adult.
Nurturing experiences with a loving caregiver help attachment grow. The secure infant attaches to the adult caregiver because:
- he tries to be close to his caregiver, especially in times of trouble;
- he sees his caregiver as providing a “safe haven”;
- he trusts his caregiver to provide a secure base from which to explore the world;
- he feels fear or anxiety at the threat of separation from his caregiver;
- he feels grief and sorrow at the loss of his caregiver.
Secure attachment develops in three stages:
Stage One: From zero to two months of age, babies form emotional connections with caregivers. At this stage, a child will focus with pleasure on any human face. This is called indiscriminate social responsiveness.
Stage Two: From two to seven months, babies begin to show a preference for familiar faces. This is called discriminate social responsiveness.
Stage Three: The time between seven to thirty months in a child’s life is especially important for healthy attachment. If conditions are less than ideal, a child’s ability to form a healthy attachment may be harmed. This final stage is called specific attachment relationships.
For adults, this attachment style is called preoccupied. An ambivalent child is clingy and extremely and abnormally alert to any danger or threat. Ambivalent babies grow up to be preoccupied adults—codependent people who can never let go of past abuses and betrayals.
For adults, this attachment style is called dismissive. The avoidant infant shows little or no desire to be held or comforted by her mother. She’s already learned her mother can’t consistently provide the love and support she needs, so there’s no reason to look to her for those things. As an adult, this person may dismiss or deny emotions, relational connections to other people, and/or hurts. A dismissive adult is unwilling to deal with personal difficulties on any level.
For adults, this attachment style is called unresolved. A child with a disorganized attachment style expresses confusion, a sense of disconnectedness, or pure terror in the presence of his caregiver. This is often the case when he has experienced abuse. As an adult, he’ll likely display symptoms of unresolved issues and can become a prime candidate for addictions.