“Attachment” has become somewhat of a buzzword that is often misunderstood and misused in the parenting world. I work with parents and young children in therapy around issues with attachment, and I find that most people want some clarification on what attachment is and what I’m looking for in the relationship. When I talk about attachment in infants, toddlers, and young children, I am referring to not only the emotional bond between the caregiver and the child, but also the relationship pattern and set of expectations that a child takes with them as they grow up. I’m going to do my best to explain this in an accessible, non-boring manner for those of you who don’t want to spend your time reading about attachment research (because, hey, isn’t that my job, after all?)
Attachment theory (originally described by John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth) describes four different kinds of attachment: secure, insecure – anxious/avoidant, insecure – resistant/ambivalent, and disorganized. I’m going to focus on secure attachment here.
As parents we want our children to have a secure attachment. A child with a secure attachment expects that their caregivers will meet their needs, will be kind and warm, and will comfort them when they are distressed. As a result, they approach the world with these beliefs as they get older – the world is a safe place, I will generally have my needs met, I can find comfort and security. As children, they feel comfortable to explore the world and then return to the “secure base” of their caregiver. They seek their parents or caregivers out when they are upset. A child who does not have a secure attachment may resist being comforted, not seek out help, or not even get upset or react at all when distressed.
In a secure attachment, we also look for attunement, or how well the parent reads and understands the child’s cues. Do they pick up on the fact that their toddler coming to them with outstretched arms means they want to be picked up? Do they recognize their child’s different cries and know what they mean? Do they understand that “baba” means they want their bottle, and other early toddler words that a stranger wouldn’t know? These are all examples of attunement, which is an important part of attachment.
So how do we help our kids develop a strong attachment? The good news is that attachment is not terribly fragile. We as parents can mess up A LOT and still do a good enough job. Research has shown that good parents are attuned to their children’s needs 30-50% of the time. That means you can miss the mark HALF OF THE TIME and still have an attached child. So if you are feeling guilty about putting your baby down for 10 minutes after holding and consoling him for the past two hours straight, you STOP IT RIGHT NOW and tell that guilt to stuff it.
Having a strong attachment doesn’t mean your baby or child never cries (in fact I’m usually more concerned about babies who “never cry” because crying is how babies express themselves). It doesn’t mean you never put your baby down. It doesn’t mean you have to be around your baby 24/7 and never have anyone else take care of her. It does not mean you have to sleep with your baby or breastfeed. If you are warm, responsive, caring, attuned to your child’s needs and feelings, and able to set limits kindly your child is likely to have a secure attachment. Look for the signs – Does your child look to you for comfort when they cry (and do you acknowledge and comfort them rather than telling them to stop)? Do they get upset for a minute when you leave? Do they make bids for your attention? These are all signs of secure attachment!
If you are worried about your baby or toddler’s attachment pattern, talk to his or her pediatrician or find an infant/toddler mental health specialist in your area.