In previous articles, I have made brief references to the theory of attachment in early childhood and the role it plays in being sensitive and attentive to a child’s needs. Attachment theory describes the quality of relationship between a child and their primary caregiver(s) and specifically how that relationship affects a child’s ability to cope in situations of emotional distress.
Playing with your child, taking care of basic needs, teaching new skills, setting limits, bonding with your child, etc are all great for development but they are not what attachment theory is getting at. Attachment focuses on how well a caregiver is able to make their infant feel safe, secure and protected (Benoit, 2004).
There are four categories of attachment. They are: Secure, Insecure-avoidant, Insecure-resistant, and Insecure-disorganized.
The ideal category of attachment to be in is secure attachment. Infants who have a secure attachment will seek out their caregiver in times of distress as they have learned their caregiver is a source of support and comfort (Benoit, 2004). Research has shown a significant correlation between a secure attachment in early childhood and later success in school, work and relationships (Sroufe, 2000). A phrase I particularly like that describes the relationship between secure attachment and later success is “Early dependence leads to later independence.”
Another way to describe attachment is to see it as how a child learns emotional regulation. The quality of the relationship a child has with their primary caregiver(s) determines how well a child will learn emotional regulation. By quality, I am referring to the extent to which infants trust their caregiver to help them when they are in distress.
Infants have very little ability to naturally control their emotions. It is a skill that must be taught. Infants cry because they are in distress. The caregiver’s role is to help the infant learn how to regulate the distress. Distraction, soothing, holding your infant and using a calm voice tone are all ways in which you can help an infant learn to trust others and to self-calm.
Ignoring an infant’s cries, being harsh, or other such methods are ways in which your infant will learn they cannot trust you when they’re in distress and they likely will not learn how to appropriately self-calm. This distrust and inability to self-calm can lead to a variety of negative outcomes in later development (Sroufe, 2000).
Responding to your infant’s cries is not easy. It will take responding thousands of times in a positive, affirming way before they will learn to calm themselves. You are going to be tired so responding in a pro-social way is not often going to be your first instinct. You’re going to mess up a few times. Messing up a few times does not undermine the thousands of times you responded well.
Personally, after I had picked up and calmly soothed one of my kids for the umpteenth time that day, I kept in mind, early dependence leads to later independence. And isn’t that one of the goals of parenting? To raise independent and emotionally healthy adults? That work doesn’t start in adolescence or early adulthood. It starts right now with the foundation you build for your child in early childhood.
*Note – Poor attachments can be overcome in later developmental stages. The brain remains remarkably teachable throughout life. The difficulty of overcoming poor attachment in later life is having to re-wire patterns of behavior that have been reinforced thousands of times. Again, this can be done. If you would like more information regarding resources about overcoming the effects of poor attachments in early childhood, please contact a licensed mental health professional.
Sroufe, A. 2000. “Early relationships and the development of children.“