What is attachment?

Attachment is the lasting affective bond that exists between children and their caregiver. It is a very important bond, since babies absolutely need to bond with one or several significant people for their hearts and brains to develop properly. They need to be fed not only physically, but also to be touched, to be spoken to, to play. They need to count on at least one person in particular. It is known that babies raised in overcrowded orphanages may even die if they do not feel an emotional bond with someone or if they lose the only person with whom they shared a bond. Some stop eating and let themselves die.

What about normal babies? Attachment begins to form in the mother’s womb. Growing babies who already feel welcome and loved already share a positive bond with their mother and father and thus develop their self-esteem. After birth, parents care for them, talk to them, play with them and take their needs and reactions into account. And so, the attachment bond continues to develop.

On the other hand, babies do what they can to keep their caregiver nearby: they express sustained interest in human faces and voices, they smile, cry to call them close, reach a hand out as soon as they are able, and shows their interest in a thousand ways. They are “programmed” to seek proximity with adult caregivers.

Young babies do not seem to see the difference between the adults that care for them until the age of 6 to 9 months. It is at that age that children begin to better differentiate familiar people from strangers and no longer accept that someone unknown cares for them. We all now the tantrums children of that age can throw out of fear of losing mommy... since they don’t quite understand that mommy and daddy continue to exist even when they don’t see them.

From the age of one year, whether or not children have developed “secure” attachment can be more clearly observed. Secure attachment is seen when the presence of the familiar adult enables the child to relax and to know they are safe, allowing them to go out, openly and confidently, to discover the world around them. On the other hand, when the parent leaves the child in the presence of a stranger, children with secure attachment will show signs of worry. When the parent returns, the child will go to them for reassurance. If they have cried, parental presence and touch will be comforting. This is the case for the majority of children.

A minority of children, however, develop an “insecure” type of attachment. Some show little dependence on the parent, which is an abnormal situation for young children who obviously need adults. When the familiar adult leaves, they may continue to play quietly, seem barely aware that the parent has left and do not seek to be reassured upon their return. This attachment is said to be “evasive”. Other children manifest “ambivalent” attachment – they run to the returning parent, but do not appear reassured, and can become angry even while remaining with the parent.

Certain children worry us because they seem more often than not as comfortable with strangers as they are with their own parents. It seems as though they had not formed an attachment bond with anyone at all. This behaviour can sometimes be seen in children who were gravely neglected at a young age.

This attachment bond that forms during childhood is exceedingly important since it forever becomes our unconscious mental and emotional representation of what is an intimate relationship with someone. If I was loved, cared for, consoled and supported during my development, I know I can, in turn, love. It is not an intellectually-held concept; it is how I live my life even if I never put it into words. This knowledge has been imprinted in my brain since the very first years of my life. It most often defines how I behave with my spouse and how I raise my children. I tend to develop the same type of attachment with my children as I shared with my parents.

In a future article, we will examine the ways parents can help promote the development of secure attachment with their child.

Claudette Nantel,

Psychotherapist, pre- and perinatal psychology specialist


This article is presented by Maman Kangourou (www.mamankangourou.com)

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