Child development

The Development of Secure or Insecure Attachment

The bond between parents and the child is sometimes very simple, and sometimes it is the most complicated relationship in the world. We often hear that love is the only thing necessary for the relationship to be good and for the child to be provided with everything s/he needs to grow into a healthy and happy individual.

Parents with whom we talk here in our Center, whether in person or electronically, often appear to be confused and unhappy, helpless, wondering what happened between them and their children, why their children are lying to them, why they are withdrawing or are rude towards them, or why they are aggressive.

This text deals with the early attachment, primarily emotional, with the connectedness between a young child and the person/s who care about the child, because exactly that first relationship is the basis not only for later communication and interaction between the parent and the child, but also for the way of the child’s existence and conduct towards other close people in his/her life (friends, partners, and finally his/her own children).

How attachment is formed

However thoroughly we prepare for parenting, when the baby is born, we are in a totally new, very exciting and a little scary situation. We wonder what to do with the baby, how we can give it the best possible care, how we can know what s/he needs, when and how much of something s/he needs. Typically, we have some ideas about how and what we should do, what we have learned from our parents and grandparents, what the books say… During that time the baby sends many signals, cries, sleeps, babbles, shows unrest. The attachment is born somewhere between the child’s signals and our queries, in the way we fulfil our baby’s needs and care about him/her. We cannot always know how to do the best, sometimes we will make mistakes and try again, e.g. understand that the child does not want to be carried, but wants to be sung. However, if we mostly succeed in harmonising our behaviour with our baby’s needs, secure attachment will be formed. The child will learn that there is a person (or, even better, that there are persons) in this world who are there when s/he needs something, who provide comfort, change clothes, hug, sing, who are simply there. Such experience provides the child with the most important thing for his/her feeling well, giving him/her the feeling of security and trust.

Luckily, the majority of children have such experience. However, there are also various circumstances where insecure attachment is developed. Insecure attachment develops in the situations when the child’s needs are not fulfilled, typically in two ways, the child either does not receive what s/he needs, but has parents who are expressly anxious and chaotic in his/her attempts to calm the child, or has parents who ignore the child’s needs and who do not react to his/her signals. Such children have a different experience of the world. They do not feel safe and protected, but unimportant, abandoned, feeling they are too big a burden or that the world is a dangerous place if the parents are so very anxious. They do not develop a feeling of security nor do they trust people, which later in life can be associated with difficulties in the development of close relationships.

Parents ask how to develop secure attachments, and we have lately even seen parents who identified the development of secure attachment with never separating from their child. More and more often we see parents who, with good intentions and in anguish, carry their children everywhere, all the time, in order to keep them close to their bodies, sleep in the same bed with their children when it is not necessary, etc. Secure attachment develops during the first year of a child’s life. Physical contact between the parents and the child is extremely important in that period since secure attachment is developed then. However, later it is expressed primarily through emotional, and much less physical bonding. It becomes very important for the child to explore the surrounding and increasingly separate from parents.

Parents’ over sensitivity is as inadequate as is their disregard of the child’s underlying needs

Regarding secure attachment and the close emotional bond with the child later, it is important to ask ourselves two questions: What is it my child needs, and what is it I need to provide it? We often provide what we think is affection or safety or closeness, but in a way which children do not need. Thus we actually satisfy ours, and not our children’s needs.

Parents’ over sensitivity is as inadequate answer to their child’s need and can be as disturbing as is their disregard of their child’s underlying needs. The key to creating secure attachment is the attunement between the intensity of the child’s reaction and the need for the parental response.

Watch, get to know, study your baby and soon you will get to better know what s/he needs. Do not worry, babies are full of understanding and will not hold a grudge if sometimes you do not get it immediately. Trust yourself , your baby and your partner at least a bit more than you trust the Internet, books and the well-meaning neighbours’ and grandparents’ advice. When you see it is difficult, when you are impatient and you do not have capacities to study your baby any more, take a rest, call for somebody to take a little care of you. Let your child realise more close, warm and secure relationships.

If your child is older, and this text has agitated you because you have a feeling that everything is over, take a deep breath. It is never late for a new beginning. It is important to be honest with your child, to take responsibility for your own mistakes and ask time and again – what do you need? The answer is almost always the same – to love me for what I am and to be here for me.

Written by Sena Puhovski, Psychologist, M.A.