The Importance of Attachment

In my last post, I introduced the idea that the road to independence for children is paved by healthy opportunities to be dependent on parents and caregivers (secure base). Being responsive when children want to be held and comforted, and not forcing children to separate when they are overwhelmed by fear ultimately can result in children who are highly self-confident and independent. While parenting young children who are unable to self-soothe or are reluctant to separate, parents can benefit from knowing that when a child can stay physically and emotionally connected, it actually promotes healthy brain growth.

Attachment and its categories

Diane Wagenhals, Program Director, Master Trainer, Curricula Writer, Researcher, Mother and Grandmother

A recent article from Psychology Today states the following: “The early experience of the infant stimulates growth of the brain and shapes emerging mental processes. It establishes in the infant’s brain the neural pathways that will sculpt what are likely to be lifelong patterns of response to many things. The attachment experience affects personality development and the ability to form stable relationships throughout life.”

“Neuroscientists believe that attachment is such a primal need that there are networks of neurons in the brain dedicated to setting it in motion, and the process of forming lasting bonds is powered in part by the hormone oxytocin. The genius of the attachment system is that it provides the infant’s first coping system, the one that is a foundation for all the others; it sets up in the infant’s mind a mental representation of the caregiver, one that is wholly portable and can be summoned up as a comforting mental presence in difficult moments. Attachment contains within it the platform for the child’s ability to ultimately separate from the caregiver and to survive independently.” []

There is a whole science that studies attachment and its various categories.

There are even whole books on the subject [The Neuroscience of Human Relationships: Attachment and the Developing Social Brain by Louis Cozolino, 2013.] Anyone interested in finding out more about attachment is encouraged to simply Google the word and hundreds of articles will pop up.

Most of the researchers seem to agree that there are four types of attachment experienced by infants and young children:

Secure, which is the healthy form; and three kinds of insecure, less healthy ones:

  • avoidant
  • preoccupied
  • disorganized

The many ways that parents interact with their children impact their sense of safe, secure connection with those parents versus feeling that the parents are unreliable, unresponsive or just chaotic and unpredictable in their responsiveness. Just as children can be observed as falling under one of these four categories, adults also fit into one of them with regard to how they interact with and connect to others.

There is good news that comes out of recent neuroscience suggesting that adults who fall under one of the three less healthy categories indicative of insecure attachment are not locked into those less healthy forms of adult attachment. Those insecure forms of attachment result from how their parents parented them and if as adults they do not work on making a shift to the healthier, more secure form of attachment, they more than likely will parent their children in the same ways they were parented, passing on their insecurely attached tendencies.

What is earned-security?

By incorporating the behaviors of healthy, secure parenting, adults can experience something called “earned-security” status [Dan Siegel, 2003, Parenting From the Inside Out]. This means they can take on the characteristics of and eventually more fully embrace the experience of secure attachment to others and especially to and with their own children. In other words, if you experienced insecure attachment as a child, you’re not destined to remain a victim of that insecure attachment and the probability that you will remain parenting your children in that manner. Your brain can change as your beliefs and behaviors change, allowing both you and your children to experience the joy and comfort of secure attachment.

By recognizing and appreciating that we all have some form of attachment style, and that attachment style has impacted us throughout our lives, can help us each better understand why we behave and feel the way we do.

More importantly, if we happen to fall under one of the three less healthy, insecure attachment categories, we can find ways to provide secure attachment experiences with our own children that not only promotes their eventual independence, but also helps them and can help us learn how to be safe and secure in our significant relationships. We can achieve “earned-security” which benefits us and becomes an important gift we offer to our children when they experience secure attachment.

Invitation to reflect:

  1. To what extent do you believe you experience secure attachment with your parents or caregivers growing up that fit under one of the three categories of insecure attachment?
  2. How do you think how attached you were as a child impacts the way parent today?
  3. If you are one of the 60-65% of adults who experienced secure attachment growing up, what are some ways you can continue to provide security to your own children?
  4. If you are one of the 35-40% of adults who experienced insecure attachments growing up that probably continue to affect you today, what are some ways you can work on earning secure attachment for yourself and then passing that onto your own children?

Diane Wagenhals, Director of Institute for Professional Education and Development, Lakeside Educational Network