What is “Attachment”? An Easy Guide for Parents (with 3 helpful tips!)

 This article explains Attachment Theory and how it is not the same as “bonding” or “Attachment Parenting“. We also explore different attachment styles, and the consequences of these styles throughout the lifespan.

Each of us, from the beginning of our life, have what psychologists refer to as attachment figures. These are the people that provide us with protection and care, our caregivers. Most children have more than one attachment figure (caregiver), and have a unique relationship with each. The interactions children have with their caregivers give way to different “styles” of attachment. Specifically, when a child is in distress, the caregiver’s response to the child during these times will define the attachment style between the caregiver and child.
Said more simply, the attachment style that develops between the child and the caregiver is based on the answer to one question: “Is the attachment figure nearby, accessible and attentive?” (Fraley,2021)
In other words: Is our caregiver consistently close to us, emotionally available and able to pay attention to our needs?

Take a look at the infographic below. Depending on the frequency of a “yes” or “no” answer to this question, we can see how different styles come about and what the traits and outcomes are for each:

Children with caregivers that respond with a consistent “no” – especially within the “disorganized” style – have difficulties feeling secure and trusting their caregiver(s), causing them to act in specific ways. The difficulties experienced by a child with an insecure attachment style can result in social and psychological problems throughout life. Self-esteem, friendships, performance at school along with mental health can all be impacted for the worse (Benoit, 2004).
In fact, the effects of a child’s attachment style are seen on a neurological level. That’s right, a child’s attachment style has an effect on the way that their brain develops. Incredible!
Obviously, we all want to foster positive, “secure” relationships with our children. This type of attachment style has a wide range of benefits with lasting impacts throughout one’s lifetime. Ensuring that we provide the best outcome for our children can seem like an overwhelming task. Don’t panic! You can start applying this research-backed knowledge right away with these helpful tips!

Bonding vs. Attachment 

Sometimes people mix up the terms “bonding” and “attachment”. It is important to know, that although these may seem the same, they are not the same thing! It is true that both describe the relationship between a child and their caregiver but “bonding” is created through activities such as playing with the child, teaching them something, or even disciplining them. “Attachment” is more specific. It refers to the child’s emotional connection with their caregiver and can be sorted into different styles, as we saw in the infographic above.

Consider this quote:

"An attachment forms regardless of the quality of caregiving, for better or worse. " (BeboMia,2021)

Attachment Parenting: Don’t be misled!

“Attachment Parenting” and the seven Baby B’s is a collection of parenting principles that are all fine but are not essential. (Divecha&Divecha, 2018). What is important to understand is that following the ideals of attachment parenting show no scientific link in creating a “secure” attachment with your child. 

Quality. The quality of your interactions with your child is what is most important in building a “secure” attachment (Divecha&Divecha,2018). There are specific, proven ways to interact with your child so that they develop a general sense of trust in their caregiver (you!) when they are in distress. 

For more information look below for some helpful tips or go here if you are interested in gaining more in-depth information on preparing for parenting.

Attachment Style & the BRAIN

Positive relationships, with at least one caregiver, is the best treatment we have to relieve mental unwellness and boost mental wellness. (BeboMia,2021)

What an incredible statement. Research has found that the brain architecture that is responsible for mood, depression, anxiety, addiction and resilience are built from the time of conception to about the age of three. This provides caregivers with an incredible opportunity to have a huge impact on the future of their children’s lives.

Above is an image of the brain circuits that exist early in life. These parts make up the foundation of all braın functioning and their development is influenced by a baby’s environment and experiences (BeboMia,2021).

Early in life, the connections between neurons in our brains are very flexible (known as neuroplasticity). This flexibility allows changes to happen in our brain circuitry depending on the experiences we have as well as the environment we are in (BeboMia,2021). This is especially true when we are babies. So this is why the type of caregiving we receive is HUGELY impactful and important. 

There are specific implications for different components of the brain linked to a child’s attachment style that is far beyond the scope of this article. However, feel free to contact me or check out the references list at the end of this article for additional reading.

Your Child’s Future (aka Adult Attachment)

As we have learned by now, a foundation of a “secure” attachment style sets the stage for a lifetime of benefits. These benefits are not just for the caregiver/child relationship, but for the child as they continue to grow and become adults (Divecha&Divecha, 2018).

Look at some of these wonderful outcomes backed by research (Divecha&Divecha, 2018):

  • Higher self-esteem 
  • More leadership qualities
  • Better coping under stress
  • More trusting and positive relationships in adulthood.

Maybe this last one stuck out when you read it. What does the attachment relationship with mom or dad (or granny, or uncle) have anything to do with the relationships people have as adults? Turns out – a lot! 

We carry the attachment relationship we have with our primary caregiver(s) forward, to some extent,  into our relationships with our romantic partners (Fraley, 2021) Although the relationships we have in adulthood are different than that of the child/caregiver one, researchers have found that our attachment style continues to have an impact on our behaviorsthoughts and feelings into adulthood (Fraley, 2021) For example, we tend to end up in relationships that confirm our beliefs about attachment relationships, including our dysfunctional beliefs. 

This awareness can be alarming and even raise personal questions about the romantic partners we have chosen for ourselves. 

Reflecting on our own “attachment styles”, we gain a tool to help us understand how our entire lives are influenced by these initial relationships.   

A Starting Point

(Note: If you have not read the article above and find yourself here, I encourage you to pan up and go through this short read. Doing so will help you understand these tips a lot better!)

Based on the research done on “Attachment Theory”, here are three tips that will set the foundation for creating a healthy, “secure” attachment style with your child:

  1. Mindfulness, specifically awareness of the self  

The quality of the interaction between the child and the caregiver is one of the most important factors, if not the most important, in setting the tone for positive interactions. Developing your own self-awareness and mindfulness practice will help you ensure that when you are interacting with your child you are providing the quality of care that your child deserves. This is especially important when the child is in distress, since this is when the “attachment style” is shaped.

        2. Attunement 

This point expands on the first. If you (as the caregiver) are mindful and aware of yourself, then it will be easier for you to pick-up on the cues that your child is giving you. Picking up on these subtle cues (or not so subtle screaming!) will help you be more in sync or be more “attuned”  with your child. This attunement will result in your child feeling understood and promote a sense of trust in you as their caregiver. 

         3. Repair

Ok, we are all human, and we don’t always get it right. But that is ok! This is why “repair” is just as important as the other two. Children, especially cute little babies, may not understand that we had a hard day or that we are distracted. However, they do understand intention. Repair happens when attunement is off, but the caregiver recognizes what has happened and attempts to “repair” the situation. This can be anything from changing your approach in soothing the child, tuning back into your self awareness, and so on.

If you are an expectant parent or parenting an infant and you are interested in gaining practical and in-depth knowledge on the methods you can use to foster a secure attachment relationship with your child, right from the very beginning, click here for more information. 

References ;

  1. Divecha, & Divecha, D. D. D. (n.d.). Why Attachment Parenting Is Not the Same as Secure Attachment. Greater Good. https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/why_attachment_parenting_is_not_the_same_as_secure_attachment.  
  2. Bebo Mia Inc: The Legacy of Attachment. Bebo Mia. (2021, February 19). https://bebomia.com
  3. Benoit, D. (2004, October). Infant-parent attachment: Definition, types, antecedents, measurement and outcome. Paediatrics & child health. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2724160/. 
  4. A Brief Overview of Adult Attachment Theory and Research: R. Chris Fraley. A Brief Overview of Adult Attachment Theory and Research | R. Chris Fraley. (2021). http://labs.psychology.illinois.edu/~rcfraley/attachment.htm.