Show Notes: What is Attachment?

What is attachment? Attachment isn’t just about your relationship with your child, though that is important. It can predict how your child will approach future relationships, how close future friendships will be, and whether your child will seek support when under stress. Attachment is dynamic. It can change. So it is not something to stress about, but it is worth learning about. With Associate Professor Cathy McMahon, an expert on attachment theory, we explore what attachment is, and how it might interact with parent-child conflicts, controlled crying, and daycare choices.What is Attachment Image


What is attachment?

  • The way caregivers and infants connect with each other particularly in times of stress.
  • It predicts how relationships will be used to cope in times of stress.

How does attachment form?

  • Infants innately have a set of attachment behaviours that help them to achieve closeness e.g. crying, moving toward, clinging.
  • These behaviours are automatically activated when feeling threatened or distressed.
  • Signals trigger caregiving responses from the parent.
  • The pattern of parent’s responses to these cues become an expectation.
    • Good enough parenting – emotionally available most of the time.
  • Those expectations are taken into future relationships.
  • Attachment is dynamic. It can change when parents become more or less emotionally available.

Is there something special about the first three years of life?

  • Yes, the first three years are a period of very rapid brain development.
  • Experiences in early years are very influential.
  • There is always potential for change, but it can be harder and more gradual later in life.

Types of Attachment:

  • Strange situation procedure – The mother takes her child to a room and leaves them there alone or with a stranger. Psychologists observe the child’s response to separation and reunion.
  • 3 common patterns:
    • Secure – distressed by separation, sought parent upon return, were easily calmed by parent, resumed play.
    • Avoidant – physiologically but not apparently distressed by the parent leaving, didn’t react to return – just kept playing.
      • Parents tended to discourage closeness and redirect to play.
      • Competent at play but tend not to form close friendships, and more likely to have behaviour issues such as bullying.
    • Anxious/Ambivalent – very distressed by departure, show anger and upset when the parent returns, but the parent is unable to calm the child.
      • Can form if the parent is inconsistently available – so the child exaggerates or amplifies pleas for help.
      • Can also form if the parent is unsure, or unconfident about their ability to settle a child, or doesn’t have the capacity to be responsive for long enough. So these parents give a bit of support, but not enough to calm the child.
  • Attachment doesn’t predict everything, only future relationship approaches.
  • It is about the consistent interaction pattern (we all have bad days).
  • About 50-60% of mother-infant pairs develop secure attachment.
  • Insecure attachments are common, normal, and can be quite functional for that parent and child.

Effects of Attachment on later life:

  • Secure attachments are protective –
    • New relationships are approached with a positive set of expectations, that tend to be well received and invite closer friendships.
    • Willing to ask for help and then able to be fairly independent after receiving that help.
  • Avoidant –
    • Tend not to ask for support.
    • Tend not to get as close to people as could be good for them.

What about good days and bad days?

  • It is about the overall context and pattern.
  • Having bad days here and there is normal, it doesn’t mean there is or will be insecure attachment.
  • If bad days become more frequent this could lead to a more insecure relationship.

Can mothers recognise whether their child is securely attached?

  • Mothers can observe how the child responds to stress.
  • However, there can be individual differences in how children respond to situations that aren’t due to the relationship.
  • Rather than trying to diagnose, try to notice attachment cues and try to be as responsive to them as possible.

What facilitates a secure attachment?

  • When the parent is open to receiving cues to provide space, or interaction, or comfort.
  • Parents recognise children’s preferences and feelings.
  • Parents are flexible enough to modulate their own behaviour based on child’s cues.

What if you can’t or feel you shouldn’t respond the way your child wants?

  • Circle of Security: “Wherever possible follow the child’s lead, and wherever necessary, take charge.”
  • Emotionally warm and supportive style of enforcing necessary behaviours. Acknowledge feelings, and desires as mentioned in Angry Kids: Emotional or attention seeking?

What can hinder the development of a secure attachment?

  • Parents generally want to do the best for their child but things can disrupt ability including
    • Lack of support
    • The parent’s own attachment style. Parents may re-enact the same pattern as they learned from their childhood.

What about controlled crying? It requires parents to be unresponsive to distress.

  • Not responding to distress does indicate a lack of emotional availability.
  • Gradual sleep intervention approaches are preferential.
  • This is a situation of when necessary take charge. Controlled crying may be a necessary last resort.
  • Try other approaches first.
  • As long as the rest of the parent-child interactions are emotionally responsive, no long term damage is likely from controlled crying.

Daycare and attachment (See also Daycare: When to start? Are there risks to starting too early?)

  • Attachment is about what goes on when mother and child are together.
  • Same patterns apply to fathers.
  • Quality (emotional responsiveness) of the alternate care is important.
  • Different attachments with different people.
  • If work is so stressful and draining, that the parent can no longer be emotionally responsive to the child, that can be an issue.
  • Theoretical concerns that when put into childcare, the child may feel distressed, but stop showing that distress¬†(see the Daycare link above). Children may therefore seem to have adapted to childcare, but really be quite distressed (as in the avoidant attachment style).
    • Likely only if the child care is poorly organised and staffed.
    • Attachment specialists are teaching caregivers that they are becoming alternative attachment figures, and how to best do this.
    • May be a problem if child care centers are understaffed, have high turnover, or unresponsive caregivers.

Changing insecure attachments

  • Attachment is represented in the child’s mind.
  • A corrective attachment experience allows them to rework those expectations.
  • Circle of security translates attachment principles into simple language.
    • Represents the secure base using a diagram of a circle (See the video below). Need support to explore the world, and need to know they will be welcome back.
    • 8-week parent group training. Supportive group training.

If you are worried that your child is insecurely attached

  • Reflect on how well you are recognising your child’s cues.
  • Become aware of the barriers.
  • If you are very worried, talk to a professional, or find a circle of security group.
  • Self care: “If you want to look after the children, cherish the parent”. Parents also need a secure base, and if they can’t find that through their friends, family, or partner, may benefit from a professional psychologist.

Steps you can take today to maintain a secure relationship:

  • Reframe your child’s demands into an emotional need.
  • Practice taking a step back, looking at the situation from the child’s point of view.


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