What Is Healthy Attachment?
Today we’re going to talk about attachment…and we’re going to talk about healthy attachment. It really does boggle my mind that this subject that is so important to every human being on this planet is talked about so infrequently. Therapists are not taught about it. Most doctors don’t know much about it. The schools for sure have no clue about it. Yet it has such a huge impact on every single person who walks this planet, it’s the root of so many social and emotional and behavior problems, and yet so little is understood in any communities about it.
Attachment is defined as an enduring and endearing emotional bond that develops between an infant and their primary caregiver (usually their mother.) It is characterized by the child’s tendency to seek out and maintain a closeness to that caregiver, particulary during stressful situations.
The attachment relationship is the first relationship a child experiences. It begins to form while the child is still in the womb and continues to strengthen over the next two years in particular. A healthy attachment relationship provides both physical protection and a psychological sense of security and safety for the child. It is where the child learns they are valued and important and develop a healthy self-esteem. Healthy attachment also lays the foundation for being able to form healthy relationships with others in all aspects of life.
But that’s not all. Attachment also has cognitive and physiological impacts as well. Secure attachment also provides the core building blocks for language development, logic and reasoning skills, academic performance, information organization, nervous system structure, sensory processing, development of conscience, emotional regulation, and a sense of personal identity.
That’s a lot of stuff riding on one relationship! But what is it, really, and how does it develop? John Bowlby, a psychoanalyst of the 1950’s, is recognized as the first to have studied attachment and its impact. Though most of the world still doesn’t know much about or think much about attachment, some of the earliest experiments involving wire monkeys
based on his work are pretty well known.
But how does that knowledge translate to humans? Admittedly, if we had good childhoods ourselves, attachment isn’t given much thought and is frequently taken for granted. Contrary to common belief, though, it is NOT an inborn instinct. It is a learned relationship of trust that is built little by little over time. It develops as a result of numerous completions of the attachment cycle – the repeated soothing and comforting and meeting a child’s needs.
The attachment cycle is a two year process. The first year cycle begins when the infant has an unmet need (hungry, wet, tired, scared, sad, lonely, etc). The infant communicates this need to his caregiver, usually through crying. The caregiver then takes action to meet the needs of the child. Once the child’s needs have been met, they feel a sense of satisfaction and contentment followed by relaxation, which also lowers their cortisol levels. In the process of having their needs consistently met by their primary caregiver, a relationship of trust develops. They develop confidence in their ability to communicate their needs and they learn that those needs will be met in a timely and appropriate way.
It is also through this first year of the attachment cycle that they learn the world is a safe, orderly, and predictable place. This is also the foundation of being able to understand and process logic. When attachment develops in a normal, healthy way, the child experiences pleasure by interacting with other people. The more secure that attachment is, the more important it will be for that child to please their parents rather than a stranger.
As the child becomes more mobile and verbal during their second year, they begin to experience boundaries. If these boundaries are enforced in a way that fosters both emotional and physical safety, the relationship between that child and their caregiver becomes even stronger and more important. This is where they learn to trust that adults can and do keep them safe. They also learn to trust those boundaries. They may not like them and they may protest a bit when they hit those boundaries, but generally speaking, they have a desire to please their parents. By the time they reach that second year, they’ve figured out that mom and dad really do know what they’re doing and and they are learning that those boundaries set by Mom and Dad are there to help keep them safe.
And there you have the Reader's Digest condensed version of the very basics of it.
Feb 21st, 2013
You explained it beautifully.
Feb 21st, 2016
So when a child comes to you at 4 years old with attachment disorder how is that fixed?