Attachment theory has it that an infant’s first main relationship is significant in moulding personality, self-esteem, future relationships, stress management and coping abilities in later life. The emotional bond formed with our primary care-giver matters hugely and recent research has emphasised the importance of multiple-influencers and supportive parenting relationships.
Whether the primary care-giver is mum, dad, grandparent, foster parent, child-carer, adoptive parents, or single sex parents, responsiveness and sensitivity to an infant’s needs contribute massively to who we become in the future. Let’s have a closer look at the importance of secure attachment between parents and children and how these relationships are formed.
It all sounds a bit melodramatic, but if you think about it, comfort and security are the two most fundamental needs of a dependent child. Babies are thought to have an instinctive mechanical need to be in close proximity to a care-giver, a person who becomes an emotional ‘navigator’ and is trusted for safe guidance physically and emotionally.
A baby’s communication system is simple, limited and complex, all at the same time. If their attachment needs remain unfulfilled, more complex emotions tend to set in, setting habitual psychological and behaviour patterns for later life.
The primary care-giver’s responsibility is large as it is significant. The two main types of bond are known as ‘secure’ and ‘insecure’ attachments, these are largely determined by the caregiver’s quality of response to a baby’s expression for care, usually in response to stress of some sort e.g. hunger, warmth, comfort, sickness. The sensitivity, attentiveness and responsiveness of the care-giver are worth understanding to help offer the best start in life possible in our increasingly technological age.
Secure and Insecure Attachments
Attachment theory tends to focus specifically on a child’s significant early relationship during infancy though it’s accepted that natural temperament, personality and social standing can all affect our psychological well-being, coping responses and habitual behaviour patterns.
- A ‘secure’ attachment forms when the child is confident that his/her needs will be met, quickly, consistently and sensitively, leading to confident and exploratory behaviour during infancy.
- ‘Insecure’ attachments are formed through less sensitive, inconsistent or emotionally disengaged responses from a primary care-giver. Innately, the child comes to understand and internalise feelings of distrust, low expectation, and low self-esteem/self-worth, detachment, anger and confusion. The list of side effects of ‘insecure’ bonding is long but can be reversible as time goes on in many cases. For example, refugees have been found to overcome extreme trauma when met with secure and supportive relationships.
Multiple Attachment Bonds
More recent research shows that babies develop multiple ‘attachment’ bonds and behaviours simultaneously and not just solely with the ‘primary’ care-giver who is traditionally regarded as ‘mum’. The Father’s Institute say the bottom line is that insecure attachments result in ‘distress’ whilst ‘secure’ attachments provoke ‘joy’.
More recent research shows that the needs, experiences and behaviour of both parents should be realised to help nurture strong relationship attachments and behaviours as children mature:
- One important attachment can buffer the negative effect of an insecure attachment. For example, a dad can compensate when a mother is experiencing feelings of depression.
- Insecure bonds with both parents have been shown to lead to ‘depression’ in teenage years.
- The more ‘secure’ attachments developed, the better it is for the child’s psychological, social and emotional well-being.
- Quality parental ‘attachments’ are more powerful than low ‘quality’ relationships but ample time-dependent relationships.
Children experiencing secure attachments tend to exhibit less controlling behaviour, more competence at school and strong feelings of self- competence.
Causes of Childhood Insecurity
One in three parental ‘attachments’ with infants have been described as ‘insecure’ and figures are the same for both mum and dad, despite the amount of time spent with the child.
Common causes of childhood insecurity come from unstable circumstances such as:
- Marriage/couple break-ups
- Death of the main carer
- Separation from a close support network
- Alcohol and drug dependency
- Domestic violence
- Abusive language
- Any long term situations where emotions are running high.
Expectations are formed as early as 2-6 months old as babies develop instinctive coping strategies and neural brain formations that are necessary for survival.
The challenge to every care-giver is to react quickly, calmly, warmly and positively to a child’s needs. Greater father involvement in infant care is associated with lower parental stress and depression in mums which helps enhance the mother/child bond. A ‘detached’ parent/child relationship, as early as 3 months old can lead to negative long-term effects in older children:
- Angry or disruptive behaviour
- Loss of self-confidence and self-esteem
- Separation anxiety
- Developing fears and phobias
- Sleep disorders
- Eating disorders
- Educational problems
- Drug abuse and self-destructive behaviour
- Obsessive compulsive behaviour
- Anxiety and panic attacks
- Poor peer relationships
Attachment relationships depend largely on the quality and quantity of close relationships during infancy and a positive co-ordinated care approach is recommended. Mother-baby rhythms are key to brain development and functionality in later life. A person who has had insecure attachments as a child will be more likely to have insecure attachments with their own children – and so the cycle continues.
Mediation can Help
Are you worried about the effect of separation or family conflict on your children? If you are having difficulty communicating or resolving issues, mediation can be very helpful. Mediation aims to reach a resolution between separating or disputing couples without the stressful process of going through court, whilst ensuring the best possible outcome for your children.
Here at Progressive Mediation in Bristol, we have years of experience with family mediation cases ranging a wide spectrum of circumstances. Please call us on 0117 924 3880 for an informal chat and some advice on your own situation.