- Babies have evolved an attachment system that keeps them close to their caregivers and makes them seek the caregiver when distressed
- Attachment interactions evoke automatic behaviours in parents contributed to by memories of early interactions with their own parents
- Early attachment relationships influence strongly your child’s social, emotional, and interpersonal development into adulthood
Patterns of interaction with your child during her first year of life are crucial to the way she will come to automatically see herself, others, and the world. These interactions have been shown to influence how your child will eventually relate to her own children. The interactions between caregivers and children are commonly called attachment relationships.
What is attachment?
Attachment is an inborn system that is thought to have evolved about 200 million years ago to keep babies safe during their early periods of life. It makes sense that this system was a requirement to ensure human survival since babies are born into the world with such immature brains and an inability to survive without caregivers.
The attachment system makes babies stay close to their parents, and go to their parents during times of distress to be comforted and regain a feeling of safety. Through this system babies internalize the relationship with their parents. For infants, having parents, especially mothers, who care for them sensitively creates a feeling of safety. The sense of well-being that emerges from these experiences creates a secure base for the child to explore the world.
How do attachment relationships work?
When babies are born parents are the most important aspects of their new world. Babies need parents who understand their experience and respond with appropriate care. The abilities of parents to do this are entrenched within their own attachment memories of how they themselves were parented. This means that parent-infant interactions tend to automatically transfer the parent’s unconscious memories of early interpersonal experiences with caregivers into the newborn.
To see the amazing research series that uncovered the power of attachment relationships see Measuring Attachment- Part 1.
How do babies remember attachment experiences?
Repeated attachment interactions create automatic expectations in babies regarding what behaviours they can expect from important others. Babies summarize early memories of their caregiver interactions to form these expectations. These expectations are stored in the social parts of the brain Our Social Brain that influences how infants come to see and react to other people. And because these memories are implicit, meaning babies form them without the awareness of remembering something How We Remember, attachment memories guide social reactions without awareness.
What do secure attachment experiences create?
Secure attachment relationships are associated with appropriate development for children in aspects of social, emotional, and cognitive functioning. Specifically, these relationships are key factors in influencing children’s interactions with other children, their sense of security in exploring the world, their ability to cope with stress and challenge, and their ability to respond to and smooth out difficult emotions. These traits tend to strengthen into adulthood leading to meaningful romantic relationships and appropriately supportive relationships with their own children.
What about insecure attachments?
In the case of insecure attachment relationships, the opposite patterns can emerge through childhood and into adulthood. Difficulties in interpersonal and emotional functioning during childhood often lead to insecure adult behaviours within romantic relationships and in parenting their own children.
Attachment relationships become biology
The advances in neuroscience have shown us how early attachment relationships affect our biology. Secure attachments build the brain in ways that result in calm biological responses in the same situations that insecurely attached children respond with high levels of stress. The sense of insecurity that is created in infants through inappropriate attachment relationships sets the path for developing a hyperactive stress response. This increases the risk of children becoming more often overwhelmed by stress throughout development which can result in adaptations that further stunt healthy development.
The good news: ‘Earned Security’
But the great news is that research has shown that our attachment history is not necessarily a life sentence and anyone who had less than optimal attachment experiences can ‘earn security’ by coming to understand those experiences Parenting in Attachment Relationships.
(1) Cozolino, L. (2006.) The Neuroscience of Human Relationships. New York: W.W Norton & Company.
(2) Siegel, D., & Hartzell, M. (2003.) Parenting from the inside out. New York: Penguin