While society tends to applause independence and self-reliability, we humans are an extremely socially connected species, flourishing in a supportive company and hurting under isolation. The most significant connection to children’s mental and emotional development is the attachment they form with their parents (or another caregiver for that matter) at an early age.
Attachment theory was conceived over 50 years ago by John Bowlby, a British psychiatrist. It was later validated by his student, a developmental psychologist named Mary S. Ainsworth. The theory suggests that the quality of our early age connections immensely affects our behavior as adults. Attachment theory has found a wide range of applications from pre-schools to executive coaching programs. Ainsworth developed a procedure called ‘the strange situation procedure,' where a year old baby is shortly separated from the parent, and its behavior during their reunion is monitored closely. The aim of separation was to stress a child briefly and then end the pressure. The child’s behavior is then compared to the in-home relationship with the parent and used to form a kind of scale for attachment, using the child’s behavior in the strange situation as a measure of the bond with the parent.
Researchers and psychologists believe that what a parent does around their kid is a key influence on how they behave in a strange situation. According to Virginia M. Shiller, an assistant professor at the child study center at Yale University, a child who is used to having their parent respond will seek attention from them when they get back. More so, the child will be comforted by the caregiver much quicker when in a stressful situation. That kind of connection is referred to as 'insecure attachment.'
Similarly, children who are not used to comfort and reassurance will form an insecure attachment. For instance, the child might turn and crawl away when they are reunited with the parents, not because they are calm. Studies have proved that such a child is also feeling stressed by the separation, confirmed by its elevated level of stress hormones and increased heart rate. “While one might assume, ‘well, that is one independent child,’” said Dr. Shiller, “we have different knowledge that this child is communicating, ‘I’m going to kind of deal with this on my own.’” In attachment research, that kind of have-my-own-back instinct is regarded as insecure-avoidant.
The third group is called insecure-resistant -- children who may be difficult to calm, at times pushing their parents away irritably or aggressively seeking comfort. In children who might have undergone severe stress, abuse or institutional care, researchers have recognized a pattern they refer to as “disorganized.” Children who fall into this category have no strategic model in responding to the separation and reunion process.
It is important to note, however, that the attachment we are talking about is not the same as “attachment parenting,” which often involves physical proximity to a child in the literal sense. Dr. Susan Berger, a developmental psychologist and associate professor of pediatrics at Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago, believes that one does not have to be physically connected to their child at every moment of the day to be securely attached to their child. “Attachment is about being sensitive to your child in times of stress,” she said, “So they know if they are upset or hurt someone will come to make them feel better.”
Dr. Berger’s research is inclined towards the emotional dynamics of children and families. She developed an observational scale to aid in assessing whether children are securely attached or not. Berger encourages doctors to take the routine 1-year-old checkup as a means to evaluate the parent’s relationship with their child because predictably, the child will be under stress. However, evaluating 1-year-olds is not enough to conclude that their fates are sealed. Psychologists argue that children’s minds are exceptionally flexible; therefore, their character changes as they develop. The bond between a parent and a child does not stop to count when the child begins to grow up. Just as children in the “insecure” bracket can get more secure by forming a close relationship, the stable ones can become less so if they drift away or pair up with people with a lesser sense of security.
Children need to know that as they explore the world, meet strange situations and gather experiences, moving further and further away from home, they can always come back for reassurance and comfort. Dr. Berger said that the importance of the attachment was to provide a secure foundation for a child to leave and explore the world, and a haven to come back to when it's too stressful out there.
The process of having a secure attachment with a child -- which is crucial for his/her emotional and mental development -- is not all about being a perfect parent. It is more about maintaining a connection through proper communication and repairing the unavoidable rifts that occur in any relationship.