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Child-Parent Attachment FAQs
Q: What is attachment?
A: Attachment is the emotional, selective connection young children develop to just one or a few caregivers, from whom they seek protection and nurturance when distressed, fearful or hungry. Attachment is a behavioral system, the goal of which is maintaining proximity to and contact with the caregiver. Closeness to stronger and wiser caregivers ensures that vulnerable young children will survive and thrive. Although infants may have more than one attachment figure, they generally have a hierarchy, in which one figure is preferred, if available.
Q: When does attachment take place?
A: Attachment develops over the first year of life. By the time a child is mobile, the attachment system is fully operational. It is readily observed in the back-and-forth rhythms of play and exploration.
Q: Is attachment biological?
A: Yes. Human infants are biologically configured to become attached to those who care for them consistently. They are also biologically configured with behaviors and cues that pull for nurturance and commitment by their caregivers and that cause their caregivers to fall in love with them.
Q: If my baby clings and cries when I leave, is she overly attached?
A: There is no such thing as being overly attached. Securely attached children may be upset when their primary caregiver leaves, but are assured that the parent will return. Securely attached children are happy when their parents return, but they may be angry and show it if a caregiver left unexpectedly, or for too long. Secure children communicate what they are feeling, whether these emotions are positive or negative.
Q: If my baby snubs me when I pick him up at the babysitters, does this mean he is not attached?
A: Your baby may need a moment to be sure you are really there and aren’t leaving again. Try being patient in order to let your baby approach on his own terms. It is also fine to greet and hug your child after a separation, as long as you don’t require that he hug you back if he’s not ready. Even if you experience a snub, your baby is attached to you and needs your comfort and support after a separation, though it may be hard for him to show it in that moment. The more consistent you are with comfort and support, the less likely your child will be to snub you the next time.
Q: If I respond to my baby’s every need, won’t that result in a spoiled child?
A: Research shows that when the primary caregiver is available and responsive to an infant’s needs, that child will develop a sense of security. By responding to your baby’s needs, she will know that you are dependable, giving her a secure base from which to explore her world. As a child gets older, one who was consistently responded to when distressed becomes more competent to regulate distress, and is also more likely to be cooperative. That is the opposite of spoiled!
Q: What happens to children who form less secure attachments?
A: Research suggests that children who develop less secure attachments to their primary caregiver can develop anxieties that show up as behavioral issues later in life. Children who feel less secure may be more withdrawn and anxious, or they may be more aggressive, active, inattentive and disobedient than children who feel more secure.
Q: Is attachment only created between the primary parent and baby?
A: Attachments are unique and specific to individuals. A child can have a different quality of attachment to mother, father, childcare provider and grandparent, for instance. This quality reflects the expectations of nurturance, protection and emotional availability by that specific person.
In order to learn, to feel competent, to regulate their behavior and manage feelings of distress, young children need security in all settings where they spend their time. Part of this is a sense of predictability and a sense of control that is derived from being able to communicate needs and have a comforting, appropriate response.
Q: How will a healthy attachment help my child?
A: Attachment is foundational for healthy development. Security of attachment is the child’s confidence in the availability of the caregiver. It is also associated with direct communication of emotions, both positive and negative. Availability is both physical proximity and emotional availability.
As children develop cognitively, they become capable of shared plans, for example, understanding that they are picked up from childcare at the end of each day. Children who experience secure attachment beginning in infancy are more likely to develop into social, emotional and cognitive competence.