"We seem to be living in the 'Age of Attachment,'" writes psychologist Jean Mercer, author of Understanding Attachment: Parenting, Child Care, and Emotional Development. Mercer is surprised how often the term "attachment" comes up in discussions about baby-and-parent bonding. Yet surprisingly few people really understand this critical concept, and how it changes over time. "It is the development of attachment that makes a baby a real human being and prepares him or her to take his or her rightful place among other humans," says Mercer. "My experience as a daughter, a mother, and a grandmother is that once understood, the idea of attachment is of enormous help in understanding family love and relationships."
The editors of Scholastic's Parent & Child talked to Mercer about the importance of attachment in the early years of life, and to find out how the transformation from infant to adult happens and what you can do as a parent to make your relationship grow stronger.
Parent & Child: Parents see and hear the word "attachment" a lot — but what does it really mean?
Mercer: Attachment describes the gradual, evolving changes in a child's feelings toward her parent or other significant caregiver — and shouldn't be confused with bonding, which is the process by which the parent falls in love with the child after birth or adoption. When we say a child is attached, we're saying she has developed a strong preference for the most important adult or adults in her life. Unlike bonding, attachment doesn't happen in the first weeks or months of a child's life. In fact, a baby under 6 months of age will not have a preference for any particular adult, as long as she's being well cared for.
P&C: What happens at 6 months?
Mercer: The baby becomes increasingly interested in social play and interaction. You've seen it: The baby adores back-and-forth games like peek-a-boo, or any interaction that's predictable, repetitive, and familiar. Those who spend the most time with the baby — typically mom and dad, or a close relative or care provider — get to know what games he likes best, and play these over and over with him. That's why the baby becomes attached to those people — they're the ones who provide him with the sort of social interaction he prefers.
A bit later, at about the 7- to 9-month mark, you see signs of the first stage of attachment behavior, when separation anxiety kicks in. The very reason a baby feels separation or stranger anxiety is because he's developed an attachment to his primary caregiver. So much so, that when that person is out of sight, the baby feels the pain of separation. From this point on, attachment grows in stages, and at each stage the child gains a greater understanding of how humans interact and what trust is.
P&C: When is the next big stage?
Mercer: At around the 15- to 18-month mark, the child exhibits what's called "secure-base behavior." If you have ever had a young toddler, you may recall the times you took your child to an unfamiliar place. You may have noticed that for a while she wanted to stay quite close to you, either in your lap or at least touching you. The child is wary, but still wants to explore. So she uses you as her "secure base." After a while, she ventures out, but she keeps coming back to check in. She may climb into your lap, or she may just need to touch you. Still later, she may only need to see you across the room to feel secure. This is significant because without that base of attachment to you, your child would not have the security to go out and explore, and she'd miss the learning opportunities presented by a new situation.
P&C: You've noted that a 2 year old's tantrums may signal another stage of attachment. Can you explain this?
Mercer: A child this age may have tantrums that are actually related to something like separation anxiety. Let's say you've taken your 2 year old to the pediatrician for a well visit. It's been a stressful morning, and probably all he wants is some quiet cuddle time with you. But you, thinking he's okay, decide to stop at the mall. He's in his stroller, he's in a loud environment, and he's still kind of stressed out. So he starts crying. And screaming. Suddenly you've got a tantrum on your hands. Although it looks like bad behavior, it's important to understand that he's not trying to manipulate you into buying him a toy or a treat. Instead, the tantrum is about wanting your attention, wanting you to be that "secure base" for him. He still has a fear of separation from you. The best thing you can do for a child this age is to be sensitive to how much stress and separation — even small separations like being in his stroller at the mall and not one-on-one with you — he can handle in a day.
P&C: There seems to be a pattern regarding attachment — these stages are triggered by separation from you.
Mercer: Yes, that's true. The same thing happens again by about 2 1/2 to 3 years of age. It's called "negotiation of separation." This is when you see kids doing some bargaining. Take, for example, going to bed: You'll start to see requests for one more story, one more hug, or a glass of water. These are not manipulation tactics, but ways your child is trying to negotiate with you. At the very heart of it, what she really wants is all of you, but she understands on some primitive level that you have other needs: You want to get her to sleep and go spend some time alone or with your spouse. By asking for another book or cuddle, she's actually making a big compromise. And when you agree to a certain number of hugs or stories, you're also compromising. It's yet another learning opportunity. This time, she's learning that preserving her relationship with you means making some compromises. She's learning how to have secure, mutually beneficial relationships with other people.
P&C: Parents sometimes worry that a child in day care could have trouble with attachment. Should they?
Mercer: No. The good news is that it's not as easy as you might think to disrupt attachment. Humans are wired for it, and every child will form attachments given half a chance. As long as the child has a relatively stable situation — not a string of different care providers all the time — his attachment will develop normally. It's also fine if your child becomes attached to his care provider; in fact, you want that to happen. This won't disrupt his attachment to you, as long as you spend some playful, interactive time with him each day.
P&C: Do adoptive parents face any special challenges?
Mercer: If you adopt a child under 6 months of age, she has not formed any attachments yet, so you should never worry that she's missed some sort of window. Also, if you adopt an older child, presuming he's had attachments to other primary caregivers earlier in his life, he'll know how to attach and after an adjustment period he'll be fine.
P&C: What can disrupt attachment?
Mercer: Traumatic events in a child's life can interrupt good attachment. Maternal depression is a problem. A depressed mom is unresponsive, and doesn't offer her child the social interaction necessary to form good attachment. I'm talking about a severe depressive episode, not a bad day or even a bad week. An acrimonious divorce that results in one parent being completely cut out of a child's life can disrupt attachment, as can an illness or death of a parent. As dire as these situations can be, there is always an excellent chance of a full recovery, though it can take a year or more. What the child needs is another person — another parent or a grandparent — who will become that steady adult presence in his life.
P&C: What can happen in the case of a child who, for whatever reason, has not been able to form a secure attachment?
Mercer: These children, sadly, may enter adulthood without the ability to trust others because that's not been modeled for them. They are more likely not to be trustworthy or reliable themselves. Without that social interaction that happens throughout the process of attachment, children don't learn that people can trust one another, which is at the root of human interaction.