Throughout life each of us will form thousands of relationships. These bonds take many forms. Some are enduring and intimate — our dearest friend — while others are transient and superficial — the chatty store clerk. Relationships, in all forms, create the glue of a family, community, and society. In truth, this capacity to form and maintain relationships is the most important trait of humankind — without it, none of us would survive, learn, work, or procreate.
Attachment bonds are the first and most important of all relationships. These are first created through interactions with our primary caregivers, usually parents. This first relationship helps define our capacity for attachment and sets the tone for all of our future relationships.
What Is Attachment?
Attachment is the capacity to form and maintain healthy emotional relationships. An attachment bond has unique properties: it is a bond with a special person; it involves soothing, comfort, pleasure, and security; and the loss of it evokes intense distress. The ability to create these special relationships originates in early childhood.
At birth, your baby is essentially emotionally unattached and does not yet have strong connections to others. During infancy and early childhood, emotional bonds begin to replace the physical connection of the umbilical cord. Nutrition and physical sensations — sight, sounds, smells, touch, and taste — help your baby survive and grow. The rocking, hugs, coos, and smiles from you help influence the development of your baby's brain in positive ways, and a strong emotional attachment grows from your relationship.
The Pleasure of Connecting
Our brain is designed to promote relationships. Specific parts of the human brain respond to emotional cues — facial expressions, touch, scent — and, more important, allow us to get pleasure from positive human interactions. The systems in the brain that mediate pleasure appear to be intimately connected to those that mediate emotional relationships. Indeed, the capacity to get pleasure from other people becomes a major learning tool of infancy and childhood: young children want to please you and model their behavior and attitudes on yours.
In order to be capable of forming the wide array of healthy relationships required throughout life, a young child's ability to form attachments must mature. While the roots of attachment are related to early caregiving experiences, children require social and emotional interactions with other people as well. As they grow, children spend less time with parents and more time with peers and other adults. This time with others provides opportunities for continued emotional growth.
When a Child Needs Support
If a child has few positive relationships in early childhood or has had a bad start due to developmental problems, he may be at risk. A child with a poor capacity for attachments is much harder to "shape" and teach. He may feel little pleasure from a smile or approving words and may not feel bad about disappointing, angering, or upsetting a parent or caregiver. Without the capacity to use human interactions to reward and punish, a parent may be frustrated in her attempts to promote appropriate behavior. In extreme cases, children with a weaker ability to attach may demonstrate no remorse when harming others and may be at risk for becoming more antisocial or even aggressive and violent.
What You Can Do
- Spend time with your child. Quantity matters — and so does quality. Make sure that some of the time you spend is completely focused on him. Get on the floor, listen, and establish eye contact.
- Don't let your child spend too much time watching television or playing electronic games. The time she spends with you, other family members, and peers offers her opportunities to experience the positive emotional interactions needed to develop healthy attachments.
- Don't underestimate the power of your approval. A smile, a hug, and encouraging words are nutrients for your child.
- Teach your child the appropriate ins and outs of social-emotional interactions — how close to stand, how to use eye contact, when to touch, how to touch. Model this behavior and use your words to explain the rules.
- Remember that there are many styles of forming and maintaining relationships. A shy child is not an unattached child. If you sense your child is having a hard time engaging others, help her by structuring time with another child whose temperament complements hers.