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The Importance of Attachment in Early Child Development

From birth, babies and young children are heavily reliant on their adult caregivers, and the attachments they form in these early years may be critical indicators for later childhood and adulthood development. Attachment Theory in psychology aims to explain how a child interacts with those caregivers as an indicator of the baby or child’s confidence that their needs will be met, or their degree of attachment. Originally developed by psychoanalyst John Bowbly, Attachment Theory suggests humans are innately wired from attachments to others as a necessary part of survival, according to Simply Psychology. And, because attachment is a biological survival need, some form of attachment is always formed, whether ideal or not.

Here, two important distinctions should be made. First, attachment is not to be confused with bonding. Second, while it is very common, it is not mandatory that the attachment is formed with the mother; instead, this can be the father, grandparent or non-family member caregiver.

The Stages of Attachment

Attachment is often thought to develop in stages, as highlighted by Rudolph Schaffer and Peggy Emerson’s 1964 study, which found that by 7-9 months, babies had formed a specific attachment to a single person, and by 10 months had formed multiple attachments. Of course, this starts much earlier when caregivers simply respond to an infant, like responding to a smile with a smile or a cry with a cuddle, for example. The main driver for these attachments, the study found, was not necessarily the person who spent the most time with them, but the people who responded the most accurately to the baby’s needs. Attachments establish a child’s sense of security (or lack thereof), and also act as a map for social relationships. Attachment is classified into four groups:

  1. Secure
  2. Anxious / Avoidance
  3. Resistant
  4. Disorganized

Why is Attachment Important in Childhood Development?

Through attachment, this early picture of relationship can be critical in establishing a mental foundation the child will use to interact with others, and will dictate the way they feel about themselves. This can impact three key areas:

  1. A child’s sense of self
  2. A child’s sense of others
  3. A child’s relationship with him or herself and others

And, contrary to what the name suggests, attachment can actually help children increase their independence as a result of possessing confidence in themselves and their caregivers. Attachment essentially can establish a positive or negative path for childhood development that will impact the way children form bonds and interact with others into adulthood.

Attachment is critical in childhood development, and children do not all receive equal opportunities for successful attachments. For example, considering that the number of children in the foster system continues to increase, according to the Administration for Children & Families, understanding attachment is paramount for social workers, counselors and child advocates, as many children simply aren’t raised in environments where a concentrated bond with a caregiver can form. Outside the foster system, caregiver drug use, mental or physical health issues or lack of understanding can also impede the attachment formed.

The Effects of Successful Attachment

Children with secure attachments are often best equipped to form similarly strong attachments in adulthood, as they have experienced early on the ability to form a trusting bond, and generally feel comfortable that their needs will be met.

An attachment in infancy means increased interaction and engagement, which has been linked to improved early communication according to The Attached Family, a parenting magazine. Secure attachment also roots a child in self-confidence, as the experience throughout his or her development has reaffirmed the child is worth being cared for. In turn, this assurance provides an established base for them to practice independence and exploration.

In early years, this can translate to confidence in school and successful relationship building with teachers and peers. In older children, this can even correlate to stronger school performance, goal orientation and ability to work and cooperate successfully with peers.

The Attached Family also highlights that successful attachment can also avoid poor outcomes in childhood development, such as dependency, misbehavior and excessive demands.

The Effects of Insecure Attachment

Conversely, insecure attachment can also impact childhood development, causing effects that can continue into adulthood. While one can imply the opposite behaviors may occur in a case where an insecure attachment has been formed, a Scholar Works project that interviewed 10 mental health clinicians found insecure attachment could also spur a significant number of negative outcomes that manifest in early childhood and often linger into adulthood, including:

  • Poor social, problem-solving, and coping skills
  • Increased tantrums
  • Clingy and withdrawn behavior
  • Aggression

One critical aspect of a child’s relationship with the caregiver is the way emotional relationships are modeled. Instead of exhibiting social skills or emotional regulation, children with insecure attachments may strive to capture attention with distorted behavior – or hide distress altogether. This type of masking, or internalization, can trigger depression, anxiety and psychopathy in some cases as early as preschool, and can pave the path for an adolescence plagued by low self-esteem, exclusion and social rejection that can create a vicious cycle.

While serious, insecure attachment does not have to distort childhood and adolescent development permanently. Child advocacy professionals, including those in social work and psychology fields, can support interventions that can transform poor patterns, and partner with families to support a change by educating both the child and the caregivers to improve relationships over time. Professionals can also strive to drive change at a broader level, by establishing educational programs for new parents and creating community awareness around the influence attachment has on overall childhood development.

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