Attachment theory: why the parent-child relationship is so important

Attachment theory: why the parent-child relationship is so important

The attachment theory argues that a strong emotional bond to one primary caregiver, such as a mother or father, is critical to a child’s development. 

If a child’s bonding is strong and securely attached, they feel safe exploring the world. They know there is always a mother or father to whom we can return anytime. If their bond is weak, they feel insecurely attached. As a result, they will become afraid to leave home or explore because they are not sure if they can return. 

Benefits of secure attachment
Children who are securely attached are said to have greater trust, can connect to others, and, as a result, are more successful in life. Insecurely attached children tend to mistrust others, lack social skills, and have problems forming relationships.

Four types of attachment
There are four types of attachment: 

  1. Secure
  2. Anxious/Ambivalent, 
  3. Anxious/Avoidant
  4. Anxious/Disorganized

In responses to distress, the first 3 react organized, during the last act disorganized.

Attachment is formed very early
Our attachment is formed during the very first years of our lives, a time when we are too young to communicate our anxiety and, as a result, can experience high levels of stress. Then, our adrenal gland — an organ sitting on top of our kidneys — produces the stress: hormones adrenaline and cortisol. The heart rate increases, the blood pressure goes up, and we become alert. If that happens frequently, it is called toxic stress.

Toxic because it impairs the development of a child’s brain and weakens the immune system. In embryos or at a very young age, toxic stress can even switch the expressions of genes, which can affect our health many decades later.

Strange situation test
By simulating a Strange Situation, we can assess an attachment style already by the age of one. To do this, we let the child play with their mothers for a few minutes inside a room. Then, the child is left alone. The critical moment is the child’s reaction when her mother returns. Securely attached children usually hug their mother first, calm down, and eventually get back to playing. Insecurely attached children can be ambivalent and avoidant. Some can’t stop crying or refuse to continue playing.

The long-term effects
The long-term effects of our attachment in the early years are well documented. Researchers at Minnesota University were able to predict already at age 3 if a child would drop out of high school with 77% accuracy. In another study, undergraduates at Harvard were asked to assess how close they felt to their parents — 35 years later, they were asked about their health. 91% of those who said they had a somewhat broken relationship with their mother were also diagnosed with health issues, including coronary artery disease, hypertension, and alcoholism. For those who had reported a warm relationship, the figure for poor health diagnosis was 45%.

But there is another reason why the early years deserve special attention. They are the starting place for subsequent behaviors. A kid that feels securely attached at age 2 can make friends at kindergarten. Their worldview gets reinforced with every interaction, and they develop optimism. As a result, they make good relationships at school, then at college, and later at work. Highly insecurely attached children can miss out on this opportunity.

About John Bowlby
Psychologist John Bowlby, a pioneer in attachment theory, allegedly said, “What cannot be communicated to the mother, cannot be communicated to the self.” In other words: those who feel insecurely attached might not quite understand themselves.

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