Parent-Child Attachment, 1998-style

“We’re going home, Dad?” my almost-three year old son asked as we were wrapping up the last of our errands on a recent evening.  He had grudgingly agreed to go on a ride with me, but explained that he now wanted Mom (many kids can tolerate Dad for only so long).

To say that Spencer is attached to his mother would be an understatement.  Many of you (especially mothers) no doubt relate to how your young child can become a virtual appendage to you with every move you make.

Attachment to primary caregivers (usually parents) is but one of a number of factors contributing to a young child’s developing character.  Other “internal” factors (such as his biological and physical makeup, his temperament, etc.) and “external” factors (such as early childhood experiences, the nature of his immediate environment, etc.) also play a significant role.

The process of infant attachment has become a psychological topic of study in its own right over the past half-century, with most research being conducted on the bond that develops between the child and his mother.

Surprisingly, early writings on the subject emphasized the potential damage a mother’s affection could have on the developing child’s character.  In 1928 a prominent psychologist wrote, “Treat them (your children) as though they were young adults…Never hug and kiss them, never let them sit on your lap.  If you must, kiss them once on the forehead when they say goodnight.  Shake hands with them in the morning.  Give them a pat on the head if they have made an extraordinary good job of a difficult task.”

Misguided at best, this Victorian-sounding advice is blatantly and egregiously false.  From birth, infants should be held and gently touched ‘round the clock.’ Indeed, research has demonstrated that infants (and children in general) don’t just LIKE physical and emotional nurturance…they NEED it for normal healthy development.

For instance, one study showed that children raised in orphanages – where being fed is often the chief form of nurturance – exhibit significant emotional and behavioral problems as a result of a lack of physical and emotional nurturance from caregivers.  Another study showed that emotional neglect had a more detrimental effect on the lives of those studied than physical, sexual, or emotional abuse.

Landmark research done in the area of attachment suggests that from infancy a child seeks to establish his mother as a secure base.  In her he seeks to find trust, safety, comfort, reassurance, and guidance.  Healthy infants become distressed when separated from their mother and experience her return as a joyful reunion.  The gentle touch and soothing words of a loving mother tell a baby that his attempts to meet his needs are worthwhile and communicate that such needs are important.

Securely attached children tend to have mothers who are described as sensitive and responsive to their needs.  Such infants are likely to exude confidence as they develop ever-increasing independence.  Insecurely attached children, however, tend to have a difficult time connecting and getting along with others.  Their mothers are often described as either inconsistent or else cold, distant, and rigid (i.e., they do things ‘by the book’) and their early childhood is often characterized by severe neglect.

A mother, then, is often literally a child’s greatest blessing, not only in an immediate sense, but in a future sense as well.  Securely attached children tend to be able to develop healthy relationships throughout their lives whereas insecurely attached children have a much more difficult time doing the same.

Fortunately, you don’t have to tell most mothers to snuggle with their babies; nor do most moms hesitate to cuddle their infants or soothe them when they fuss.  Similarly, most fathers are warm and responsive to their little ones, which make such children doubly lucky and loved.

There are some seemingly tricky parts to this whole idea of being responsive, however.  One especially controversial area involves when you want your baby or infant to learn to go to sleep on his own.  Won’t picking him up only reinforce his crying and keep him from developing “falling asleep” skills?

Unfortunately, this question requires too much space to answer in this column, but it is worthy of attention as a subject in itself.  I’ll therefore take it up in depth in my November column.

Suffice it to say that whether cuddling, engaging in playful wrestle, or soothing a fussing child, don’t just shake their hands or pat their heads; bathe them with hugs, kisses, and an excess of gentle caresses.  Go ahead…fly in the face of conventional 1928 wisdom.

 

Steven M. Gentry, PhD., is a Child & Family Psychologist and the Executive Director of
Psychological Assessment & Treatment Specialists in American Fork, Utah