Just What Do You Mean, Attachment?
The problem with books meant to popularize psychology is that they don’t always make the research easier for people to understand. Sometimes they oversimplify it or leap to unjustified conclusions about how to apply it in real life, which only serves to obscure the truth even further. As a result, people who can’t make the leap with the author may be so confused about where the original research begins and ends that they also reject what could have been important, life-changing insights.
Is this what attachment theory is facing? Have extreme interpretations of what is now popularly known as “attachment parenting” actually caused many people to throw out the baby with the bathwater (so to speak)? What do researchers mean when they talk about attachment?
John Bowlby's "attachment theory" has influenced almost every field related to the early development of the mind for more than half a century. But it was a bit of a bumpy road in the beginning. During a time when most psychiatrists assumed nearly all neuroses could be traced to infantile sexuality— either through Sigmund Freud’s emphasis on the Oedipus complex or Melanie Klein’s focus on infantile fantasies—Bowlby's ideas came across as somewhat heretical. His hypothesis that children need secure emotional bonds with parents seems elementary now, especially in the face of so much confirmation by neuroscience. But fifty years ago it won Bowlby a host of critics, despite the fact that it was based on actual observations of children separated from their mothers.
It would be difficult to summarize in one article all of the attachment research that has accumulated since Bowlby kicked off his "Attachment and Loss" trilogy in 1969. The “summary” of research in the 2008 edition of the Handbook of Attachment is more than 1,000 pages long and the author index contains nearly 4,000 names. This speaks to the continuing interest in attachment research as Bowlby’s ideas are tested and validated across a variety of research perspectives.
Bowlby’s own interest in the topic may have stemmed from growing up in an upper-middle class English family where child-minding was the province of nursemaids and governesses. His family’s arrangement was not uncommon for his day, but perhaps it is what led to his assessment in 1940 that "if it became a tradition that small children were never subjected to complete or prolonged separation from their parents in the same way that regular sleep and orange juice have become nursery traditions, I believe that many cases of neurotic character development would be avoided" (Bowlby 1940a).
For Bowlby, his colleague Mary Ainsworth, and the researchers who have succeeded them in this area of study, healthy human psychological development—and even survival itself—depends on the quality of our relationships with others. And this lifelong interdependence begins at birth.
Bowlby began by studying the behavior of primates, but Ainsworth followed with brilliantly devised observational experiments with human mothers and children. More recently, research in psychobiological development and social neuroscience using brain imaging technology have revealed that social experiences affect how genes are expressed. This allows us to appreciate the important interplay between genetic temperament and parenting styles. We can also see that parents are the foundation of a lifetime of attachment relationships: later caregivers will also fulfill important roles as attachment figures, as will siblings, friends, and romantic partners in adulthood.
According to James E. Coan, one of the forerunners in the study of social neuroscience, attachment figures are defined by the fact that they help us regulate emotion—particularly emotions related to stress or threat responding. An attachment relationship, then, is one in which we are seeking security.
What sets parents apart in our lifelong parade of attachment figures is the fact that they are the ones who help us in regulating our distress and providing security during our most important period of brain development, specifically the first two years of life. The process of parent-infant bonding, says Coan, teaches us to make certain assumptions about our social world, including how we might expect to encounter it in the future. “This,” he says, “may set the stage for different broad strategies for engaging (or avoiding) social stimuli, perhaps especially during emotional situations.”
In other words, the kind of treatment we learn to expect from our caregivers during those important early years profoundly affects our ability to function well within our social world later in life. Whether we succumb to anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues depends, at least in part, on how our brain’s emotion-regulation systems have been calibrated.
Some psychologists speculate that they may currently be seeing the effects of increased attachment problems in today’s adult population. Louis Cozolino, author of The Neuroscience of Human Relationships, is a clinical psychologist who is also a professor at Pepperdine University. "When you have inadequate attachment," he says, "—and society isn't really set up to allow people the time and the space to raise their children and be present with their children in order to establish that attachment—then I think kids are more vulnerable. I don't get a sense that there's a lot of attachment security, certainly not in the people that I work with. Of course, it's not a random sample but a clinical sample, but it certainly seems that adults are not coming out of childhood feeling safe in the world. As a result, people seem to be having difficulty creating connections."
So how do parents work toward the kind of secure attachment bonds that will set children on the path toward optimum mental health? Is it critical to co-sleep for a prescribed number of months or years? Is there a “perfect” length of time to breastfeed or “wear” babies? This is where individual interpretation of the research comes in. Certainly anything that increases the opportunity for bonding is helpful—including co-sleeping, wearing babies and nursing (and of course nursing is beneficial for physical health as much as mental health).
But parents’ perception of the infant and of their relationship may be the more important factor, say researchers. Emotional attunement and mutual responsiveness between parents and children is what sculpts a healthy brain, not a specific period of time spent nursing or co-sleeping.
“Happy, attuned interactions are as much a basic need for an infant as is feeding or burping,” says psychologist Daniel Goleman. “Lacking such synchronous parenting, children are more at risk of growing up with disturbed attachment patterns. In short, well-empathized children tend to become secure; anxious parenting produces anxious children; and aloof parents produce avoidant children, who withdraw from emotion and from people.”
Distant parents, he says, do produce children who are good at presenting a “stiff-upper-lip” to the world. But these same children are shown to be subject to high anxiety, a situation that has little chance to improve over their lifetime as they tend to remain aloof and distant toward others.
What is the take-away from all of this? Call yourself a tiger parent if you must. But whatever you do, don’t erect a wall between yourself and your child. Emotional distance is not the pathway to independence and self-sufficiency. Rather, children need a warm and secure emotional base from which to explore the world and practice being independent.
Fortunately, providing this base is a lot easier than it would seem from the endless stream of popular parenting books that parade through the bestsellers lists.