what is it and why does it matter?
Research from Harvard University tells us that, in the first few years of life, babies’ brains are making one million connections per second – that’s 60 million per minute! The more something happens in a baby’s life, the stronger the connections between particular brain cells become.
The same process applies to learning to wave, clap hands, walk and talk. More surprisingly maybe, it also applies to the development of relationships and complex emotional processes like empathy, trust and identity; who we are and what we believe about ourselves and others.
Attachment is the process that ensures that human babies stay alive. That’s why attachment matters! It’s a cycle that has only been studied scientifically since the 1960s and finds that babies are born with a set of behaviours designed to keep adults (parents) close to them to give the best chance of survival. In its simplest form the cycle, working well, goes something like this…
• Baby has a need and cries.
• Parent comes close because of loving feelings for baby (and wanting crying to stop!). There is stress for both of them – sometimes lots!
• Parent works out what baby needs and offers it.
• Baby feels relieved and content, parent feels relieved and content. Stress is less!
• Happy baby, happy parent enjoying each other until… baby cries, parent comes close… you get the picture.
So baby leads, parent follows and connections in the brain strengthen. Good news for parents is that things don’t have to go perfectly. For a baby to develop what is known as a secure attachment, things have to be ‘good enough, enough of the time’. In fact, research tells us that mistakes are important in the development of a secure attachment. They’re important because they offer the opportunity to put things right. The most securely attached, resilient adults are not always those from families where things were idyllic and nothing went wrong. Secure, resilient adults are grown in families where, when things do go wrong, parents take the lead in putting them right and repairing the relationship. Keeping a close emotional connection to your baby or child (or partner), particularly when things go wrong, is one of the most important features of attachment focused parenting.
The millions of connections in the brain make pathways and these pathways make a kind of ‘inner world’ map for each of us that influences future relationships, learning, trust and resilience (how easy it is to ‘bounce back’ after a shock or trauma in later life).
In children with a secure attachment style their map, born of the consistent response and repair cycle of their parents, tells them:
• I’m okay, people like me, I’m worth it!
• You’re okay, I trust you,
• The world is okay, I can explore and come back safe in the knowledge that my parent will be waiting for me to welcome me back!
For some parents getting to ‘good enough, enough of the time’ can be a challenge. Parents’ own vulnerabilities, traumatic experiences or learning difficulties can be factors. In other families the baby’s particular temperament, illness or disability can mean it’s hard to work out and follow the baby’s lead in a reliable and consistent way that the baby experiences as ‘tuned in’ to his/her needs. In these circumstances, because babies are born with the drive to survive they find a way to keep their parent close enough to ensure that they will stay alive – both physically and in the parent’s mind which creates emotional safety. So, baby still leads and if the parent finds it hard to follow, baby finds another path that matches the parent’s response style.
Because physical survival comes first, emotional, social and educational development can be affected and children’s behaviour and sense of themselves and the world is less secure than in the example above. Some children will work so hard to keep parents close that it feels overwhelming and there might be a worry about behavioural difficulties. Others learn that their best bet in keeping parents close is to put on a happy face and get on with it but they might seem withdrawn or too independent for their age to other adults. Self-esteem can be fragile and learning affected.
If you’re worried that any of these patterns might be happening in your family, specialist advice and support are available. Awareness is also growing in general health and education settings.
The really important news is that nothing is set in stone. Our brains are amazing and both parents’ and children’s attachment patterns can be changed over time with specialist psychological or therapeutic support and a focus on responding to the right need at the right time.
None of us are perfect but with someone holding our hand we can get to ‘good enough, enough of the time’.
Dr Kathryn Whyte is a Clinical Psychologist working with children and families and Chichester Team Lead at Beacon House Therapeutic Services – an attachment focused, specialist mental health and occupational therapy service working with children, teens and adults.
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