What is attachment?

According to psychoanalyst John Bowlby, attachment is a psychological connection between human beings that lasts a lifetime. Looking at it in an early childhood setting, attachment can be defined as the emotional and physical bond between an infant or a child and their primary caregiver.

Bowlby’s psychological theory suggests that these bonds children formed with their caregivers play a critical role in child development. Its impact on a person continues throughout their life even when they become adults.

What is the attachment theory?

It is important for children to have a strong emotional bond with their primary caregivers, according to attachment theory. If these early emotional bonds are ruptured or lost, a child may be emotionally and psychologically affected into adulthood and may have problems forming relationships with others in the future.

For young children forming an attachment takes time to develop, but parents and carers can start nurturing attachments early on when they form an emotional bond with their children even before they are born.

However, successful attachment is not always the case. Attachment problems may occur when the carer experiences difficulty in forming secure bonds due to personal unpleasant emotions, mental health issues, or lack of a support network.

The stages of attachment

In a longitudinal study, Rudolph Schaffer and Peggy Emerson identified four distinct phases of attachment in infants:

Pre-attachment stage

In the first three months of a child’s life, infants do not display any attachment to any specific caregiver. Whenever the baby shows signals such as crying or fussing, the caregiver is naturally drawn to it, and when the baby responds positively, the caregiver stays close to him or her.

Indiscriminate attachment theory

The preferences for primary and secondary caregivers begin to emerge between six weeks and seven months of age. Infants form their trust that the caregiver will respond to their needs. As they get older, they become more capable of distinguishing between familiar and unfamiliar people who give them care, they tend to respond more positively to their primary caregiver.

Discriminate attachment

Infants exhibit strong attachments toward one specific person from 7 to 11 months of age, and will show separation anxiety when they’re apart from their primary attachment figure.

Multiple attachments

The relationship between a child and other caregivers typically begins after approximately 9 months of age, and often includes a second parent, older siblings, and grandparents.

What are the different attachment relationships?

Secure relationships

One of the four attachment styles is secure attachment. People with secure attachments are happy in relationships. They are able to regulate emotions and feelings and effectively communicate their needs. They’re comfortable with mutual dependency and closeness to their partners.

It is important to develop secure attachments early on in life because it shapes you into a goal-oriented adult who’s rooted in your life purpose. While people with secure attachment are great in social relationships, they also don’t mind being on their own. They have good self-esteem and a positive image of themselves. They feel secure and don’t need constant approval from others.

Securely attached children developed who strong bond with at least one primary caregiver. They usually have parents or carers who raised them feeling safe, valued, seen, and known. Growing up they have formed relationships grounded on honesty, tolerance, and emotional closeness.

Anxious-ambivalent relationships

One of the insecure attachment styles is anxious ambivalent. People with an anxious ambivalent attachment style highly value their relationships, but they are often anxious and worried that their loved one is not as invested as they are.

One challenging behaviour they have is abandonment issues. Intrusive thoughts of being alone trigger their anxiety and having a responsive, attentive and caring partner may help fix this. Having this attachment behaviour makes one person clingy, demanding, preoccupied with the relationship, and desperate for love.

Adults with an anxious attachment style, typically have a negative self-image, while having a positive view of others. They crave approval, support, and responsiveness from their partner or people around them.

The first 18 months of life is a very formative period. If their primary attachment figure is inconsistent, the anxious ambivalent attachment might develop. For example, a parent is very responsive to the child, they’re focused and nurturing, and then in a short span of time they suddenly became unavailable or absent-mindedly ignored the infant, the child may perceive their actions as unreliable which may cause an insecure feeling.

Avoidant attachment

Avoidant-dismissive insecure attachment types avoid close relationships, avoid emotional attachment, and avoid relying on others. They think of themselves as independent and self-sufficient. These people have high self-esteem and a positive view of themselves.

They tend to believe that they don’t need to form attachments or be in a relationship to feel complete. There is no desire for them to depend on others or to have others depend on them. They don’t seek support or approval from other people.

This attachment can usually be traced back to having an unavailable parent or carer during infancy. Their needs are not regularly taken care of or met by their caregiver, so they distance themselves to find a way to regulate their needs on their own. Not having a secure base as a child, later on, turns them into adults that avoid intimacy and crave independence.

Disorganized-fearful attachment

The fourth attachment style is the disorganized attachment. Adults with this attachment tend to behave in ambiguous and unstable ways in social situations, they often feel both fear and desire for their partners and their relationships.

Despite having trust issues, fearful-avoidant people still want intimacy. Due to their fear of getting hurt, they do not regulate their emotions well and avoid strong emotional attachments. As adults, they are also chaotic, unpredictable, and intense. They have a negative view of both themselves and others.

Children’s attachment results in this as a consequence of trauma or abuse inflicted by their parents or caregivers. This develops when their source of safety and security becomes a source of fear or a perceived threat.

Among the insecure attachments, this is said to be the most difficult to treat or reverse. However seeking treatment and professionals can help heal disorganized-fearful attachment by changing the way you manage your emotions, engage with other people, and develop your sense of self.

How attachment theory can be used in early childhood practices?

We can also apply attachment theory in the early childhood education and care (ECEC) context. Healthy and secure bonds between educators and early learners have positive effects on a child’s development and child’s emotions.

Having healthy attachment encourages a child to regulate their emotions and behaviours. With the assurance that a trusted adult is looking out for them, children display social competence when they are in child care.

Educators play a key role in fostering relationships with children and promoting positive interactions among them. One way educators can promote healthy attachment is by supporting the children’s cognitive development through play-based learning where a child interacts with other children in the centre, experience fun learning activities indoors and outdoors, and develop their social skills.

Additionally, educators, teachers, or staff must provide a safe and nurturing environment for children to get the most out of their time and energy and to prevent them from being distracted by negative feelings, such as fear or worry.

It’s crucial for educators to take the time to put themselves in the child’s shoes to understand where they are coming from. They must teach a child to express and communicate effectively their needs instead of focusing on their behaviour in times when they are upset or are throwing tantrums.

Emotion coaching

The purpose of emotional coaching is to enable children to support and manage their behaviour through the use of a relational approach. Many of the concepts of emotion coaching are derived from attachment theory and neuroscience.

Emotion coaching involves empathising with the child. An emotion coach will make an effort to understand children’s reactions before correcting them. While acknowledging that their feelings and emotions are valid, an effective emotion coach would set limits by laying down carefully that certain behaviours are not acceptable.

They work with the child, they lead them into understanding what they could’ve done better in a similar situation in the future. Overall creating an atmosphere of positive learning where the child feels supported and heard as they learn to understand and regulate their behaviour and emotions.

Early childhood services and educators influence attachment

Educators can support a child’s attachment by helping their family recognize their influence on their child’s attachment. Families need to learn how to respond appropriately to the signals that children send in order to build that bond with their children by getting involved in their play. As part of the child’s learning journey, educators can share pertinent information based on their documentation and observations with the child.

Supporting children equates to creating an environment that fosters trust, positive behaviours, and healthy attachments.

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