What Is Attachment?

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Attachment is the deep and enduring connection established between a child and caregiver in the first several years of life. It profoundly influences every component of the human condition - mind, body, emotions, relationships and values. Attachment is not something that parents do to their children; rather, it is something that children and parents create together, in an ongoing reciprocal relationship. Attachment to a protective and loving caregiver who provides guidance and support is a basic human need, rooted in millions of years of evolution. There is an instinct to attach: babies instinctively reach out for the safety and security of the "secure base" with caregivers; parents instinctively protect and nurture their offspring. Attachment is a physiological, emotional, cognitive and social phenomenon. Instinctual attachment behaviors in the baby are activated by cues or signals from the caregiver (social releasers). Thus, the attachment process is defined as a "mutual regulatory system" - the baby and the caregiver influencing one another over time.

Beyond the basic function of secure attachment - providing safety and protection for the vulnerable young via closeness to a caregiver - there are several other important functions for children:

  1. learn basic trust and reciprocity, which serves as a template for all future emotional relationships.
  2. explore the environment with feelings of safety and security ("secure base"), which leads to healthy cognitive and social development.
  3. develop the ability to self-regulate, which results in effective management of impulses and emotions.
  4. create a foundation for the formation of identity, which includes a sense of competency, self-worth, and a balance between dependence and autonomy.
  5. establish a prosocial moral framework, which involves empathy, compassion and conscience.
  6. generate the core belief system, which comprises cognitive appraisals of self, caregivers, others, and life in general.
  7. provide a defense against stress and trauma, which incorporates resourcefulness and resilience.

Children who begin their lives with the essential foundation of secure attachment fare better in all aspects of functioning as development unfolds. Numerous longitudinal studies have demonstrated that securely attached infants and toddlers do better over time in the following areas:

  • Self-esteem.
  • Independence and autonomy.
  • Resilience in the face of adversity.
  • Ability to manage impulses and feelings.
  • Long-term friendships.
  • Relationships with parents, caregivers, and other authority figures.
  • Prosocial coping skills.
  • Trust, intimacy and affection..
  • Positive and hopeful belief systems about self, family and society.
  • Empathy, compassion and conscience.
  • Behavioral performance and academic success in school.
  • Promote secure attachment in their own children when they become adults.

Credits: Attachment Treatment and Training Institute, PLLC
32065 Castle Court, Suite 325
Evergreen, CO 80439
Phone: (303) 674-4029
Fax: (303) 674-4078
Used with permission

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