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What is attachment?

Attachment refers to the bond that infants and children form with their primary caregivers. Rooted in evolutionary theory, psychologists believe that the behaviors and reactions of children towards their parents help to ensure their survival. For example, if there is a loud noise that frightens a child, they may run to their caregiver to comfort and safety. If the situation was life threatening, such as if there was an attacking animal, the child’s behavior would increase the likelihood of their survival.

The caregiver’s response to the child can create or undermine a feeling of security in the face of threat or harm. When children feel secure, they are able to explore their environments and relationships freely with the knowledge that if a threat arises, they can find comfort and protection with their caregiver. For example, if a child was frightened by a loud noise and their caregiver was understanding and caring to the child after they sought comforting, the child will feel safe and learn to trust their caregiver.

What happens when a caregiver is not consistent or is harsh in their response to a child’s distress or needs? What does the child learn? When this happens, the child may learn that they cannot rely on the parent consistently to console or protect them. These children will, over time, come to believe that they are not lovable or worthy of their parent’s attention or love, and that they cannot trust or depend on them when needed. In contrast, when parents are consistent and responsive to their children’s needs, their children learn that they are lovable and worthy of other’s attention, and that they can trust others and rely on them when needed. These secure and insecure types of attachment have been called working models because they contain the child’s beliefs, expectations, and feelings about their parents, themselves, and others that develop from these caregiving experiences.

When children have a parent who is chronically unavailable to them, or is inconsistent in their responses to their needs, they can develop feelings of anxiety and have chronic fears of rejection. Similarly, when children learn that they cannot rely on their caregivers when they experience distress, they eventually turn away from them even in times of need. These children essentially learn that because their caregiver is unreliable, it is better to refuse seeking their help and support than to be let down by them. These anxious (first example) and avoidant (latter example) responses are adaptive coping strategies for the child, but they can cause later problems when the child starts to develop new relationships with others.

It is important to understand that these working models start developing at birth through the infant’s daily interactions with caregivers. In fact, theorists believe that the first few years of life are crucial to the development of attachment, and once working models are formed they are difficult to change, even in the most supportive and loving environments. That said, significant life events may alter the working models of children and adults, such as being in an abusive relationship. A child who was once secure in their attachment to a parent may develop feelings of insecurity when they experience abuse or trauma at their hands or those of another. Likewise, children who have insecure attachments may gradually feel more secure with consistent love and care from an emotionally available parent.

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