It has often said that there is no manual for childrearing – and nothing could be both further from the truth and yet so true at the same time. The inundation of parenting advice today is saturating. Finding the way through early parenting years can be thrilling, equally terrifying and certainly life changing. Caregivers for the most part, will come into a greater confidence and trust in their child and their ability to manage tough times. However, there will be struggles and difficulties, life and parenting is not straightforward. During these times parents and caregivers will often consult the great body of literature, friends, family or a therapist. Wading through the copious literature and opinions can be intimidating, piecemeal and reactive. It can be helpful at these times to go back to the basics, reviewing what we know is helpful across the lifespan. Pioneered by Mary Ainsworth’s work on attachment styles, copious research now supports the concept that secure attachment is the single most important fundamental to child development (Siegel and Bryson, 2020).
Secure attachment is a phrase that potentially evokes images of monkey experiments, classic studies into the impact of parental engagement (the “still face” experiments) or perhaps of even children in orphanages. In terms of neurodevelopment, secure attachment is the pillar of brain development that allows a child to be in a physiological state that is ready for learning. Without perceived safety, the mind of the child is perpetually engaged in threat reduction and survival. The brain can be thought of in the most simplistic terms as an association machine, and secure attachment means that the brain will expect that the world will be open to receive them in a safe, logical and positive way.
Secure attachment is the culmination of experiences that are “good enough”, that are safe and soothing for the baby and child. It is a process whereby the child is safe, seen and soothed repeatedly (Siegel and Bryson, 2020). It is this predictable cause and effect that creates pathways of neurobiological “wiring”. It is not about always being a “perfect” caregiver, it is the long and slow process of being good enough (Winnicott). A brain that has not had the opportunity to wire with secure attachment will look very different to a securely attached brain. In particular, the amygdala, frontal and prefrontal cortex develop in a structurally different way. However, it is not so much in the brain scans that this is evidenced, but in how the child copes relationally and how they develop their sense of self in the world as a person. As an individual who can manage difficulties, who can be self determined and self confident, as a person who has a positive impact on those around them, and who can manage interpersonal difficulties as they arise. Naturally, as the child wants to explore they engage more with those in the community or school settings, the securely attached child is able to take with them into the world the idea of the “secure base”. This is an internal mechanism of the relational safety the child has developed and acts like an “on-board puncture repair kit”. It shows up in the way the child engages in positive self talk, the way they are willing to take appropriate risks, and through the way they reconnect with caregivers and others when relational difficulties or conflict arise.
Secure attachment can also be facilitated and enhanced as children grow. It is not something that is finished with after the child becomes an adolescent. Indeed the “showing up”, being attuned, holding safe boundaries and being able to support an adolescent during this intense period of brain development is, I believe just as crucial, and at times overlooked in the parenting literature. My next blog post will explore this in greater detail.
- Daniel Hughes (2006), Building the Bonds of Attachment, Jason Aronson
- Kenneth Ginsburg (2015), Building Resilience in Children and Teens, American Academy of Pediatrics
- Daniel Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson (2020), The Power of Showing Up, Ballantine Books
Counsellor / Child and Family Therapist