Most mothers today will have heard of attachment parenting, which aims to promote a close relationship between a baby and its parents or caregiver. I work in a charity that helps children with severe social, emotional and behavioural needs and have seen the damaging effect that missing or distorted early attachments can have on children. I don’t have children of my own, but it’s become patently clear to me in my job just how vital attachment and early nurturing experiences are for children and the positive, lifelong effects they can have.
Attachment behaviour encourages a baby to stay close to its primary caregiver, who is usually, but not necessarily, the child’s mother.
So what exactly is the theory behind attachment? What happens when positive attachment experiences are missing? And is there any way back?
READ MORE: Why I chose attachment parenting
The author of attachment theory was John Bowlby, a British psychologist, psychiatrist and psychoanalyst. Attachment behaviour encourages a baby to stay close to its primary caregiver who is usually, but not necessarily, the child’s mother. Babies can only form very few close attachment relationships, and to do this it is essential for them to have continuous relationships with permanent caregivers (remember that the next time your baby needs to be fed or your toddler wants to sleep with you!) A special lasting bond is additionally created with the primary caregiver, whomever that may be.
Throughout the first two years of life, the architecture of the brain is firing on all cylinders. The brain cells and their wiring are established, connections that are seldom or never used are closed down, and those that are often used are reinforced. Routine social experiences, whether happy and satisfying or sad and frightening, will start to form connections between brain cells.
The nurturing experience impacts on the architecture of the brain and the connections relating to a positive, comforting experience are reinforced.
To use a simple example, if a baby is crying and the caregiver responds to its cries with sensitivity that is neither too slow and neglectful nor too abrupt and controlling, but appropriate and predictable, the baby will start to develop a confident and trusting relationship.
If the carer is in tune in this way, the nurturing experience impacts on the architecture of the brain and the connections relating to a positive, comforting experience are reinforced. The baby develops a sense of secure attachment and high self-esteem; it is worthwhile, interesting, lovable and loved. The baby begins to develop resilience: the ability to recover quickly from stressful or adverse situations and ‘bounce back’ or become stronger.
On the other hand, if a baby is crying and the caregiver response is unreliable, uninterested, or even non-existent, then a connection will be formed relating to a frightening social experience. The baby learns internal models of itself that it is worthless, uninteresting and unlovable. In this situation an insecure attachment may develop. Increased levels of cortisol may result due to regular, high levels of stress and long-term exposure to this hormone can have extremely detrimental effects. Cells in the hippocampus are damaged which can result in impaired learning and the brain stem becomes enlarged, which triggers even greater levels of cortisol. The child may consequently overreact to mild stress, become hyperactive and develop behaviour problems.
My charity – the Nurture Group Network – works with troubled and disengaged children who, for whatever reason, have lacked the essential attachment experiences in their childhood so far. Nurture groups are teacher-led interventions that effectively replace missing or distorted early attachment experiences for children once they have reached primary or secondary school. As a charity, our aim is to remove barriers to learning and make the nurture group approach available to all children who need it. We train educators, raise awareness, carry out research and influence policymakers in the United Kingdom.
Children in nurture groups often function several years below their chronological age.
Children in nurture groups often function several years below their chronological age and have considerable socio-emotional and behavioural difficulties. For example, they may have aggressive behaviour that puts them at higher levels of social rejection and risk of academic deficiencies (low grades, truancy and exclusion). On the flipside, they may internalise their behaviour, which can significantly
interfere with interpersonal relationships.
Nurture groups focus on having the student form attachments to loving and caring adults at school. Our charity has a wealth of independent research to show how, once a child’s attachments to a positive caregiver (a teacher or teaching assistant) are secure, they have improved academic achievement, reduced aggression or incidents of withdrawn behaviour, improed behaviour, better school attendance and long-term mental health improvements. This turnaround shows how powerful a secure attachment is and how important it is to try and establish one from an early age.
One thing I must stress that our charity would never do is judge a parent or caregiver if their child is insecurely attached. There are a huge amount of contributory factors at play. In a survey of 100 nurture groups for example, the majority of children have experienced significant trauma from a variety of causes including: family separation, exposure to family conflict, abuse, divorce, illness and hospitalisation, bereavement and parental drug exposure. Nurture groups are no place to judge and no place to point fingers. Nurture practitioners and nurture supporters simply recognise just how crucial early attachment experiences are and endeavour to replace them if for some reason they have not been there the first time around.
Even if you are following a more hands-off approach, a secure, loving environment is still invaluable for your child’s development.
Attachment parenting your child builds effective bonds and trusting relationships by being responsive to their individual needs and creating a secure attachment. Even if you are following a more hands-off approach then a secure, loving environment is still invaluable for your child’s development.
Insecure attachment is by no means irremediable (as the nurture group approach shows) but it does rely on a school that has a nurture group or at least a nurturing ethos. Healthy attachments between a child and a caregiver– be they as a baby or instilled at later life in a nurture group – are essential for any child or young person to succeed as a confident, resilient adult.
HOW TO BUILD A SECURE ATTACHMENT
1. Try to meet both your child’s physical and emotional needs
This will ensure that they can become resilient and independent adults with the strength to overcome adversity. This will give your baby/toddler a positive model that he/she is worthwhile, lovable and loved.
2. Help your baby be excited by the unfamiliar world around them
By sharing in their joy and excitement in exploration, you can help tostimulate their brain growth.
3. Lead by example
Toddlers learn what acceptable behaviour is by copying the behaviour of people around them. They will regularly accept all regularly repeated experiences as being the norm and use them to build their internal model of how to behave towards other people in the future. In other words, be a good role model!
4. Try to introduce guidance gradually
A child’s self-control develops with the gradual introduction of appropriate guidance, not so early that their emerging personality is crushed, nor so late that the lack of intervention leaves them antisocial or neglected.
5. Try your best to appear securely attached yourself
The most powerful predictor for a child to become securely attached is for their attachment figure to have a realistic and coherent insight into how their own childhood relationships work with their attachment figures. You can express this by being confident, self-assured and comfortable around your baby/toddler. Be happy!
If you’d like more information on nurture groups and attachment theory, you can visit www.nurturegroups.org
Sophie Slater is Policy and Communications Officer at the Nurture Group Network.