Anyone who has taken Psychology 101 or Introduction to Child Development has spent some time learning about the history of attachment theory and its creators, John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth – practically household names among those in the psychology or education fields. Like most topics in an introductory course, it’s hard to see how this 60-year-old theory, often demonstrated through fuzzy videos of a Strange Situation experiment, applies to modern day parenting and child development. A recent article in The New York Times by pediatrician Perri Klass, however, brings the relevance of attachment theory into the 21st century and discusses how pediatricians can use it to monitor the parent-child relationship. The goal, according to Dr. Klass, is for pediatricians to pay attention to how parents and babies interact at the one-year checkup, and to provide parents with strategies for developing a more secure, responsive connection to the child if warranted.
Attachment is the reciprocal bond that forms between parent and child. Evolutionarily, it keeps children safe; parents are hard-wired to want to keep an eye on the child, and the child is hard-wired to use the parent as a secure base from which to safely explore her environment. When parents are tuned into and responsive to an infant’s and growing child’s needs, that child feels safe and secure, and develops the idea that the world is a trustworthy and exciting place. When parents are having difficulty demonstrating a consistent, responsive style of parenting, the baby or young child may demonstrate an anxious, insecure attachment response. This means that the baby or child may not seek comfort from the parent, or may avoid the parent in stressful situations. This is a sign that the infant or child is experiencing more stress than would be expected based on the situation. All babies and children depend on their caregivers to regulate their levels of stress and other emotions. Therefore, when parents are not always available to respond to a young child’s needs, that young child will endure more stress and will have difficulty developing appropriate coping skills for stressful situations.
With newborns and very young children, being responsive means attending to the child’s every need, and helping them work through stressful situations by providing physical and verbal comfort. As children get older, however, finding that balance of responsiveness and allowing independence becomes trickier. The goal for any human is to eventually move farther and farther away from the parent, until they have developed the coping skills necessary to explore the world independently. Parents who tune into their children right from the start can begin to learn the cues for when it’s time to step back, and when they are still very much needed to provide comfort. As children get older, they learn, through their parents’ actions, that they can depend on their parents to be there when needed, and therefore they feel safe enough to inch further and further away.
The article in The New York Times encourages pediatricians to help parents monitor their own responses to their young children, and to offer support when an insecure attachment style is developing. Every child is resilient, and children who were insecurely attached during infancy can develop a secure attachment later on. Most importantly, parents should feel comfortable talking to their care providers, whether it’s the pediatrician or the nursery school teacher, about how to help foster that secure bond. Every relationship, but especially the early attachment bond, is a two-way street. If something is getting in the way of a parent being physically and emotionally available for their child, that parent deserves help and support. As the importance of attachment theory continues to spread, we hope that pediatricians and other professionals who work with families will be available to help parents and caregivers find that support, and to help families feel that asking for help is the first step to success.