Promoting Healthy Attachment

By Christie Mason*, Ph.D., LCSW


What is attachment?

Attachment is a term used to describe a child’s connection to a few select adults in his or her life.  Most often, the term refers to a child’s relationship to a primary caregiver – typically a mother, but sometimes a father, too.  The primary caregiver is the person who spends the most time taking care of a child.  In the first year of life or so, the child learns to find a sense of safety, security and comfort in the availability of this caregiver to calm him when he’s upset, share joy in his explorations of the world, and to be a home-base to which he can return from his explorations.  As the caregiver meets the child’s physical, social and emotional needs, a child learns to expect that the world is a safe place to be, others are caring, and she is worthy of love and care.

Why does attachment occur?
Researchers who study attachment believe that attachment is a biologically rooted mechanism that increases an infant’s chances of survival.  Essentially, an infant protests the absence of a caregiver (via crying) and rewards the caregiver’s interest in him (via smiling, cooing and other generally cute things babies do that make us want to be near them).  In a complimentary fashion, mothers experience biological distress when they hear their infants cry, and a corresponding reduction of distress when they pick their infants up – even if the infants are still crying.  Thus, both infants and caregivers are “programmed” to want to be near one another – providing vital protection to the infant, as well as laying the foundation for her psychological development.

What are the benefits of attachment?
Attachment not only ensures that an infant is more likely to survive, it also makes it more likely that an infant will develop social and emotional skills necessary for life.  For example, as an infant is calmed regularly by a caregiver, he learns to calm himself.   Some authors who write about attachment link secure attachment with the development of memory, empathy, and self-awareness.  A well-known 30-year study of attachment in infants has shown that when compared with their insecurely attached peers, children who had been rated at 12 months of age as being securely attached to their primary caregivers were more confident, had higher self-esteem, experienced more positive emotions, were more persistent when faced with problems, were more flexible in coping, had a greater ability to manage stress, and had better social relationships in both childhood and adolescence.  Attachment is also thought to strongly influence adult marital and partner relationships.  It’s amazing what a profound effect very early experiences can have throughout a child’s life.

How can secure attachments be encouraged?
Secure attachments occur when caregivers are consistently responsive to their infants’ emotional states (which, in infancy, are also closely linked with their physical states – just think how angry a baby can get when he is hungry).  This means that caregivers pay attention to what the infant’s experience is and communicate in some way that they understand what the child is feeling.  Most often this happens nonverbally, by making faces and using vocal tones.  For example, a baby drops something and is surprised by the noise. The parent then makes a surprised face and says in a bright tone, “Wow, that surprised you, didn’t it?” The baby, who has been reassured by the caregiver’s recognition of her experience, will then smile and go back to playing.  As simple as it seems, repetition of this sequence and others like it develop secure attachments.  Using touch to calm and comfort a distressed child is also helpful in developing attachment.  Chances are you have done these things in your interactions with infants without realizing that what you were doing was promoting attachment.  Indeed, most people naturally respond to a child in ways that lead to secure attachment. 

What if I’m concerned that an attachment isn’t secure?
In a minority of cases (between 30-40%) a secure attachment doesn’t develop between a caregiver and a child.  Rather, the attachment is classified as “insecure.”  When this happens, it is usually because the caregiver has been inconsistent in his/her availability to the child – sometimes because of his or her own depression, substance abuse, victimization, medical problems, lack of parenting role models, etc., and sometimes because he or she behaves in ways that are frightening or neglectful.  While this is of great concern, attachments between a child and parent can usually be repaired or new attachments encouraged even when children are older – as long as they have responsive and willing caregivers.  Essentially, effort is made to replicate some of the early parent-child interactions in healthier ways, via the use of lots of playful games, nurturing touch, eye contact, and emotional closeness. Some of the therapists at Centennial even specialize in encouraging development of secure attachments.

Where can I find more information?
If this topic is of interest to you, you can read more about it in Parenting from the Inside Out by Daniel Siegel, M.D., and Mary Hartzell, M.Ed., or Becoming Attached by Robert Karen, Ph.D.  Or, feel free to contact us at Centennial. 


Christie Mason*, Ph.D., LCSW works out of the St. Charles Office.


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