As a natural parenting store, many of the parenting tools sold at bynature.ca and at our store in Orillia, Ontario, encourage secure attachment between parent and child. We encourage parents to respond to their baby’s cues.
We extend that to our other relationships as well. We listen to parents when they come to our store to hear what it is they need. Especially in our in-store workshops, trained staff help parents find the methods or the tools that meet their needs.
All of us as humans create attachments to those who are sensitive to and responsive to our needs. Psychologists and other scientists explore these attachments through attachment theory, a model that attempts to explain how the attachments are formed.
Attachment theory within developmental psychology is based on observation of parent/child relationships since the mid-20th century. In the past few decades, psychologists have also considered application to adult attachment, such as between romantic partners, siblings, friends, and even animals.
Attachment theory was developed by John Bowlby, a psychiatrist who observed emotionally disturbed children in the 1930s. The observation of disfunctional older children helped Bowlby to consider the role in that disfunction of early separations of a baby from the mother. He wrote about his clinical observations from 1950 for the next 40 years he tried to understand the lasting connections between humans and develop a theory of infant attachment.
The telling moment for the child is separation. How will an infant react to being separated from mother or primary caregiver? Bowlby found a sequence of:
- Protest – either protesting the threat of separation or responding to actual separation by crying and searching for the mother.
- Despair – if the mother can’t be found, the child becomes quieter and more withdrawn, even mourning the loss.
- Detachment – either rejecting adults or, if the mother returns, being clinging and fearful of separation.
(From Jessica Zucker, Ph.D., “The Birth of Attachment Theory,” PBS.org.)
It’s this sequence from clinical observations that helps me to understand attachment.
Observation and published research only goes so far. It’s interesting to follow those threads into application of the findings.
Deliberate application of attachment theory to specific choices in parenting is not new, but the label “attachment parenting” was new with Dr. William Sears’ and Martha Sears’ publications, including The Baby Book, originally published in 1992. This is the book many of us have read and followed in our parenting.
For the Sears, parents put attachment into practice through:
- Birth bonding
- Belief in the signal value of a baby’s cry
- Bedding close to baby
- Balance and boundaries
- Beware of baby trainers
Attachment in Marriage
Early research mentioned attachment in adults, finding that intimate adult relationships (not just romantic relationships) function similarly to infant-caregiver relationships—with exceptions.
It wasn’t until the late 1980s and early 1990s, though, that researchers specifically applied attachment theory to adult relationships.
One place we can find the application of attachment theory for adults is in Dr. Sue Johnson’s Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy (EFT).
Attachment with Animals
Bowlby’s ideas were influenced by his reading of studies with animals (ethology), and he saw his application of the ideas to humans in a longer, evolutionary context. Nevertheless, there was some difficulty in early research as scientists were excited to generalize animal research (imprinting) to humans.
Research continues into animal imprinting, animal-human attachment, and animal roles in human-human attachment, but that research can’t necessarily be considered equivalent to human attachment research.
I did notice, when my family got a dog 7 years ago, that one of the books we bought to help us be a better dog family, Parenting Your Dog by Trish King, addressed separation with puppies and separation anxiety in older dogs who missed out on healthy separation during the essential period of 2-4 months old. This is a clear, kind, practical guide to raising a happy dog. It reminded me a lot of the sort of advice I got from Dr Sears’s Baby Book.
Share Attachment Ideas with Your Family
As my children grew up, I explained my choices to them. I talked to them about sensitivity to their needs as well as boundaries. It’s the continuous meta-conversation about our conversations.
Each of my teenagers has recently taken a psychology class, where a full week was spent learning about attachment theory. Hearing their response to the academic study of attachment after having lived through the practical application leaves me satisfied with their travel through this phase of life. I can see that they become sensitive to the needs and cues of others beyond intimate attachment situations. As I had hoped, they are generally kind people. (Though they are still teenagers, with the hiccups that phase brings.)
If you have older children (perhaps 10+ or 13+, depending on the child) and you want to deepen your conversations about emotions, you might want to watch together This Emotional Life, a NOVA television series shown on PBS in the U.S. Watching this series sparked long, deep conversations among my family members at a time when some children are hiding emotions, when they think no one else in the world shares or cares about theirs.
I also found the supplemental materials from the documentary provide an informed but comprehensible introduction to the psychology of emotions, including attachment. (See history of attachment theory and “Pave the Path to Presence.“)
Meeting a child’s needs can lead to a secure attachment style; neglecting a child’s needs can lead to an insecure attachment style. As adults, we might trust that our partners, sibling, friends, and others will meet our needs, leaving us feeling secure in those relationships, or we might not trust that our needs will be met, leaving us feeling insecure in those relationships. We can apply this to dogs or other animals feeling secure or insecure in their relationships as well.
Bringing the needs of another—a baby, a partner, a pet—into our own awareness then acting to meet those needs rewards us and them. We all benefit from the security of those around us.