Attachment

Happy family in bed

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

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  • Despair – if the mother can’t be found, the child becomes quieter and more withdrawn, even mourning the loss.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.

Attachment Parenting

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:

  1. Birth bonding
  2. Belief in the signal value of a baby’s cry
  3. Breastfeeding
  4. Babywearing
  5. Bedding close to baby
  6. Balance and boundaries
  7. 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.

Image © Viki2win | Dreamstime.com - Happy Family In Bed Photo

Are You the Happy Parent?

Happy father with daughter

It turns out, what we bring to parenting impacts our happiness in parenting. That may not be a surprise result of psychological research, but grasping the idea can make a difference in your approach to your job as parent.

As my children are older, I’m honest with them about how difficult parenting can be. I don’t want them to have unrealistic expectations, if they decide to be parents, but I also don’t want them to block all desire to be parents. It’s a hard job—and the hard job is worth it. My 14-year old son is less likely to just accept such talk now, so I decided to dig into the research to figure out if I could tell him how the ideas of “hard job” and “worth it” could go together.

The research turns out to be fascinating—and not at all simple.

I’ve been writing about paths toward happiness with our children over the past month: cultivating compassion, grateful kids, and teaching mindfulness for self control. All of that addresses helping our children to ground their own happiness, though. What about your happiness as a parent?

A study published earlier this year asked “when, why, and how is parenthood associated with more or less well-being?” Studies that ask a simple question of “Are parents more or less happy than non-parents” contradict one another. This study (Nelson et al.) reviewed studies to ask the more nuanced question. Their review finds a complex relationship between parenting and happiness.

“We propose that parents are unhappy to the extent that they encounter relatively greater negative emotions, magnified financial problems, more sleep disturbance, and troubled marriages. By contrast, when parents experience greater meaning in life, satisfaction of their basic needs, greater positive emotions, and enhanced social roles, they are met with happiness and joy” (Nelson et al.).

What the parent brings to parenting can make the difference. The Berkeley Greater Good Science Center broke down the links to happiness, as outlined in the study, in age, gender, parenting style, and emotional bonds. Though there are still questions to be asked in more research, it is quite clear from long research that attachment leads to secure adults. If we are the parents are not secure in our attachments, though,

For us, that could mean that

“parents who do not feel secure in relationships seem to be more susceptible to declines in their relationship with their spouse during the transition to parenthood” (Nauman).

The review study (Nelson) looked at that transition to parenthood as a particularly important time. That is the phase many of our customers are going through as they meet us to talk about baby stuff, but we always understand that their underlying needs are much bigger than a cloth diaper or a pair of socks. We try to address the immediate needs as well as the deeper needs.

If you are interested in a review of the review, I suggest you read the full article at the Greater Good Science Center for an outline of factors in well-being and characteristics of those parents found to have greater well-being.

The conclusion may seem obvious that parents who know what they are getting into are more likely to find happiness in their parenting.

It’s important to know, as well, that

“happy parents often mean happy kids: Research has shown that happier parents engage in more positive parental behaviors and also influences positive outcomes in their children, like their child’s motivation, achievement, and relationships with peers.” (Nauman)

It’s worth finding your happiness in parenting. It does matter for the happiness of your children.

Resources

S. Katherine Nelson, Kostadin Kushlev, Sonja Lyubomirsky, “The pains and pleasures of parenting: When, why, and how is parenthood associated with more or less well-being?” Psychological Bulletin, Vol 140(3), May 2014, 846-895.

Emily Nauman, “What Makes a Happy Parent?” August 19, 2014.

Image © Szefei | Dreamstime.com - Happy Father Photo