When we are born into this world, the first thing that happens is a cry. Someone immediately attends to us by wrapping us in a blanket and handing us over to our mother. It is at this time that hopefully, our mother will begin to nurture and engage us in intimate interactions thus beginning the process of creating a secure attachment.
A child becomes attached to whoever functions as their primary caregiver. A secure attachment happens for the child when the primary caregiver is attuned to the child’s physical and emotional needs. The child will cry or become fussy when they are scared, hungry, in pain, soiled, tired, or ill. When a caregiver attends to the child’s needs, the child will get the feeling of being understood. The caregiver is then recognized as a reliable source of comfort.
That secure attachment is jeopardized when the caregiver is unable to attend to the child’s needs. If the caregiver does not attend to the cries of her child, the child will not receive the feeling of being understood and will remain uncomforted, thus resulting in fear and anxiety. There are many reasons a mother may be unable to create a secure attachment with her child. Some reasons may include the absence of a secure attachment for the mother when she was a child, overwhelming or traumatic life events as an adult or child, physical or mental illness, or addiction.
Why is a secure attachment so important? Babies cannot regulate their own emotional states. They are unable to change their heart rate, hormone levels or nervous system activity that goes with emotions. When there is a secure attachment the mother and child are in sync. This means that through the mother’s observations, she can sense her child’s needs. Because of her own ability to regulate emotions, her child will sense her, connect with her, and be calmed as well. When the child is in sync with the caregiver, it is reflected in steady heart rate, breathing, and low stress hormones. The child’s body is calm, thus creating calm emotions. The basis of self-regulation is when a child can associate the intense sensations that accompany being ill, scared, hungry, and soiled with feelings of safety and comfort.
Parents who provide their child with a steadfast source of comfort and strength have equipped their child with a lifetime advantage, a safeguard against whatever the world has to offer. John Bowlby, known for his pioneering work in attachment theory, identified that through this attachment bond children will get in sync with their environment and others around them. This synchronicity will cultivate empathy, self-awareness, impulse control, and self-motivation. This, in turn, will make the child a healthy and contributing member of our society. When a child does not have a secure attachment and the caregiver cannot meet the child’s needs, the child does not learn how to manage arousal, a key life skill. Children learn that their crying, begging, or pleading does not signal attention or help. In these circumstances, children become conditioned to give up when face to face with life’s many challenges.
Originally published in Healthy Cells Magazine
By Tonya L. Bassett, LCSW, CADC, CTT