This article explains the difference between bonding and attachment, how attachment relates to forming healthy relationships, and what parents can do to foster secure attachment for healthy growth and development.
You’ve heard it said “We’re made for relationship.” But did you know that the ability to relate well with others rests fundamentally on whether we were able to attach in infancy?
Defining Our Terms
The words bonding and attachment so often get used interchangeably yet they have very different meanings.
Bonding is what a normal healthy adult will unconditionally do toward a child. Bonding is adult toward child.
Attachment on the other hand, is what a normal, healthy child will conditionally do if the infant assesses his environment is safe enough and if the primary caregiver is consistent enough to be relied upon. Attachment is child toward adult.
How Secure Attachment Develops
- Need. The child has a need. This could be a tangible need (tired, wet diaper, cold, hungry) or an intangible one (quiet time, stimulation, being held, validation, encouraged or reassured).
- Express. The child expresses that need either by crying or some other attempt to make his need known to you.
- Need is met often enough. You come to his aid and meet his need. Sometimes this takes some effort to figure out what his need really is first. With an infant, his only mode of communication is a cry. It’s often hard for you to figure out the actual need behind the cry because all his cries sound pretty much the same. No parent is perfect so the caregiver may not meet baby’s needs 100% of the time. The important point here is the child’s needs are met often and completely enough.
- Trust. With the child’s need met often and completely enough, he begins to believe “There’s somebody out there looking out for me.” He starts to trust in the fact that when he has a need again he can express it and it will be met … again.
- Attachment. As your child cycles through this process he experientially realizes his environment is safe enough and his primary caregiver is consistent enough to be relied upon. This is what allows him to make an attachment to you, his caregiver, then with others.
Secure attachment sets the stage for all following developmental stages. If a secure attachment and trust hasn’t been established your child will not develop a sense of his own autonomy. He will not gain the awareness that he can make a difference in the world or that he has something worth offering his family and his community. He will not be able to navigate the “identity crisis” of adolescence properly without secure attachment.
Children Need Validation and Nurture
For a child to feel safe, his physical tangible needs must be met. He needs food, clothing, shelter and warmth. Additionally, he needs to be nurtured (to nourish, encourage, support, pour life into and help grow) and validated (to conform, approve of, give sanction to or establish as legitimate). While the tangible needs are easy to focus on because they’re see-able, nurture and validation are just as critical for a child’s ability to feel safe in his environment and with his caregiver. Nurture more easily comes from moms and validation more easily comes from dads. Either parent can do both so if you’re a single parent, don’t worry, you can cover both bases.
In addition to validation and nurture, children need structure (rules, order, routine, consistency, parameters, limits). A child needs structure in his environment and from his primary caregiver in order to be able to give him a sense of boundaries and safety. Balancing nurture with structure is very important and can be a difficult thing because it’s a moving target; it’s never the same from day to day. Healthy structure can be provided by:
- Establishing and keeping regular nap and bedtimes
- Having a consistent evening routine (as much as is possible). This is important even for older children
- Making and clearly stating house rules and expectations
- Having and enforcing age appropriate consequences when rules are broken
Fostering Secure Attachment
Felt safety (the child’s awareness of being safe as well as actually being safe) along with playful interactions is what fosters secure attachment. Secure attachment sets your child on a path toward healthy, autonomous adulthood. You can create and foster an environment that helps your child trust and attach. Here’s how:
- Engage in light-hearted fun play where relationship skills can develop
- Focus on what is done correctly (risk-free mistakes) and make frequent use of “do-overs”
- Increase challenges but allow him/her to succeed when trying new activities
- Validate and remind him/her of his/her successes and offer the next level of challenges
- Provide frequent eye contact
- Practice healthy physical touch through cuddling, rocking and romping together
As a parent or primary caregiver of a young child, doing simple things like these, day after day in the context of a safe nurturing environment will help your child forge a strong and secure attachment to you.