Parents with little baby at home“…no variables, it can be held, have more far-reaching effects on personality development than have a child’s experiences within his family…” – John Bowlby

“Attachment”, the enduring emotional bond that has lasting psychological connectedness, was observed by British psychiatrist John Bowlby in the 1930s during his clinical work with emotionally disturbed children.

Later Bowlby and psychologist Mary Ainsworth asserted that infants and children under stress sought close proximity with their adult caregivers when they were upset or threatened, often reciprocated by adults who responded in appropriate ways that respected the child’s needs.

Bowlby’s followers have advanced the theory and demonstrated that our attachment needs remain constant across the lifespan, and that attachment experience is implicated in all of our behaviour.


Attachment Theory is an attempt to understand our behaviour in the moment, and is a valuable tool to make sense of the family.

The theory is abstract and complex as every human can be.

When we understand this theory we are able to consider concepts underlying the attachment experience that inform and guide our parenting behaviour as well as the behaviour of our children and others.


Our Actions Mean Something

Behaviour is a way for us to communicate how we are feeling, and a way to indicate our expectations of having our attachment needs met. Actions and behaviours mean something, although the meaning behind the behaviour might not be apparent.

As we focus our attention on our own attachment needs and the attachment needs of our child, we may begin to notice the behaviours that underlie our own and our child’s attachment needs.

Having awareness that our actions mean something helps to reinforce two key points which may alter our thinking significantly:

– behaviour is an attempt to resolve rather than create conflict; and

– empathy is the mechanism that allows us to experience the behaviour as an attempt to  resolve conflict.

Attachments Exist From Cradle to Grave

Each of our attachments is for life and whether or not we are in close proximity, our attachments will continue from cradle to grave.

Conflict is a Big Part of Relationship

Attachment is at the core of the species, and its most basic biological function is self-evident – without loyalty to our babies, there is no possibility they will survive.

There is a dichotomous nature of experience in human attachment – we have the urge to be attached and the urge to separate, simultaneously. In order to be complete as a separate person we must have separation from the other. This central conflict between attachment and separation exists in each of us, and because of it, attachment can be seen as a conflict model.

We Accommodate to the Attachment Needs of Others as They Accommodate to Ours

Our children need a secure base in order to practice autonomy. Our family can be, and often is, that secure base.

Within some families a secure base does not exist. In Crittenden’s work on coercive attachment strategies she suggests that children with unresponsive parents develop strategies that force reluctant parents into responding.

Having to have our own needs met can overwhelm our capacity to meet other peoples’ needs. In some families there may be members who don’t have their needs met because other members have a higher sense of the need to have their needs met, and impose getting their needs met first.

The person who is out of balance with the needs of others may not have the security to be able to see that balancing everyone’s needs is actually a way forward. They just see that they have to impose their needs first because their life experience has been such that they haven’t had their needs met without doing that, so that is the only process they can see as being effective. They may have been the underdog. They may have had a sense that, “My needs are secondary to everyone else’s needs”, so consequently if they want to get their needs met or fulfilled they have to find some way of imposing their will on others. “I can’t ask you because you’ll say, “No”, so I have to make you meet my needs.”

It sounds like a simple concept, but when we see the parameters of it, it is not at all simple.

Imagine that your infant won’t stop crying and you have been awake all night. You are at your wits end. What do you do? You might tell yourself, “The baby needs my support, and I am the adult here,” but eventually your ability to offer that support runs out because physiologically you are spent. In order to help your child you have to get away somewhere, lie down, and sleep. You are desperate to have someone else take the child for a while, but there is no one to fall back on, so you decide to leave the child in his or her bed for a few minutes while you gather yourself together and are able to carry on.

What we do in the moment appears sensible to us at the time. We may have come to the end of the capacity for balancing our needs with the needs of our child, and our choice may be the only choice we know how to make.

Parental attempts deserve respect. No one is in a position to judge if they haven’t walked in another’s shoes.

Sometimes we come to the end of our tether with one or more of our children. We may do or say the things we later find intolerable, but it is at the moment that we become aware of what we have just said or done that becomes the issue. Psychologically speaking – through some strategy – if we can avoid further distancing ourselves from our child today, we will be able to return to the task of parenting tomorrow, able to accommodate to our child’s needs with a renewed capacity.

Empathy is a Way to Understand the Attachment Needs of Others

The experience at birth is marked by separation, and although mother and baby become separate functioning organisms at the baby’s birth, their psychological connection – their attachment – is visible from the infant’s first breath. Without words exchanged, mother and baby engage in an act of attunement purely through their biology. The experience is palpable to all who witness it.

In the following hours the experience of mother and baby deepens and broadens. As the baby attempts to understand his or her experiences with mother, the foundation of their internal world begins. At the same time mother tries to understand her experience of herself and the baby, while the baby understands her. Each one is engaged in a process of understanding the other. The tool for that process, as the natural growth pattern develops, is empathy. Here, at the beginning of life, empathy fits into the process of attachment. And it is at this point in time when the first of the tasks of living begin to transfer from parent to child, as the baby seeks to communicate their needs to mother, and mother tries to put herself in the metaphorical “shoes” of her baby when the baby starts to cry.

Without words, mother and baby can only know about the other through intuition, the senses – particularly touch, and each other’s affect. Even at this early stage of the baby’s development the process is a cognitive and affective experience.

Using empathy, the baby attunes to mom, and mom attunes to the baby in the intuitive connection that is at the core of attachment. Empathy, a psychological two-way umbilicus, soon includes other family members. Before long the baby’s sleep patterns, nap, and feeding times begin to regulate, according to the family’s structure and their activities of daily living. This developmental process is mutual and reciprocal, and everyone in the family is altered in some way by the impact of the baby’s needs on their own.

Only days old, the baby’s attachment needs incorporate into the family’s structure, and the baby becomes an active participant in the family’s activities of daily living. Empathy is the infant’s first lesson. Learning the primary tasks of life has begun.

Attachment Brings Us Joy and Pain

We may feel a sense of comfort with where we are in our relationship with our child, when suddenly we experience them exert their independence and withdraw from us, with the pulling away that occurs.

We find joy that our attachment has provided a safety net from which they can explore the world on their own, even though letting go can be painful. At each developmental stage change will bring pain along with the joy.

Our own joy and pain can guide our understanding of the joy and pain our child feels.

boy-with-manWe Move Forward, Fall Back, Grow, and Change

Growth, endings, and changes in our outer and inner worlds often bring feelings of anxiety and loss. We can’t undo events, but we can change how we think about what has happened.

Setbacks in our attachment relationships can seem as if we are falling back. Goal-oriented thinking, although not mindful, makes the concept of two steps forward, one step back somehow comprehensible – “We were two steps up the mountain, but we’ve fallen backwards, and lost something.” But, actually, we haven’t lost anything at all, because that’s how change works. We depend backwards on what we already know in order to manage whatever is coming our way. As we integrate a new experience we are able to recover and take those two steps forward very quickly, because now we know how.

Moving forward, falling back illustrates how change occurs – a bit at a time, integrating more over time, trial after trial.

Our Rituals Are A Celebration Of Our Humanness

Many families celebrate birthdays, which is a way of acknowledging, “You belong to us and we belong to you”. When we commemorate moments in time, our rituals have greater worth than their action because of the psychological significance they hold for us.

Our connections and separations bring us both joy and pain. And as we mark any of the passages of life, joy and pain are always near. At an Irish wake family and friends gather and join together to celebrate the life of someone who has died. The tradition soothes the pain in letting go of the loved one while we remember the joy that was shared. Tradition, a legacy we receive from those who have come before us, is a template we pass to future generations, which helps us balance both sides of life.

We may think about ourselves as transitory, but we are really not transitory at all because, in the sense of the continuity of life, parts of us remain in the people who were with us, and parts of them remain in us. Although they may no longer be here our memory of them and the rituals we’ve shared will always exist.

There is a sense of flow, and timelessness to our experience of our family’s rituals, from our earliest memories, to our hopes for the future. In the fullness of time, they expand the foundation of our shared experience, and enrich our lives.