Understanding Attachment

Once I observed a man who was feeding his 8-month old son. The son was seated in a high chair and started dropping pieces of food off his tray onto the floor. He would drop one, and then look down in delight to see that the food was on the floor. The father, looking embarrassed, swiftly gave his son a spank on the hand and said, “No, no!”  The son looked startled but dropped the food again. Shocked, I stopped the father and asked him why he did that. He said he wanted to teach his son to have good manners and not to be rude. Surprised by his answer, I then explained the infant’s developmental stage and what the boy was learning from doing this behavior. The father was incorrectly reading the son’s motives. At this young age he wasn’t capable of being rude.   

The baby’s true intentions were about something called object permanence. Somewhere between 4 to 7 months babies begin to learn that when an object goes away or gets covered up it doesn’t stop existing. This is one of the reasons why peek-a-boo games are so fun for babies. This father was confused and said that he thought that being a father should just come natural and didn’t realize until that moment that he was not reading his child accurately. This is called misattunementAnother example of misattunement happens when parents purposely do not attend to their infant’s needs in order to teach them not to be “spoiled.” The truth is you can’t spoil a baby and when they are quickly and appropriately attended to, they learn to trust, feel confident and secure.  

Attachment research describes three types of relationship attachments: secure, insecure, and disorganized attachments. A secure attachment allows a child to feel safe and protected and gives him confidence that he will be taken care of. A secure attachment allows the child to feel confident to explore the world and develop optimally.  

Insecure attachments develop when a child learns not to trust or is made to feel like they should not have needs. Typically, insecure babies will be more clingy and less able to be soothed. A disorganized attachment develops when a parent is abusive towards the child. It is confusing that the same person who hurts the child is the one they must run to for protection. This is the most damaging type of relationship because it teaches the child not to trust their own judgement.  

The quality of the attachment relationship between parent and child is critical to a child’s well-being and healthy development throughout their life. In fact, the attachment relationship experienced as a child acts as a prototype for all future relationships. We don’t have to be perfect parents in order to create a secure attachment—just good enough. Researchers have noted that even in the healthiest relationships, secure infants and parents are misattuned 70% of the time, but in healthy relationships, parents quickly reattune after there is an attachment rupture.  

Being attuned is a skill that requires the qualities of sensitivity, patience, kindness, and awareness that continues to increase through direct experience with your child. The most important thing in forming attachments is not who feeds and changes the child but who plays and communicates with him or her. Responsiveness is the key to attachment. 


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Written by Michelle Jones, LCSW

Michelle is the director of Concordia Families - a treatment center offering services for reunification, court involved therapy, parent education classes, treatment needs assessments and professional education seminars and classes.