Growth & Development
Attachment & Relationships
One of the most significant contributions to healthy brain development in a child’s life is the parent-child relationship. These relationships and the interactions within them form the building blocks for future relationships creating an internal model the child uses to reference how all future relationships are interpreted and measured. The new understandings we have from the field of neurobiology lays the foundation for brain development that is rooted in the connection and relationship an infant and child experiences with his or her caregiver.
Knowing that the quality of early parent-child relationships has an important impact on a child’s development and also their future relationships, it is important for a caregiver to aim for the best attachment possible; this being a secure attachment (see description below).
As a result of this importance, current mental health practice is to screen the quality of the parent-child interactions and relationships. These relationships can be described and understood in the context of Mary Ainsworth’s four attachment styles: secure, anxious-ambivalent, anxious-avoidant, and disorganized.
Descriptions of these attachment styles and the behaviours seen within them are given below:
It is important to note and remember that most parent child interactions result in a secure attachment pattern.
Secure attachment: This is a relationship in which the infant or child can feel physically and emotionally safe. The parent is able to meet the needs of the child, soothe the child when they are distressed, and experience joy in their relationship with the child. The parent, through this experience, “serves” the child positive and rich physical, emotional and verbal messages that the child “returns” to the parent with smiles, gurgles and cuddles. The child experiences a world that is safe and responsive. This creates confidence that gives the child security to explore the world and establish trusting relationships with others.
Anxious-ambivalent attachment: This is a relationship in which the infant or child experiences some level of uncertainty or stress in their relationship with their parent/caregiver. The anxiety or stress the child experiences may result from a variety of situations such as a loss, illness, parental mental health, poverty, physical abuse, neglect, poor nutrition, prenatal maternal stress and parental trauma where the parent is sometimes attentive and responsive and sometimes not. As a result of this uncertainty, the child might seem unsure and display some ambivalence wanting to approach his or her parent for comfort while also showing some resistance to that approach.
Anxious-avoidant attachment: Much like the anxious-ambivalent attachment pattern, this is a relationship in which the infant or child experiences some level of uncertainty or stress in their relationship with their parent/caregiver. The anxiety or stress the child experiences may result from a variety of situations such as a loss, illness, addictions, parental mental health, poverty, physical abuse, neglect, poor nutrition, prenatal maternal stress and parental trauma and the parent has proven to the child that his or her responses are not predictable and reliable. As a result of this uncertainty, the child avoids the parent and may either seem inconsolable or show little or no affect.
Disorganized attachment pattern: The disorganizing attachment pattern is the most concerning and the most difficult to notice. This occurs when the caregiver who is supposed to be the person who responds to the child’s needs for safety, comfort, feeding and connection is actually frightening or frightened of the child. This child is caught in a difficult dilemma as the person who is supposed to be safe is actually scary. Survival drives the child to the caregiver but the caregiver is the source of the child’s distress. The frightening parents might be abusive, neglectful or hostile toward the child or they use language or voice tones that are frightening. The developing brain needs cues from the parent’s facial expressions to regulate and grow. Examples of the still face experiment show that the infant who does not see responsiveness in the parent’s facial expression becomes distressed and dysregulated.
The parent who is frightened of their child may be slow to move in to respond, unable to read his or her baby’s cues and know what the baby actually needs from them. This parent is unable to consistently calm his or her child or respond to the child, and often carries a worried look on their face. This stresses the child who is then unable to respond to the parent in ways that encourage the parent to engage with them again.
The table below also displays what behaviours are often seen by caregivers with particular attachment styles as well as a child's behaviour when they are placed in a "Strange Situation" (Ainsworth, M., 1971)
Here is a more detailed list of behaviours displayed by a child who has
experienced an insecure or disorganized caregiver. If one or more of these
is present, consider this a red flag:
► Explore their environment and other people only minimally either
reluctantly or without interest
► Be preoccupied and clingy with the parent
► Become distressed and anxious if the parent leaves, even for a short period
► Reach out for the parent and then resist them
► Seem angry and rejecting toward the parent
► Seem passive in relating to the parent
► Show minimal interest in the parent
► Seem independent resisting help from others
► Explore the room and toys busily
► Not use the parent as a secure base to seek proximity when stressed
► Show minimal acknowledgement when the parent leaves the child
► Ignore or avoid the parent when the parent returns to the room
► Easily go with strangers or talk to strangers
► Be overly sensitive to sounds, textures, food or smells
► Be overly tolerant/ignoring of things like noises, dirty hands, lighting or
► Be reactive and angry without noticeable
► Fight, flee (run) or freeze when in distress (become immobile, look dazed,
daydream, forgetful, shut down emotionally)
► Cry with a weak or angry response
► Whine constantly
► Resist cuddling
► Use poor eye contact or seem uncomfortable with eye contact
► Not respond to smiles
► Show delayed physical motor skill development (in combination with other
In addition if a mother or primary caregiver is frequently displaying any of the following, consider this a red flag:
► Being insensitive to a baby’s communication cues
► Often unable to recognize baby’s cues
► Provides inconsistent patterns of responses to the baby’s cues
► Frequently ignores or rejects the baby
► Speaks about the baby in negative terms
► Often appears to be angry with the baby
► Often expresses emotions in a fearful or intense way
The mother may be experiencing Postpartum Depression. To learn more about Postpartum Depression CLICK HERE.
To seek assistance regarding this issue CLICK HERE.