Attachment – what is it?

It’s been a tough year! In fact it’s been the toughest year of my life to date. For all kinds of reasons.

This is relevant here because of one thing that’s happened as a result.

Mothers Hands - iStock_000002861933XSmall

Photo courtesy of ©istockphoto/DLeonis

I’ve had a lot more contact with my wider family. Dad, Mum, Sister, Brother – all of them. I’ve been struck by how much my focus has shifted back “home” when the pressure has been on.

“Home” in this context is not a place, though it could include that. It’s about people. People we feel safe with. People we can trust. People who really know us, and love us anyway. People who act as a secure base. A safe harbour, if you like, to shelter us from navigating the stormy waters of life on our own.

Why attachment matters… 

Generally, children are born with all the physical attributes they need for life. They have all their bits! But they have to learn to use them. Until they do, they are totally dependent on those who care for them.

As children grow they have to learn how to be a person. They start from scratch and learn everything they need to know about life. Everything.

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Caregivers, whether parents, other family members or foster carers, act as a security to young children. They “hold” the child within safe, affectionate and predictable boundaries, whilst they learn and gradually begin to explore life.

Essentially, attachment is about the emotional “bond” between an infant and their main carer/s. Children learn about the world, about their place in it and about being a person. And they do it all through the mechanism of one or two principal adults who lay the foundation upon which other relationships are built.

Learning to be a person, from a person…

The core “lessons” which will guide future development are “taught” through the relationship with this key person or people. This is the attachment relationship.

This basic learning takes place over the first three years of life. The way the child is parented and the “attachment style” that develops over this early period, profoundly influences future development. Increasingly research using brain scanning techniques shows that the nature and quality of the early relationship between a child and their caregivers shapes the way in which young brains are ‘wired’.

The Attachment Network Wales includes the following in it’s definition statement on attachment:

Attachment is much more than being fond of someone or spending time with them, although both of these are vital to the growth of healthy attachment relationships. It is an ongoing, two-way process requiring continuity and consistency of ‘good enough’ caregiving from adult(s) bearing the major responsibility for parenting…Children’s development continues to be shaped by their experiences within these vital relationships particularly during their first three years, although growth and change can take place throughout their lives.  (ANW)

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Attmt Network Wales

To visit the ANW Facebook page click this logo

So, the attachment relationship is the lens through which infants encounter the world. The nature of it determines their perception of other people, themselves and the world they inhabit.

Just as I physically go back to my primary attachment relationships when things in life get tough, at a deeper level I am drawing on the lessons of trust, love and safety that I learnt in my very early years. I know that I am not on my own, that other people can and will help me. And I know that I will be able to cope with whatever life throws at me.

Without good responsive care from my parents in the first few years of my life all these things would be much less certain.

This is why attachment matters – it effects everything…

Final thought…

A short post of this kind can only summarise and briefly define what attachment is and why it matters. To compensate for the incompleteness of this, I would urge readers to further exploration of the subject.

There are lots of books around on attachment. To help you navigate through it all, I make some initial recommendations here

A future post will look at what happens when attachment goes wrong…

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Please let me know your thoughts…

  • Do you have questions about attachment?
  • Have you applied attachment-related practice to your work with children & young people – please comment…
  • Are you an “attachment parent” – what are your views?

Please let me know what your thoughts are… Leave a comment below or click here.

Related previous posts…

The following two posts don’t address attachment directly. However, they make comment about the failure of attachment and how this can contribute to behavioural problems later on, and also on the need for relational working with troubled young people.

For more information…

© Jonny Matthew 2013  (With thanks to Dr Tricia Skuse – Highly Specialist Chartered Child & Adolescent Clinical Psychologist)

Disclosure of material connection: The “Attachment Resources” link on this page is an “affiliate link.” This means that if you click the link and purchase an item, I will receive an affiliate commission. Regardless, I only recommend products or services I use personally and believe will add value to my readers.



Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • Ian

    Hi Jonny, good piece about attachment, I like the definition inasmuch it confirms my own understanding. Having worked for many years in children’s services and listened to various consultants, experts and social workers trying to make out attachment as some mythical process it is refreshing to have it clearly defined by a recognised body,(ANW).
    I don’t know if you would agree but as social work is regularly in the limelight for all the wrong reasons, social workers (from my observation) are intent on justifying their work to the point of become almost insular and unable to see the wider picture, which is sad because we all know they do loads of good work that goes unnoticed.
    keep up the good work

    • jonnymatthew

      Thanks Ian – appreciate it! One of things I see regularly, is the lack of child development knowledge – from children’s services social workers and managers. Attachment, for example, affects everything. It’s so useful to know about and has lots of application in practice, from advising parents on managing behaviour, right through to care proceedings. I’m sure why this lack has developed, but may be the colleges are not emphasising it anymore. Any thoughts?…

  • Sarah Denton

    Hi Jonny, as a fairly new foster carer we took in a new born baby a year ago and he has formed great attachements to the whole family. He is hopefully going to be adopted and my question would be, how easy will it be for him to move his attachments from us to his new family?

    • jonnymatthew

      Hi Sarah – great question!

      The key to this situation is to grasp the importance of a child’s earliest period of development. Attachments start to be built from day one. The care you give this little one is crucial, not just in terms of survival, but particularly because of the developmental learning that is taking place. Your safe, consistent and loving care will get him off to a solid start. He NEEDS to attach to you, and he will.

      One problem with early caring for kids who are going to move on, is to fall into the trap of believing that you should avoid getting “too attached”. Behind this is the myth that by NOT getting attached to you, you help the child to move on – it’ll be less of rench.

      This isn’t true. Once a child’s attachment processes get going, as long as they are positive, they are better equipped to deal with change. They’ve already begun to “know” that their distress (wet nappy, hunger, being too hot/cold – whatever it is) will be responded to and alleviated. You will teach him this by the care you give.

      So, when he does eventually move on he will already have progressed a good way towards developing well and learning the basic principles he needs for later life.

      The change will be unsettling when he does go (for you and your family too!), but because he’s attached to you, he’ll make the change and attach to his adoptive parents more easily. The more sensitive, responsive and loving you are, the better chance he’ll have of making that change successfully. Whatever you do, don’t hold back. Go for it! J.

      • Sarah Denton

        Thanks Jonny. When we started fostering a very experienced foster carer told me that if it doesn’t hurt when they leave then we haven’t done our job properly and I think of this often. I know it will hurt us all when our little one leaves us – and that means we have done well!

        • jonnymatthew

          Absolutely, if you lose your heart to a child, the chances are that the job of caring you’ve done has been equally affectionate, consistent and safe – exactly what he needs! It’ll hurt you, no doubt, and him too to some degree. But the key issue is that he will do infinitely better going forward because of that care, than he would have done if you’d kept your emotional distance and just focussed on the mechanics of meeting his needs. Well done!

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