Attachment, the early experience of forming close emotional bonds with others, is a basic human drive that has a huge impact on our relationships in adult life. In this article Mike Johnson explains how our experience of attachment is established in childhood through relationships with care-givers. Future articles will explore what can happen when attachment is disrupted.
Children instinctively attempt to form an emotional attachment to their main care-givers. This vital task is undertaken during a process of rapid, though ‘one-sided’ brain development.
All children’s early lives are essentially a kaleidoscope of feelings, images and sensations. These vivid responses to the world are possible from birth because the right hemisphere of the brain is already functional. And so it is the right brain that is involved in attachment.
Simply being alive gives rise to an endless sequence of complex feelings. This is particularly striking in the first months of life when volatile, intense feelings are very apparent: serene contentment can be rapidly followed by animated excitement or raging ‘lions and tigers’. Care-givers are essential to help a child to contain these potentially overwhelming feelings.
In essence, a care-giver provides a functioning mature brain to help the child’s very immature brain to learn to cope with feelings in general and intense feelings in particular.
Infants cannot develop much language or rational thinking before the age of eighteen months owing to the lack of left hemisphere brain development; so, care-givers must communicate effectively in the pre-verbal realm.
Modern attachment theory focuses on the process of attunement between primary care-giver and child. The adult matches the child’s mood momentarily so that the two quite literally are ‘in tune’ with one another emotionally.
“… immature brains search for attunement in adult care-givers”
Crucially, for this attunement to take place the adults have to mirror convincingly the child’s signals of contentment, excitement or distress. And this shared connection between them allows a child to contain the intensity of feelings in the present and build an internal self-soothing capacity for the future.
It is this attunement that helps a child to develop a sense of feeling loved, joyful and compassionate; without doubt, these are highly rewarding experiences.
If children are lucky enough to experience routinely such moments of attunement with their main care-givers, then they develop stable, secure attachment bonds with these adults.
Intuitively, such children become increasingly able to calm and reassure themselves without adult input. This self-soothing capacity is enduring through life.
Moments of attunement will necessarily alternate with moments of distance, helping child and adult to recognise both their connection and their separateness.
Significantly, as the child grows older, emotional resilience will emerge successfully.
Understanding the ever-present influence of secure attachment on human development and fulfilment provides a clear benchmark to monitor the impact of its absence.
Problems of attachment in childhood, unless resolved, will affect our relationships throughout our lives; so, exploring emotional difficulties with a therapist who maintains a clear focus on ‘emotional responses’ as well as ‘thinking processes’ can have a very positive effect on our current relationships.