By: Mary Gregory – Clinical Psychologist

We are connected.  Researchers are only just beginning to understand the myriad of ways our brains interact with each other.  Our highly complex interpersonal interactions are one of the things that make us uniquely human.  Throughout our evolution relationships have kept us safe, helped us learn skills, reproduce, care for our young, and collect food.  Relationships give meaning to our lives and without healthy bonds our health and happiness suffer.  The importance of relationships is particularly relevant at the beginning of our lives.  As a baby our relationship with our caregivers is what keeps us alive through sustenance, protection, and nurturance.   

For our little ones having a secure relationship is one of the most important factors in their later health and wellbeing.  During infancy, they are building the structures and connections in their brain which will be with them the rest of their lives.  Far from not remembering much about the first few years of their life a baby is integrating their early experiences into the very framework of their brain.  It is through our early relationships we learn about the world.  Dr Bruce Perry described relationships as essential for our survival as well as for our ability to learn, work, love, and reproduce.  He has called love the ‘emotional glue’ with which we are bonded.  Humans are social beings and social isolation can negatively affect our physical and mental health as well as lead to early death. 

Attachment theory provides a framework for understanding the importance of having a consistent caregiver who is sensitive, cooperative, available, and accepting.  It is built on the idea that there is a biologically based need by infants and children to maintain proximity, particularly at times of distress, to their caregivers/parents.  This desire for closeness is reciprocal and the majority of parents feel a desire to be close to their children.  It is important to differentiate attachment theory from attachment parenting which emphasises practices such as baby wearing and extended breast-feeding.  While these activities may be useful the focus of attachment theory is on the bond between children and their parents.  An understanding of attachment theory should not make parents feel guilty about being away from their children as all parents need a balance and all parents need a break from child care duties.  However, parents should honour their strong desire to be close to their children.  These feelings are biologically based and throughout evolution they have kept children safe and helped them to learn the skills they needed to survive in the world. Children who have a secure attachment have better outcomes in terms of their relationships with their parents, family, and friends as well as, trusting others, feeling better about themselves, and having hope for the future.  They also have more resilience in the face of psychological stress.

As part of my PhD I have developed BetterBonds which is an online parenting program based on attachment theory. If you are interested in learning more about attachment theory and how you can further develop a secure bond with your child, please go to www.BetterBonds.com.au.  BetterBonds helps parents understand the important steps which need to occur to build a secure bond with their child.  I developed BetterBonds because I saw families struggling to get along and I realised that many parents would benefit from more information regarding the principles of attachment theory.  If you understand your child’s needs for connection it makes parenting easier and more enjoyable.

I have partnered with Playgroup QLD as part of this project as they are a wonderful place for parents to bond with their children and get the support they need. I would like to acknowledge the support of the University of the Sunshine Coast in particular my supervisor’s Dr Rachael Sharman and Dr Lee Kannis-Dymand as without their help I could not have undertaken this project.  

References

Ainsworth, M. D. (1969). Maternal sensitivity scales: The Baltimore longitudinal project (1969). Retrieved from http://www.psychology.sunysb.edu/attachment/measures/content/maternal%20sensitivity%20scales.pdf

Bowlby, J. (1979). The making and breaking of affectional bonds. London: Tavistock Publications.

Cacioppo, J. T., & Patrick, W. (2009). Loneliness: Human nature and the need for social connection. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.

Cassidy, J., & Shaver, P. R. (2016). Handbook of attachment: Theory, research and clinical applications. New York, NY: The Guildford Press.

Perry, B. (2011). Born for love: Why empathy is essential and endangered. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.