‘Clingy’ Babies, ‘Shy’ Children or Simply Misunderstood? What you need to know about attachment to ensure your child’s healthy social and emotional development

Life Parenting

“Is me being here a problem?” I asked my son’s kindergarten teacher. “I’m worried I’m slowing down his ability to become more independent.”

As soon as the words left my mouth, they felt inauthentic.

Because I was confident in my son’s ability to step into his own independence naturally.

And I knew that the wings of independence soar only as high as the depths we allow the roots of dependence to grow.

But still, I had asked the question. Why? Because independence, whether it’s built on a solid foundation or not, is glorified in our culture.

“He’s so clingy.”

“You need to send him to daycare to learn how to socialise.”

“She’s so shy.”

“You need to stop picking her up.”

“He’s such a mummy’s boy.”

“You’re coddling him.”

Have you heard comments like these before too? How do they make you feel?

Confused? Because you’re receiving opposing messages from your child and those around you.

Worried? Because they tempt you to constantly second guess your intuition.

Alone? Because everybody around you prioritises early independence.

We need to recognise that comments like these are nothing more than misguided cultural whispers.

They’re labels that come to haunt us as we grow into adulthood if we take them too seriously.

They’re comments that threaten to make children feel as though something is wrong with them unless we, as parents, are conscious and brave enough to disempower them before they take up residence in our children’s psyche.

Because the truth is that acting ‘clingy’ or ‘shy’ is simply misunderstood; attachment seeking behaviours are normal and healthy.

As Dr. Shefali reminds these superficial behaviours are nothing more than impermanent states of being. They are passing waves but they are not the ocean.

Observing our children’s behaviour is helpful, but applying a judgment to that observation and labelling them as x,y or z is not.

So, as I stood there with my guard down, feeling vulnerable and wishing for a do-over, she said, “Of course not, it’s the children who don’t care when their parents leave that I’m worried about. The little kids who separate too easily. The kids who don’t seek the reassurance of their parents when they’re upset. They’re the kids I’m worried about. Your son is securely attached to you and in time his circle of attachment will widen. But for now, your presence fuels his confidence to venture out and explore in the knowledge that you’ll be here if things get too much for him.”

Her words soothed my soul.

My inner child who had been branded as “shy” suddenly felt normalised, accepted and vindicated.

Nurturing attachment is not a fluffy approach, a new-age term, a luxury or a parenting style. It is a need; a developmental need that is a mistake to ignore. It isn’t optional. Developing a secure attachment to at least one caregiver is critical to the healthy mental and emotional development of our children.

So, let’s dig a little deeper into the science of attachment, attachment theory, and why we simply cannot spoil or disadvantage our children with our attention, affection, and responsiveness.

What is attachment theory?

In the 1930’s British psychiatrist and psychoanalyst John Bowlby, the father of attachment theory, worked in a Child Guidance Clinic where he treated many emotionally disturbed children.

His experience inspired him to consider the impact of a young child’s relationship with his/her mother in terms of their social, emotional and cognitive development. It was from this work that Bowlby formulated his attachment theory.

His theory was also influenced by observations of the ways in which other mammals care for their young. Ground-dwelling mammals, for example, run to a place of protection when frightened. Whereas our closest relatives, chimpanzees, and gorillas run to a protective adult.

As Bowlby focused on the developmental significance of this survival pattern, he concluded that humans are wired like their primate cousins to form deep emotional attachments.

Bowlby defined attachment as a “lasting psychological connectedness between human beings.”

More recently, Dr. Alan Sroufe, Professor of Child Psychology at the Institute of Child Development described attachment as “a relationship in the service of a baby’s emotion regulation and exploration. It is the deep, abiding confidence a baby has in the availability and responsiveness of the caregiver.”

A secure attachment serves at least three primary functions:

  • Providing a sense of safety and security
  • Regulating emotions, by soothing distress, promoting joy and fostering a sense of calm
  • Offering a reliable base from which to explore

Can the strength of attachment be measured?

In 1969, psychologist Mary Ainsworth, a colleague of John Bowlby, devised an assessment technique called the Strange Situation Classification (SSC) to investigate how attachments differ between children.

The technique is conducted by observing the behavior of a baby in a series of eight sequences, each lasting approximately three minutes as follows:

  1. Mother, baby, and experimenter.
  2. Mother and baby alone.
  3. A stranger joins the mother and infant.
  4. Mother leaves baby and stranger alone.
  5. Mother returns and stranger leaves.
  6. Mother leaves; infant left completely alone.
  7. Stranger returns.
  8. Mother returns and stranger leaves.

Depending on the baby’s response at each stage of the assessment a score is assigned to determine the attachment style of the mother-baby relationship. The scores are based on the baby’s interaction behaviors directed toward the mother in the two reunion stages including:

  • Proximity and contacting seeking
  • Contact maintenance
  • Avoidance of proximity and contact
  • Resistance to contact and comforting

From her research, Ainsworth found that there were three attachment styles; secure, insecure avoidant and insecure ambivalent/resistant. She concluded that attachment styles were the result of early interactions between mother and child. Later, a fourth attachment style was also recognised; disorganized attachment.

Why is attachment important?

It is important to emphasise that attachment style is not a classification assigned to an individual but to the relationship. As Bowlby described, it is a lasting psychological connectedness between human beings.

So, why is attachment so important if it is only assigned to one relationship?

Because, babies are born “unfinished”. They’re brains are 75% undeveloped at birth. Key relationships literally shape the way the brain architecture completes itself. Early attachment style has a dramatic and long term impact on the way our children come to view and interact with the others as well as giving them a blueprint for what to expect (and accept) from future relationships.

“The more sensitive the caregiver is towards the child’s needs, the more secure the child’s relationship with that caregiver will be.” Rachel Samson

The greatest influence on the quality of the attachment relationship is caregiver sensitivity; how well we attune to our babies, how accurately we understand our child’s needs, how quickly we respond to those needs and most importantly, how willing we are to align with our children.

The Four Attachment Styles of Children and their Impacts

Let’s dig a little deeper into the four attachment styles of children so that we can understand their impacts on long term emotional health.

Secure attachment: Securely attached children feel confident that their caregiver is available to reliably coregulate their emotions, acknowledge and meet their needs, and act as a safe homebase so that they can explore their environment, while returning to their caregiver in times of need. Mothers who are securely attached to their babies are responsive, warm, and emotionally available. Babies who are securely attached are usually distressed when separated from their caregiver and joyful when their caregiver returns.

Insecure-avoidant attachment: Babies in insecure-avoidant attachment relationships may seem indifferent towards their caregiver, act as though they are unstressed when she leaves, and may exhibit the same behaviors with a stranger. When reunited the baby may avoid her mother. One study showed that insecurely attached babies are just as physiologically upset (increased heart rates, etc.) as securely attached babies when their parents leave but have learned to suppress their emotions in order to stay close to the parent without risking rejection. As these children grow, avoidance and emotional distance may become a way of dealing with the world, and instead of problem-solving, they are more likely to sulk or withdraw.

Insecure ambivalent/resistant attachment: Babies in an insecure-ambivalent/resistant attachment relationship are overly clingy with their caregiver and tend not to explore in her presence. They’re distressed when their mother leaves, and when she returns, they seesaw between clinging and resistance. This pattern of attachment also undermines autonomy, because the baby stays focused on the mother’s behavior to the exclusion of nearly everything else. Separation anxiety tends to last longer in these babies compared to securely attached babies. Longitudinal studies show that these children often become inhibited, withdrawn, and unassertive, and they develop poor interpersonal skills.

Disorganised attachment: Disorganised attachment is very rare and generally only seen in extremely negative circumstances, occurring in families where there is abuse or mistreatment; the mother, who is supposed to be a source of support, is also the person who frightens the child. In her research Mary Main described disorganised attachment stemming from, “The infant [being] presented with an irresolvable paradox wherein the haven of safety is at once the source of alarm.” Babies with disorganised attachment may seem dissociated even when held by their mother. These children tend to become controlling and aggressive, and dissociation remains a preferred defense mechanism.

Why Parents Simply Cannot “Spoil” Their Children with Responsiveness

You and your baby are like two pieces of velcro. Your baby knows how to attach. Your baby knows that it’s in her best interests. She is born to look cute and feel smooth and smell irresistible. That is her secret sauce. That is her way of priming you to attach deeply to her.

Your way of attaching mama…is to accept her invitation. Follow her lead on this one. Treat the task of attachment like the most important job you have ever had…because it is that important. Be active in the process. If all you achieve in the early years is a strong attachment you have done your job. This is the primary goal of the early years.

So, how do you do it?

1.Block out the judgment of others. Silence the chatter and the should’s and the rods for your own backs. See the white noise for the outdated nonsense that it is because you can’t afford to waste an ounce of your limited energy on that which is not serving you and your baby’s best interests.

When a relative feels rejected because your 6-week-old baby doesn’t want to be held by them and only wants you, understand that attachment is like a magnet – it attracts and repels. Does that mean that our kids can’t attach to others? Of course not. But it is from our modelling that a relationship with another adult is safe, from inviting another person into the attachment circle that our children gain that trust and confidence in others on their own timeframe. Be patient. It takes time.

2. Gain confidence from the data. Take immense confidence from the fact that the last 50 years have seen the accumulation of science supporting the idea that the emotional quality of our earliest attachment experience is perhaps the single most important influence on human development. Give yourself permission to attach to your baby with reckless abandon, day and night, at home and in public.

3. Don’t take this information to the extreme. We are all only human. We have our limits. We each have our own set of circumstances that mean our attachment practices will look different from one another. Not being able to breastfeed or cosleep or babywear (or any other attachment parenting practices – more on that in a future post) does not mean your attachment to your baby is compromised. Not being able to respond to every single need your baby expresses doesn’t diminish your attachment – acknowledge your baby’s distress on a car journey, let them know you will soothe them when you can, but keep your eyes on the road. This isn’t about perfection, it’s about connection.

4. Take care of yourself. Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, American Anthropologist and Primatologist, suggests that it takes approximately 13 million calories to raise a child from infancy to independence. This is far in excess of what parents can provide on their own – it takes a village. So, if you have family or friends who offer to help, TAKE IT and don’t feel guilty. Give them practical ways to help you, so you can take care of yourself, have some time out to recharge and to give yourself the energy you need to focus on the attachment needs of your child. Hire a cleaner. Automate groceries. Lower your expectations. Do whatever you can to take some pressure off yourself during this intense period (and remember, this too shall pass…all too soon).

So, when your child is “clingy” or “shy” let her attach to you. Let her fill her dependence needs so that her independence will grow from a solid foundation.

Attachment is a need. If we don’t fill it, it doesn’t go away and our children will transfer their attachment needs to others, like friends, who are likely incapable attachment figures. As Gordon Neufeld describes it can lead to peer rather than parent orientation, which can lead to a myriad of issues.⠀

Although this may seem like a huge responsibility it is also a wonderful opportunity to protect and promote our children’s current and future mental, social and emotional health.

COMMENTS
  • Avatar
    October 26, 2019

    I’m raising children through adoption that have no attachment. To anyone. My daughter is definitely disorganized attachment on her good days. My son can no longer live with us bc his attachment trauma has made him dangerous. On my blog I talk about what it’s like to raise these children, if you would like to get a glimpse into that world. I know a lot about this and the very tragic results of a child who is unattached. I have a lot of opinions about this, how delicate the first 5 yrs actually are, and my own bio child’s struggle with attachment issues. Anyway, thanks for writing this and educating others!

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