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Attachment and the Developing Child

» Mental Health Library » Featured Articles

By Allison Davis Maxon, M.S., LMFT

Allison Davis Maxon, M.S., LMFT

The most complex organ in the universe is the human brain. It is now clear that what a child experiences in the first few years of life largely determines how his/her brain will develop and how he/she will interact with the world throughout their life (Ounce of Prevention Fund, l996). What we have learned about the process of brain development has helped us understand more about the influence of both genetics and environment – the nature versus nurture debate. It appears that genetics predisposes us to develop in certain ways. But our interactions with our environment have a significant impact on how our predispositions will be expressed; these interactions organize our brain’s development and, therefore, shape the person we become (Shore, l997). It is both Mother Nature and Mother Nurture that is shaping the developing mind of the child.

The baby/infant brain is primed to learn, attend and absorb. The baby/infant brain is born with 100 billion neurons. And while this is quite amazing, it is only the beginning of the story. The infant brain enters the world in a highly disorganized state. This serves the survival needs of our species since babies brains have to be able to adapt to any culture, any language, any climate in the world. Babies’ brains grow and develop as they interact with their environment. This makes the human baby/infant brain completely dependent on the sensory-rich experiences that will shape the neural circuitry of the developing mind of the child.

Experience is the Architect of the Brain.

The primary way the baby/infant brain is receiving sensory input and experiences is through the parent/child attachment relationship. Attachment Theory created by John Bowlby (1969, 1973, l982) describes attachment systems in biological and evolutionary terms, across species, as meeting important functions of survival - feeding, reproduction and protection. In humans, the primary parent/child attachment relationship additionally serves to maximize a child’s social, emotional, cognitive and conscience development. Through every stage of an infant and child’s development there are critical developmental needs that the parent (through the primary attachment relationship) is meeting. It is through these sensory-rich experiences that the infant/baby brain is being activated, organized and sculpted.

Experience is the architect of the brain – experiences shape and reshape the neural circuitry of the brain. Early bonding and attachment experiences result in a cascade of biochemical processes that stimulate and enhance the growth and connectivity of neural networks through the brain (Schore, l994). Imagine an infant or child being scared or fearful. As they get more and more upset, their heart and respiratory rate increases, they cry louder and more frantically as they become more and more distressed. If the parent picks the child up, gently rocks them, comforts and soothes their distress – eventually the child calms down. The parent acts as the ‘external regulator’ of the child’s internal physiological distress. The primary caregiver thus ‘eliminates the distress’ and moves the child back into a state of calm (or homeostasis). The primary caregiver is synchronizing and resonating with the rhythms and needs of the infant/child’s internal emotional states. The baby will get very attached to the caregiver who is psycho-biologically attuned to meeting their needs (reducing their distress and increasing their pleasure).

Parents and caregivers do more than regulate the present psychobiological state of an infant; they activate the growth of the brain through emotional availability and reciprocal interactions (Emde, l988). We are wired to connect as the human brain has evolved as a social organ. From birth to death, we are in relationships. The most critical of these relationships, is the primary attachment relationship between the parent and child. Securely attached children who have had their primary attachment needs met are able to focus their emotional resources on maximizing their developmental potential. Infants and children who experience trauma will have a social brain that is stuck in survival mode; the developing brain will adapt to a hostile environment. The child will learn to defend (not cooperate) and avoid (not connect).

Early attachment experiences teach us the ‘dance’ of relationship.

For the child, there is nothing more important than the parent-child attachment relationship. The most critical ingredient of this relationship is the pattern of emotional communication between the parent and child. It is within this relationship that an infant/child feels safe, protected, comforted, loved and connected. The child learns how to get his/her needs met through human connectedness. Learning the ‘dance of attachment’ is essential as it enables the child to learn how to create and sustain meaningful, loving human connections. But we do not enter the world knowing this dance. Every single attachment facilitating behavior – must be learned. You are your child’s first and most important teacher in this ‘dance of attachment’. When you respond to their emotional distress and pain with empathy and concern; they are learning to have empathy for others in distress.

One of the most crucial developmental tasks a child needs to learn within the context of the parent/child attachment relationship is how to modulate and/or regulate their internal emotional distress {returning to a physiological state of homeostasis; resting heart rate, resting respiratory rate, after a distressing event}. Important to note that learning is optimized when we are in a calm-alert state. Children who have experienced a lot of distress, neglect or attachment disruptions, often struggle academically; it is hard to learn when our bodies are in distress. When we stop and think about a child’s day to day experience from their perspective, we realize how many stressors and frustrations they encounter. Not all stressors are negative, in fact, these daily stressors are great opportunities for a child to practice the skills and competencies that later become coping strategies and resiliencies he or she will need later in life. Tune into your child’s emotional states. Children are always communicating their needs through emotion and behavior. Hint - the majority of our emotional communications are non-verbal and this is especially true for children.

We are social-emotional beings with an innate need to connect and form meaningful relationships. Every interpersonal skill that we need in order to be successful in creating and sustaining these meaningful relationships – must be learned! Parents are a child’s first and most important teachers. Children are watching, absorbing, learning and imitating their parents. By age 3, about 90% of the child’s core brain structures have been formed. There is a growing body of research indicating that social and emotional skills (emotional intelligence) may be even more critical to life success than one’s intellectual ability (IQ). And if you want your child to learn how to develop healthy and meaningful relationships – you are their first and best teacher.

About the Author...

Allison is a clinician, educator, and advocate specializing in adoption/permanency, attachment, and trauma. She is passionate about creating systems of care that are permanency-competent and trauma-informed. She has expertise in the fields of child welfare, trauma and mental health and is currently the Chief Operating Officer of the National Center on Adoption and Permanency. Allison is co-author and master trainer of Kinship Centerís ACT: An Adoption and Permanency Curriculum for Child Welfare and Mental Health Professionals, co-author and master trainer of Pathways to Permanence: Parenting the Child of Loss and Trauma, and creator of 10 Things Your Child Needs Every Day, a DVD with tools that help parents/caregivers strengthen their attachment relationship with their child.

Last Update: 12/23/2017

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