Challenges That Affect Attachment
Children and caregivers may face challenges that affect their developing attachments. Some challenges — such as a two-year-old’s growing desire for independence — are normal and expected parts of development. If caregivers respond sensitively, these everyday challenges do not have a lasting impact on attachment. Other challenges — such as child abuse —are more serious and can have long-term negative effects on young child’s ability to form attachments. Children need sensitive, ongoing intervention from trained professionals, along with patient and sensitive caregiving, in order to overcome these serious challenges and form secure attachments.
Infants’ individual characteristics contribute to their developing attachments with caregivers. Children are not just passive recipients of their parents’ caregiving. A child’s natural temperament plays a significant role in determining how that child approaches and responds to situations and people. If a child does not easily interact with others because she is reserved or extremely active, caregivers may have more difficulty engaging with that child. Children with chronic health conditions or other special needs may require more attention and care, but may not respond positively to a caregiver’s nurturing. Children’s developmental level may also contribute to their developing attachment. Some stages of development are more challenging for adults than others. Caregivers may find it difficult to have positive interactions with a two year old who is demonstrating a desire for more independence.
The characteristics of the caregivers also contribute to attachment. Children need predictability and support from the caregiver-child relationship in order to build the trust that leads to secure attachment. Caregivers who are depressed or otherwise emotionally or physically unavailable are less able to respond sensitively to children’s needs. These children are at higher risk for develop insecure attachments.
Caregivers’ knowledge of child development —and their ability to use that knowledge to provide sensitive care for young children — also influences the caregiver-child relationship. More knowledgeable and skilled caregivers are better able to tune in to individual children’s social and emotional needs.
Some caregivers believe that crying infants are just looking for attention, and should not be held because they will be “spoiled” by the attention. In reality, crying is infants’ main tool for expressing their needs and seeking connections with caregivers. Young infants need the security of knowing that a caregiver will respond to their needs every time they cry. A caregiver who responds sensitively and lovingly reassures the child that he is loved and safe, and helps him establish the trust needed to form a secure attachment. Young infants cannot be spoiled by sensitive, responsive caregiving.
Extremely traumatic experiences — including suffering or witnessing abuse or neglect — interfere with young children’s ability to develop secure attachments. When young children are repeatedly exposed to violent, threatening experiences, the most primitive areas of the brain may be over- developed. Areas that control positive emotional responses, such as the cerebral cortex and the limbic system, may not develop fully. As a result, children who experience trauma are at higher risk of forming insecure attachments.
The “Spoiling” Myth
Trauma and Attachment
Caregivers facing challenges to the attachment relationship may feel overwhelmed. Finding educational resources and networks of support can help caregivers and children overcome challenges to secure attachment.