Attachment is a word used to describe the interlooping feedback of love, attention and affection between a child and his or her caregivers. It’s how attached and loved they are with those around them. The more secure the attachment (i.e., the more love, physical affection and attention the child is shown) the better off the child. It’s a child’s most basic need, and virtually every other aspect of development feeds off attachment.
One of the worst experiments ever devised gave us one of the best looks at how important attachment is. Friedrich the second became the Holy Emperor of the Roman Empire in 1220 A.D. During his tenure as ruler, there was an intense debate going on about which language was the true language of God. To settle the issue, Friedrich decreed that dozens of newborns be placed in a special nursery. He ordered that they be well taken care of physically, but no one was to talk to them or interact with them beyond providing for their basic needs: food, warmth, clothing, etc. The idea was that without adult coaching, the babies would revert back to “God’s language” and begin speaking it when they started to talk.
The Emperor never received an answer to the debate. Despite having all their physical needs pampered to, one by one the babies started to die. None survived long enough to speak anything. (Story in Lewis, Amini & Lannon, 2000) Sadly, similar natural experiments have since shown similar results. As early as the 1900s in New York, more than 50% of the infants taken to baby drops outside of Catholic nurseries died before their first birthday because of a lack of contact with nurturing caregivers. (Bernstein, 2001, p. 256) Similar outcomes were observed in Romanian orphanages, where children were abandoned for up to 20 hours a day. (Chugani et al., 2001) Many died, and those who survived showed profound developmental delays that bordered on cognitive/emotional retardation. It turns out that love and attachment with reliable caretakers is a mighty important thing to children.
There are two basic categories of attachment: primary and secondary. Primary attachments are parents or those acting in the capacity of a parent. A child’s secondary attachments can include those such as grandparents relatives, friends, or involved teachers. Attachments form both with adults and other children, though most child-to-child relationships are secondary attachments. This isn’t always the case; in some severely neglectful environments a child’s primary attachment may be the 10-year-old sister who takes care of his needs and has essentially mothered him since he was a baby. And although psychologists like to divide up attachments by labeling them as either primary or secondary, the reality is that they don’t exist so much in categories but along a sliding scale. The closer and more important the person is to the child, (in terms of nurturing provided), the more important the attachment, and the more severe a toll an injury to this bond will exact.
Attachment is injured when something is done to damage or eliminate an important relationship. For instance, one not-too-pleasant reality that few people know is that the Department of Child Welfare actually has a worse outcome track record THAN ANY TYPE OF ABUSE THEY MIGHT REMOVE A CHILD FOR. In other words, according to research, kids are better off putting up with abuse and remaining in the home than they are enduring the trauma that comes from being “rescued” by CPS. (Refer to chapter x of our book, ‘Child Maltreatment: A Cross-Comparison’) This may seem hard for many people to believe at first, but the reason is simple and straightforward: removing a child from their home causes a severe break in attachment, and attachment is so important that it trumps nearly all abuse and neglect. (Not every instance, just most.) As imperfect as a child’s caretakers may be, they are important, as are the rest the things in a child’s familiar surroundings. Even when a child enters a new environment with better caretakers, this break in attachment often causes a severe and permanent injury. You can’t simply swap out caretakers like you would car parts. That’s not to say a child can’t recover from injuries or breaks in attachment, it’s just that it causes a much deeper wound that requires much more time and attention to heal.
Child abuse often attacks attachment as well, particularly in cases where there is aggression from caretaker to child. This mistreatment injures a child’s bond with the caretaker, which is a big factor in the harm that comes from abuse. Divorce can also be an extremely harmful thing to children in part because it attacks attachment. It takes a child’s source of love, affection and attention and divides it in two. Often times, the non-custodial parent will more or less drop out of the child’s life afterwards, making this injury even worse. Attachment can also be a mechanism of injury through neglect. If a child never receives the proper love and attention to begin with, they’ll have developmental problems.
Consequences of Injury to Attachment
Attachment is the number one factor, by leaps and bounds, when it comes to a child’s resiliency from adversity. Throughout our other literature, we use attachment as a baseline welfare indicator, essentially meaning that the strength of a child’s attachment impacts and determines every other aspect in their life. It acts as a starting point for determining the impact from any other form of adversity. The worse a child’s attachment, the worse their welfare in any given situation, and vice versa.
Children with damaged or insecure attachments face a variety of problems. They are more insecure and have lower levels of self-esteem. They may suffer delayed or stunted emotional development, and are more likely to have emotional problems and depression. They are more likely to be prejudicial or suspicious of others, or to see the world as a hostile place. They have lower levels of confidence and general competency. Children who have suffered wounds to attachment often display serious behavioral disorders. In fact, almost all serious behavioral disturbances in children have at their core an injury to attachment. In every measure or outcome one could dream up, a child’s quality of attachment plays a major role in their welfare. (For more information on attachment, see our book Child Maltreatment – A Cross-Comparison)