Attachment is what defines our emotional and behavioral system; our attachments are what define long term emotional ties with others. Our emotional attachments keep us emotionally healthy and lead to our overall emotional and social well being. Young children have two significant behaviors in the early years- attachment and exploration. I use the term ‘seek in and seek out’ for these. They like to stay close to their parents and also have the urge to venture away and explore. So in the early years you will notice a behavior that many find confusing; the child clings to the parent and then almost tries to go away to explore. Once we understand the need for exploration and its connection to attachment we will not find this behavior confusing and will in fact be able to support kids in this process. Kids who are securely attached will be able to have the confidence to explore; this is because the child trusts the attachment. It is like kids use the important adults in their lives as a ‘battery charger’, they come close to be ‘emotionally charged’ and then explore. Once they run out of ‘battery’ again, they return to the same source!
There are four stages of attachment that we need to look for and support in growing babies-
- Indiscriminant attachment, from birth to 5 or 6 months, is the first stage. This is when babies allow anyone to take care of their needs and provide care.
- Discriminate attachment, from 5 or 6 months up to 11 or 12 months is the second stage. This is when babies prefer to respond more to familiar adults. They do respond to others but prefer the company of familiar adults.
- Separation anxiety is the stage that appears around month 10 and lasts up to 17 or 18 months. At this stage toddlers start preferring certain adults and resist the company of strangers and may insist on their needs being met only by familiar care givers.
- Stranger anxiety is the next stage and at this stage the toddler now fears unknown people or strangers. So the toddler who would smile at everyone suddenly starts showing fear when strangers smile or approach him. They tend to cry, cling, and scream when faced with strangers.
It is very interesting to note the emergence of separation anxiety and how it is linked to the growth both in terms of emotional and cognitive development in young toddlers. According to Erik Erikson the first year of life is when children develop the essential emotional skill of trust v/s mistrust and so need to be near familiar adults who give them responsive care. And according to Jean Piaget it is at this stage of sensory motor development that a child develops the intelligence to realize that something that exits and now disappears from sight, still exits somewhere else. This stage is called object permanence and this leads to separation anxiety. So a toddler understands that my mother, who was here right now and disappears, is still somewhere else and not with me and thus uses crying, screaming to get the mother back. Piaget believed from birth babies reactions to the world are purely reflexive (without thought). This first stage of cognitive development, Piaget termed as the sensori motor stage. During this stage babies rely completely on their senses and physical activity to learn about their world. According to Piaget, intelligence began when the reactions became purposeful, when object permanence occurs.
If you observe babies and toddlers from birth you will be able to see the four stages emerge in the child’s behavior. It is how babies and toddlers are handled at each stage that will define secure emotional relationships. For example at the separation anxiety stage, if a parent leaves the toddler in a new preschool and slips away without saying good bye, it will be a traumatic emotional experience that can lead to the child not being able to trust adults or a fear of school and related activities. Similarly when toddlers are at the stranger anxiety stage, a new teacher or adults they meet at a field trip can scare them. So it is essential that early childhood teachers remain the same during this period and in case of change of teacher, a familiar adult to be there with the new teacher for some time till the toddlers trust the newcomer.
John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth’s work in the area of attachment has been significant in helping us understand about attachment in young toddlers and how we can support it to ensure healthy socio-emotional development for life. According to them, there are four types of attachment styles in children and it is important for parents, caregivers and teachers to support each child to help them gain trust and become secure. These attachment styles start first with the child’s interactions with parents and continue into preschool.
- Securely attached children:
- These children readily accept comfort when upset.
- They can be calmed by holding them or soothing them with hugs etc.
- They can be spontaneously in their display of affection. May suddenly hug the teacher or come and hold the teachers hand.
- They easily follow instructions or directions given to them.
- They are happy and playful.
- Insecure / avoidant attached children:
- They are more attached or seek to be with materials in the classroom rather than the adults or children.
- They ignore you when you talk to them. They look away or act as if they have not heard you when you address them.
- Rarely come close to the teacher and will avoid you if you try to hug them.
- When upset, these children do not seek you out; they move away from you and even resist you if you try and comfort them.
- Insecure/resistant (ambivalent) attached children:
- Almost never participate in classroom routines. Will resist activities.
- They are generally demanding of attention from teachers and are almost always upset that they do not get enough attention.
- May scream or cry to get their own way.
- Are clingy when the teacher leaves the classroom and tend to cry when teacher is away from the class.
Creating a relationship with an insecurely attached child
- Be consistent in your interactions with the child.
- Be sensitive to the child’s needs and respond to them accordingly.
- Help the child transit from home to school by having a unique good bye routine with you.
- Inform the child where you are going to be while the child is at school.
- Label the child’s emotions, and help give them a mental picture of ‘when’- ‘I know you are upset that mummy has to leave, but you will have fun with blocks today and mummy will be back to pick you up as soon as you finish story time.’
- Many of these children may need a ‘security blanket’; it can be a toy, etc, allow it.
- Help them make a ‘school buddy’, a friend who they can be with or can help them. Have a play date at home.
- Avoid giving in to the child’s every wish, whim and cry; learn to talk, explain and respond. The goal is to make the child more secure with the routine and not change the routine to adjust to the child.
Attachment in the early years defines your life’s core beliefs, so securely attached children will grow up with a view that,
- I am important
- Other people are fun
- I can take care of myself and others
- I can help others
- I can take turns and learn to negotiate or compromise
Whereas insecure attached children will grow up with a view that,
- I am not important
- I cannot take care of myself or others
- Other people don’t like me
- I can’t trust anyone
- I can’t share or solve problems
- I can manipulate to get my way
Dr. Swati Popat Vats
Parenting Mentor and Coach