What is Attachment?

By Dan Blair, a marriage counselor and family counselor.

Attachment is a kind of bond that endures over time. It is primarily developed the first to third year of life, but that is not the only chance to develop attachment. Attachment figures are those who meet needs of the child especially in times of distress. Attachment shapes a child’s nervous system. Sensitivity and responsiveness in interactions is key, not merely time together.

Separation from an attachment figure may cause distress, but secure attachment encourages temporary separation and development. Insecure attachment is still attachment, and the child will still seek or monitor the attached figure. Attachment exists even in maltreatment. A child who avoids a parent has not lost interest, but may be angry, anxious, sad, and even feel guilty. If the needs represented by these emotions are met, the child will gradually decrease avoidance. Three subtypes of insecure attachment include avoidant, ambivalent, and a disorganized or controlling descriptor. Parental behavior associated with the types of attachment follow: secure attachment with parental flexibility and stability, avoidant attachment with dismissive parenting, ambivalent attachment with preoccupied parents, and disorganized attachment with overwhelmed parents. Parental capacity is important to consider.

Appearances can be misleading. The parent that looks like the better parent in counseling, mediation, and court is not necessarily the better parent. Where there is high conflict, usually both parents are contributing to the conflict. Another way appearances can be misleading is the way a child acts out distress upon return to a parent. The child is often expressing how upset he or she was to be apart, and not that he or she had a negative experience while apart.

Since primary attachment is crucial to self-regulation, experts recommend primary custody with one parent for the first three years with frequent visits by the non-custodial parent, though not overnight. Between eighteen months and three years, whole day visits and overnights can be gradually introduced, carefully monitoring reactions. The child’s ability to comprehend that they will return to the custodial parent is important. This lays a foundation for future secure attachments with both parents. Items brought from the primary home may help. Longer parenting time can be gradually arranged and completed by the time the child is between six and eight.

What disrupts attachment? Parental conflict. It is recommended that protracted court cases involving high conflict and children be buffered by an ongoing support system, counselor, or advocate. Minimizing exposure to parental conflict is paramount, and providing a transitional space and place can be helpful to the child. Perhaps dropping the child off with a “neutral” third party from whom the other parent can then meet for pick-up, or at least a public place. For more information, see How One Parent Undermines Another ParentReunification Therapy with Estranged and Alienated Parents and Disrupted Attachment.

Emery (2011) has recently reviewed his longitudinal finding that, twelve years after random assignment to mediation or litigation, non-residential parents who had mediated their parenting dispute saw their children far more often than parents who settled via an adversarial process, and additionally had improved their parenting. Co-parents who mediated reported significantly less conflict (Main, Mary; Hesse, Erik; Hesse, Seigfried. “Attachment Theory and Research: Overview with Suggested Applications to Child Custody.” Family Court Review (2011): Volume 49, Issue 3, pages 426–463).

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