Attachment: The gift that keeps on giving


One morning, children arrived at a nursery school to the sound of music.

Two children asked the same child to dance, and both were turned down. The first asked another child to dance, but the second went off in a corner.

Why the different reactions? It may be that one child enjoyed a more secure attachment to his or her parents.

These attachments are a focus of research at the University of Minnesota\’s Institute of Child Development (ICD). Since 1975 professors Byron Egeland, Alan Sroufe and their colleagues have been conducting a study of how kids form secure attachments to parents and other caregivers and how these early bonds stand them in good stead in adult life.

\”Secure attachment means the child is confident—not anxious—about the availability and responsiveness of an adult,\” says Sroufe. \”That confidence is the basis for confidence in oneself and others, and the ability to form adult relationships.\”

Early signposts

A child who has a secure attachment to an adult is more likely to be interested in and engaged with other kids, not hovering around the teacher but seeking comfort there if need be. Secure kids are also better able to take no for an answer when asking others to play—or dance—with them.

\”A secure kid may not even experience personal rejection,\” Sroufe says. \”But the anxious one might think, \’No one wants me.\’

Another sign of a secure attachment can be seen as early as age 2, according to research by Martha Farrell Erickson, a child-rearing expert who studied under Egeland.

\”[Erickson] showed that securely attached kids at age 2 are likely to be more compliant to the guidance of the mother,\” he says. For example, when given a puzzle, the child will happily accept and respond to the mother\’s help.

A how-to for parents

Building a secure attachment rests on a parent\’s ability to respond to a baby\’s needs in a way that leads the baby to expect the parent will be there to offer comfort or guidance.

To do this, says Sroufe, a parent must \”follow the baby\’s lead.\” That is, parents should hold a baby when the baby—not the parent—wants it and let the child play without undue direction.

Also, says Egeland, it\’s important to balance the desire to help with respect for the child\’s autonomy. For example, if ants appear on the floor, young children ought to watch them and \”figure them out\” on their own.

But parents who are emotionally unresponsive to kids in the early years—be it from stress or not having their own emotional needs met—can wreak devastation.

\”It shows up in lower IQ scores, as well as grades and emotional troubles,\” says Egeland.

Later life effects

Now that the children who entered the study in 1975 have grown, the researchers are studying how patterns of attachment and other factors relate to social relations in the adult world. Professors Andrew Collins of ICD and Jeffry Simpson, psychology, are particularly involved in this aspect of the project.

In general, secure patterns of attachment early in life tend to lead to good social skills later on. For example, Collins and his colleagues report that people who had secure early attachments tend to have less difficulty achieving mutually beneficial adult relationships.

And just as a baby\’s development hinges on its relationship with its parents, the act of parenting takes place in a broader social support system. And so the researchers stress the need to support whole families.

\”Any change in policy that makes life more stressful for parents or decreases support for them is detrimental to attachment for children,\” Sroufe says.