About the Project


The majority of this overview of attachment is based on workshop materials developed and used by Crisci, Kussin and Mayer, Consultation, Counselling and Training. Where other sources have been used, the references are noted.

What is Attachment?

Attachment is the deep emotional bond formed between children and one or more adults, usually a parent or caregiver. This attachment provides a sense of security to children and allows them to explore their environment, returning to the adult during periods of distress. Development of this emotional bond or attachment involves parents providing love, nurturing, trust, safety, and respect to their children, and sensitively responding to their children's needs. The effects of early attachment have been shown to last a lifetime.

  • Attachment is a deep and lasting connection that develops between a child and specific caregiver (mother, family member, or community member) in the early years of life, particularly between the ages of 0 and 5 years.
  • Attachment is a mutual relationship between a child and caregiver. Children instinctively reach out to a caregiver for security and protection; caregivers instinctively protect and nurture children.
  • The mutual responsiveness of the attachment relationship, where caregivers respond to children's needs, and children respond to caregivers' care, creates the secure base for early development.
  • Attachment influences early brain development, which has an impact on a child's lifelong abilities to regulate thinking, feelings and behaviour.
    1. What are attachment behaviours?
    2. Cross-cultural Attachment

What are attachment behaviours?

Attachment behaviours are those behaviours that children use to seek response and maintain closeness to their caregivers. They include crying, grasping, clinging, reaching, crawling, smiling, and vocalizing. These behaviours promote the physical safety and survival of children.

What are attachment practices?

Attachment practices are those practices that caregivers use to develop a deep and lasting connection with their child by responding to their children's attachment behaviours.

What is Secure Attachment?

Secure attachment occurs when children have caregivers who:

  • are available
  • are in tune with their needs
  • affectionate
  • demonstrate pleasure in their interaction with their children
  • are able to comfort their stressed children

How does a securely attached infant or child behave?

Secure children:

  • want to be close to their caregiver
  • keep in physical contact with their caregiver
  • continue to interact with their caregiver
  • may try to engage their caregiver from a distance if they do not seek closeness and physical contact
  • settle down quickly when the caregiver is present and are able to go back to exploring

What is insecure attachment?

Insecure attachment occurs when caregivers are not available, are not in tune with the needs of their child, are not affectionate, are unable to demonstrate pleasure in their interaction with their children, or are unable to comfort their stressed children. Insecure attachment takes on different forms depending on the extent to which primary caregivers neglect to respond to their children.

Anxious/Ambivalent attachments occur when primary caregivers are inconsistent and unpredictable. They are responsive to their infant's needs sometimes and non-responsive at other times. This results in children who long for closeness but do not trust that their caregiver will be available. As a result, the children become extremely distressed when separated from their attachment figures but are not easily comforted when their attachment figure returns. The children are anxious about leaving their attachment figure to explore their environment, and thus do not develop independence.

Avoidant attachments occur when caregivers are rejecting and unavailable. They do not respond to their child's needs at all or respond in indifferent and hostile ways. This results in children who deny their own needs and avoid interaction with their caregivers. The children may seem independent but this is based on the belief that they have to be because they cannot depend on their caregivers.

Disorganized/disoriented attachments occur when caregivers are abusive or severely neglecting. This results in children who display both avoidant and ambivalent attachment styles. They are hyper-vigilant to abuse at times, while freezing and becoming disoriented at other times. They either reject their attachment figures or try to please them, sometimes alternating between the two behaviours.

What are the phases of attachment?

Attachment occurs primarily over 3 phases:

  1. Undiscriminating Responses (0-3 months)
    The newborn infant is a mass of poorly organized neurological responses. The brain's function at this time is to organize and control physiological states and behaviour. The infant communicates its need for responses from an external figure by such behaviour as sucking, grasping, crying and other autonomic responses. The caregiver can help the infant's brain regulate the body by responding to these biological messages in comforting and appropriate ways. In fact, it is critical to the survival of the infant that the caregiver be perceptive of the signals and provide for the biological needs. This mutual interaction in the beginning of life forms the basis of attachment.

  2. Discriminating Behaviour (3-6 months)
    The infant begins to focus on preferred caretakers, typically the mother. The interaction between the infant and mother becomes more lasting so that each learns about the other. The mother becomes more attuned to the infant's needs and more in touch with the baby's responses. The baby learns some mastery over its biological needs and its production of signals to caregivers in its environment. Attachment feelings increase as the infant associates its needs being met by the availability of the caregiver.

  3. Formation of Secure Base (6-24 months)
    The infant has both a need for closeness and proximity to a preferred caregiver and the growing need for autonomy. The baby has learned to signal its needs to the preferred caregiver, who responds appropriately and sensitively. As the infant develops the ability to crawl, it will begin to explore its environment but use the caregiver as its safe base. The infant needs to know its primary caregiver is available to provide security and protection in order for it to move away. Infants also display clear preferential behaviour. They will protest fiercely if separated from their caregiver. Prolonged separations have detrimental effects at this early stage.
    Toddlers have a greater need to explore their environments and become more autonomous. At the same time, they have limited self-control and need their caregiver to set limits and provide guidance. This interaction of testing and exploring by the infant and providing limits and safety by the parent is the establishment of self-control, social learning and morality in the child.

How does attachment influence later development/behaviour?

As children and their preferred caregivers interact over time the child internalizes the relationship between himself and the caregiver and develops an internal working model. The internal working model includes the child's perceptions about him/herself and expectations of the attachment figure. It affects how the child interprets events, stores information in memory and perceives social situations. Internal working models act as templates in the brain for future relationships.

The internal working models that correspond with the different types of attachment are as follows:

Secure Attachments
  • Caregivers are trustworthy and reliable.
  • I am worthwhile and lovable.
  • My world is safe and offers pleasure.
  • I deserve to have my needs met.
Ambivalent Attachments
  • Caregivers are unpredictable. They may be nurturing and protective or hostile and rejecting.
  • I never know what to expect and am always anxious and angry.
  • I cannot leave and become autonomous. I may miss a nurturing time.
  • If I can figure out how to get my parent in a giving mood I will be nurtured and protected.
Avoidant Attachments
  • Caregivers are rejecting and punitive.
  • I have to be vigilant to protect myself.
  • If I deny my needs for nurturing and closeness, I will not be hurt and rejected.
  • If I comply with the needs and demands of my caregiver I will not be punished and rejected.
  • If I deny my needs and take care of my caregiver, I will be loved.
Disorganized Attachments
  • Caregivers are severely neglecting and physically or sexually abusive.
  • I do not know how to get my needs met at any time and feel hopeless. I have to protect myself but do not know how to do this.
  • I have to be either very clever to develop strategies for protection or remove myself from reality.

How do internal working models impact on a child's relationships throughout his/her life?

Internal working models operate as core belief systems about the world. These belief systems are rigid, fixed and operate outside of conscious awareness. Internal working models are projected onto all relationships, including those with teachers, child workers, therapists, foster parents, adoptive parents, siblings and peers. Because the models operate outside of conscious awareness, modifying them is very difficult.

Cross-cultural Attachment

What is culture?

  • Culture is such a broadly used term, that it is difficult to define clearly. For the purposes of this project: Culture is a framework of beliefs and values shared by a group, that influences the perception and interpretation of experiences by individuals within that group, as well as their goals for action and their actions themselves. These frameworks are constantly changing and being revised.
  • The fact that people are often unaware of the beliefs and values that guide them makes culture a very powerful influence on behaviour.
  • Cultural frameworks can influence individuals' perception and interpretation of experiences in different ways, so not all members of one particular cultural group will necessarily behave in exactly the same way under the same circumstances.
  • Understanding the cultural frameworks that guide people's behaviour gives us the opportunity to understand behaviour rather than to judge it based on our own cultural framework.
  • It is important to recognize that there are challenges to the dominant cultural practices from within each cultural group. As a result of these challenges and changing circumstances, cultures evolve over time. Why look at attachment practices across cultures?
  • Parents' attachment beliefs, values, and practices differ around the world.

Although the attachment relationship is universal, parents' attachment beliefs, values, and practices differ around the world. There is an increasing number and increasing diversity of immigrants and refugees coming to Canada from countries where attachment practices may differ from those which are dominant in Canadian health and social service milieus. When serving immigrant and refugee families it is important to consider whether the variation in their attachment relationships, is based on differing beliefs and values related to parenting, as well as different goals for each stage of a child's development.

It is also important to remember that there are always variations in people's understanding and interpretation of beliefs and values espoused by their cultural group as well as the extent to which they follow those beliefs and values. Parents need to be asked about their beliefs, values and personal experiences in order to get an understanding of their behaviour and most effectively promote best practices in attachment.

  • A cross-cultural understanding of attachment can influence how we assess parent-child interaction and child development. Our assessments need to be non-biased in order to accurately understand what is happening within a family and how it is influencing child development. This will help us to know when support and/or intervention is necessary, and how best to support families.
  • We can support families in reducing the impact of migration and resettlement in Canada through strengthening their effective practices and in helping them to acquire new ones.
  • We can learn something from different positive practices that can be applied in our overall programming and service delivery.

Immigrant and refugee families come to Canada bringing with them a wealth of experience, knowledge and skills regarding child-rearing practices, that in many cases have been traditionally passed down from generation to generation. Many of these practices are positive attachment practices that appear less commonly in Western culture. It is important not only to acknowledge and validate these positive practices but to learn from them and apply them in overall programming and service delivery to support families. Advocating a range of cross-cultural best practices can only benefit children and families.

One of the greatest contributions to date of cross-cultural studies on attachment is the understanding that in both Western and non-Western cultures, children have relationships with several attachment figures, rather than just one. Since social networks have such a large role in children's growth and development, they must be considered in our assessment of attachment relationships.

How does culture influence attachment?
    • Culture influences the value that mothers, families and communities place on children, as well as the value that mothers, families and communities place on the role of being caregivers. In many cultural communities, children are highly valued as is the role of caregivers. As a result, there are many similarities in attachment practices across cultures.
    • Parents' beliefs and values regarding child development, and the roles of parents, influence the choices they make about raising children within the constraints of their culture. There may be cultural differences in the long-term goals that mothers, families, and communities have for their children's development. These cultural differences influence their expectations at every stage of their children's development. Cultural differences also influence the attitudes and behaviours of caregivers, thus affecting how they raise and relate to their children.
    • Children may display different attachment behaviours according to what is considered culturally appropriate within a particular community. Although, there is a strong intuitive component to attachment relationships, children learn to behave in a way that gets them what they need. Children may use different behaviours to signal distress, according to what they have learned gives them the response they need. Infants may also demonstrate secure attachment in different ways depending on the expectations placed on them and the understanding of secure attachment within a particular cultural group.
    • Parents may use different attachment practices to build relationships with and respond to their children. Despite the intuitive and universal component of attachment relationships, mothers and families interact with and respond to their children in different ways according to their beliefs and values and what is expected in their cultural environment. Many of these practices have been passed down for generations because they result in positive attachment relationships between children and their mothers and families, and because they adequately respond to children's needs.

Why look at attachment in immigrant and refugee families?
    • To enable us to provide better support to immigrant and refugee families and all families. When we understand the similarities and differences in perceptions of attachment and in resulting attachment behaviour exhibited by infants and attachment practices used by mothers and families, we can better support immigrant and refugee families to minimize the negative impact of migration and resettlement. We can also learn from immigrant and refugee families in order to provide better support to all families.
    • To create a better understanding among health and social service providers which will inform their intervention strategies in situations of alleged child neglect/abuse. At times, positive attachment practices that are different from generally accepted Western attachment practices (eg. carrying infants in slings), are misunderstood as signs of neglect or even abuse. While never leaving a child at risk, health and social service providers need to carefully consider the behaviour they see as well as its context. In some instances, the impact of racism and a sense of having to 'prove' themselves, in addition to the stress of migration and resettlement, can influence newcomer parents to be extra strict in disciplining children. Assessments of allegations of child neglect or abuse always need to take cultural factors into consideration in order to most effectively intervene.
    • To recognize and validate attachment practices used by immigrants and refugees. Immigrant and refugee mothers/families need to be asked for their perceptions of optimal parent-child interaction and relationships, and subsequent child development. They also need to be asked for their perceptions of their strengths, the challenges facing them, and their need for support. The best way to improve support and services for immigrant and refugee families, as well as to learn from their experience, is to ask them for their perspectives. Immigrant and refugee families are usually told what they are doing wrong and what they need to change, rather than what they are doing right and should continue. The positive attachment practices used by immigrant and refugee parents need to be shared, validated, encouraged, and learned from in order to improve overall program and service delivery in community-based agencies.
    • The impact of migration and resettlement on attachment needs to be considered in order to provide adequate support to immigrant and refugee families. The challenges associated with migration and resettlement often require additional support for immigrant and refugee families. The fact that parents are so preoccupied with whom and what they have left behind in their migration to Canada, along with the need to survive in their new environment, influences the extent to which they are able to respond to the children with them. At the same time, children are stressed by the extensive changes they are experiencing in their environment and turn to their parents in time of distress, only to find that they are less able to respond. This results in insecure attachment, which can have a negative impact on child development.
    • We can learn from the resilience of immigrant and refugee families. Often immigrant and refugee parents and children display remarkable resilience in the face of great challenges to their attachment relationships. Effective strategies for maintaining effective attachment behaviours and practices in the face of challenges can be learned by parents and children facing other types of challenges to their attachment relationships, and in life in general.

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