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.
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
- Attachment influences early brain development, which
has an impact on a child's lifelong abilities to regulate
thinking, feelings and behaviour.
- What are attachment behaviours?
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.
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
- are available
- are in tune with their needs
- demonstrate pleasure in their interaction with their
- are able to comfort their stressed children
How does a securely attached infant or child
- 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:
- Undiscriminating Responses
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.
- Discriminating Behaviour
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.
- Formation of Secure Base
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:
- Caregivers are trustworthy and reliable.
- I am worthwhile and lovable.
- My world is safe and offers pleasure.
- I deserve to have my needs met.
- Caregivers are unpredictable. They may be nurturing
and protective or hostile and rejecting.
- I never know what to expect and am always anxious and
- I cannot leave and become autonomous. I may miss a nurturing
- If I can figure out how to get my parent in a giving
mood I will be nurtured and protected.
- 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.
- Caregivers are severely neglecting and physically or
- 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
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
- 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
- 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
- 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
- We can learn something from different positive practices
that can be applied in our overall programming and service
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
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
- 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
- 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
- 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.