By John Presley
Attachment is a word in mental health circles that has taken on a dominant connotation as relating to disruptions and disorders of relationships, particularly regarding the development of children.
There are extraordinary developments in the process of understanding, diagnosing and treating attachment disorders. This has allowed a justifiable degree of optimism to develop in helping children recover a sense of trust and hope for future relationships.
However, treatment is not the role most people play in promoting a child’s healthy development. Every significant person in the life of a child has a part in helping them grow in ways that encourage positive relationships.
Not only can we participate in this process with individual children, but we can knowledgeably advocate for all children to have the environment, tools and opportunities to become healthy participants in our society.
Theories about attachment date back to the beginning work of John Bowlby in the 1930s through ’50s. His work identified how separation of parents and children during such times as inpatient hospitalization could result in extreme anxiety for the child and difficulty responding to care giving by another person.
Later theories addressed the effect of traumatic events on the capacity of children to see the world as a safe place. Beginning in the 1950s, Erik Erickson worked to set out his stages of psychosocial development beginning with “Trust vs Mistrust,” in which infants learn whether the world is a safe place in which their needs can be met. While Erickson framed this within the first 18 months of life, Bruce Perry later offered the idea that fetal trauma during pregnancy, as well as events in infancy and early childhood, contribute to the development of disrupted attachment.
Subsequent work on helping to repair damaged relationship capacity in young children leads to ideas for promoting positive growth and development. One step is to gain a better understanding of brain development. Early in our life, we don’t “think” – that part of our brain doesn’t develop until approximately age 3. The most active and functional element — the brainstem — is simply focused on basic needs of safety and comfort. Rick Gaskill makes the point in a recent article in PLAYTHERAPY (Sept. 2019) that, “The low brain (the brainstem) lacks rational, logical thought and does not understand language.” He also noted that sensory experiences are the most effective elements in promoting a child’s learning that the world can be a safe place.
This leads to what might be the startling understanding that words are of significantly less importance to early childhood development than active, repetitive play that the child enjoys. I fondly remember playing “pat-a-cake” with our daughters, little knowing that I was using patterned, repetitive activity to engage them in relationship building. It was simply something we did that was fun for them and us.
It is this understanding that talking is not teaching for the young child that then allows us to focus on the things a child enjoys, to introduce them to a safe world with dependable caregivers. It is important to understand that what we do is more important than what we say. Indeed, the old saying, “Actions speak louder than words” now has neuroscience backing. Allowing ourselves the freedom to act more and talk less contributes to a child’s growth more than we might have thought.
It should be noted that language development is an important part of not only this stage of development but throughout adolescence. However, language development is primarily the process of learning a tool rather than as a way to form attachments. Indeed, harsh language has the potential to traumatize a child, yet when offered in an encouraging and comforting tone, language can support the child’s confidence that they are in a safe, caring environment.
While the use of patterned, repetitive activities allows us to contribute to an individual child’s growth, there are steps that also promote positive development for more than one person. It clearly has been established in a number of settings that environmental risks and insults negatively affect children’s ability to develop into caring responsible people. These include such things as exposure to smoking/substance use, poor nutrition, poverty, domestic violence, family mental health problems, as well as being separated from parents — as in foster placement.
Our additional responsibility is then to advocate for a nurturing community that promotes exposure to caring and compassion and reduces exposure to threats against our children’s safety. Healthy attachment benefits each child and each community.
John Presley, MSW, focused on work with children and families throughout his career. He has worked in juvenile justice, child psychiatry, residential treatment, pediatrics and community mental health. He retired from Central Kansas Mental Center after 24 years.