The Science of Attachment: The Biological Roots of Love (Part Five)

Ed. note: Here’s Part Five of Lauren Lindsey Porter’s article, “The Science of Attachment: The Biological Roots of Love.” First published in Mothering Magazine (Issue 119, July/August 2003), it is reprinted on with the author’s permission. References to footnotes will be provided with the final installment.

Another largely misunderstood and overlooked aspect of attachment theory and research is the role of attachment and attunement in the older child. Contrary to popular cultural beliefs, close attachment to the mother remains crucially important to children through the toddler and preschool years.43 As with infants, this attachment is adaptive and serves to ensure the child’s survival and socialization. While the needs shift, the attachment remains key. In toddlerhood, children make great strides in physical ability and locomotion but are still at an early point in the development of necessary self-protective skills. As preschool approaches, the child becomes more autonomous and self-reliant, but remains vulnerable to a wide range of dangers. Thus, attachment behaviors, such as seeking proximity to mother, evincing anxiety when mother moves away, and protesting separation are adaptive mechanisms, not regressive ones.

This adaptive pattern is largely unappreciated by our Western culture and is unfortunately and wrongly labeled “controlling,” “attention-seeking,” or “spoiling.” Multiple studies have found that two year olds maintain as much, if not more, closeness to their mothers as their one-year-old counterparts.44 Additionally, even by their third birthday, most children evince distress at being left alone even for brief periods.45 Research suggests that, by the age of four, most children are increasingly comfortable with separations and have less of a need for contact and proximity to their caregiver to maintain a sense of security.46

As children continue to age and develop, their needs evolve but their reliance on the attachment system endures. Even adolescence, often viewed as the pinnacle of developmental challenges, has its focus in attachment. Adolescents struggle with the tension between their connection to family and their formation of independence. The foundation built in the early years is the groundwork for this phase of life; if the attachment is secure and established, child and parents can negotiate the events of adolescence with little struggle.

What is also highlighted in the research is the importance of nonmaternal caregivers in the child’s life. While the mother-child dyad maintains primacy because of its psychobiological underpinnings in survival and optimal development, the child cultivates an array of “affectional bonds”47 that include, most important, the father or partner, as well as other members of the network of close family and friends. Attunement in each of these relationships is intensely important because the child is always taking in new information and being shaped by the world.48 Just as the mother’s role is to assist in the child’s development, so is the role of every other primary person in the child’s life. While attachment theory centers on a primary figure, typically the mother, as the bedrock of the child’s health and wellbeing, this does not occur in a vacuum, nor to the exclusion of fathers and partners. Often, in the progression of infant development, the initial role of fathers focuses on support of the mother in her attempt to care for their baby. But it does not stop there. As the baby gains in abilities, the father becomes more central, and his role often evolves into the safe launching point for the child’s accelerated forays into the external world. In the implementation of attachment theory, the baby is connected to the mother and embraced by the support of many people who influence growth and development differently at each unique stage.

What does all this mean? Healthy attachment via healthy attunement is the key to healthy babies, and healthy babies are the key to healthy adults. However, while the research may be illuminating, it can also sound frightening. It is crucial to remember that the mother-baby dyad is a mutual system. No system functions flawlessly all of the time; each of us will be faced with times when we are out of sync, or in emotional disregulation, with our babies. The good news is that these periods of misattunement, as long as they are brief and not chronic, appear to be a positive thing. Because the baby is learning self-regulation, short periods of misattunement followed by re-attunement have the effect of teaching resilience. Further, it is speculated that such interactive repair may also be the underpinning of empathy.49 This cannot be overlooked-it is vital to understanding brain development and to creating realistic parenting expectations. Long periods of disequilibrium, or consistent and repeated short exposures, however, are not beneficial. The long-term effects of such environments are as disheartening as the short-term stress reaction. Research now directly links the early experiences discussed with a predisposition to mental illness of all kinds and impaired functioning over a lifespan.50 As you can imagine, if a person cannot regulate her or his emotions and is easily overwhelmed by stressful events, healthy coping is unlikely and illness easily sets in.

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