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The Importance of Secure Attachment for a Child's Happiness

A pediatric Physical Therapist for over 21 years with children birth through school age and passion for sensory processing and attachment.

What Is Success? Happiness?

What does one define as success or happiness? Ivy league diploma? Six figure salary? Vacation home? Spouse with 2.5 children?

Success and happiness can be measured by the contentment one feels, year after year, in the trajectory of their relationships, growth in their occupation, and in the time spent alone with their thoughts.

This kind of success and happiness is a gift given from the generations that have come before. It is offered to our children from the onset of birth, if not sooner while in utero. Creating a secure attachment between primary caregiver and infant is the key to setting children up for the happiness and success they experience in adulthood. Secure attachment bonding is the investment made in their emotional trust fund, which will yield unforeseeable dividends—not only for your child and their children in generations to come, but for the human race as a whole.

The Symbolism of the Sunflower

The symbolism of the sunflower has specifically been chosen to represent the importance of the attachment bond. Sunflowers represent positivity, hope, and joy: qualities that embody young children. Sunflowers instinctively and naturally follow the trajectory of the sun for their nourishment.

This is the same for children who look to their caregivers for guidance and nourishment (both physically and emotionally), without question or hesitation. They naturally and instinctively look to their caregivers in an effort to get their needs met, both physically and emotionally. They assume that their caregivers hold the best intentions for them, and children look for the positive in any and all interactions with their primary caregivers.

What is the Secret to Giving a Child a Strong Foundation Towards Success & Happiness

"Raising secure, emotionally competent, cooperative children who have free access to their creativity and expression is desperately needed for the health of the human race and the health of the planet. Raising secure children matters."

— excerpt from The Attachment Connection by Ruth Newton, Ph.D

What Is Attachment?

Attachment is defined as the emotional bond that is created between an infant and their primary caregiver.


The above diagram can be used to help you visualize the importance of the attachment bond. The green circle represents the caregiver, the blue circle represents the infant/child, and the bluish-green shaded area in between both circles represents the attachment bond and how it connects the two. It can be likened to an entity in its own right that requires time, attention, and consistency.

Its robustness will determine the health of the relationship between the infant and caregiver, but that shaded area will also become the template in which future relationships for the infant are based and is the key to that future individual's self esteem, resilience, and emotional intelligence. Creating an attachment bond does not solely mean that the primary caregiver follows through with meeting the physical needs of the child.

What Do You Consider a Primary Need?

Primary physical needs of a child are seen to be things required for sustenance of life such as food for nourishment and growth, water for hydration, shelter for protection from weather and the elements, and even education for growth of the mind.

Emotional Needs Are Also Primary Needs

Primary needs on an emotional level can include:

  • comfort in times of distress (when a diaper is wet in a newborn or an older child skins their knee)
  • emotional regulation (when a loud and sudden sound startles a newborn or when another child takes a toy away)
  • feeling of being a part of a family/community/tribe (including children in meals and taking into consideration their likes and dislikes when planning a family vacation)

When primary caregivers address the emotional needs of a child, in conjunction with meeting their other physical primary needs, this creates a sense of validation, connection, and of being supported. On another note, when the primary caregivers provide the emotional needs of the child, this can be a source of strength when the physical primary needs may be insufficient, as seen in cases of poverty, where resources such as food, shelter, or clothing can be limited.

Emotional needs and support are underappreciated in the overall development of a child. How many children have received meals, were bought clothing, had a home, went to private schools, and yet still, something feels missing as they experience adulthood? As adults, they replay their childhood and justify the satiation of their physical needs, as a "good" childhood. This can leave the present day adult with a state of emptiness, confusion, and even self blame for the insidious discontent with their current life.

In general, there is no blame, per say, for emotional neglect/abuse, as the generations up the family tree most likely experienced the same and modeled the behavior that they themselves had witnessed in their childhoods. However, instead of blame, we can view the lack of emotional support and nurturance, as the cause of present day negative states in the adult, such as shame, guilt, worthlessness, depression, and anxiety.

As in observing a line of falling dominoes, one cannot necessarily blame the domino just behind the one falling, but when looking at the whole system, it can be better explained as the culmination of behaviors and decisions from the dominoes as a whole, that came before.

"Social-emotional development needs to be seen as the primary developmental domain upon which all future development rests."

— Ruth P. Newton, Ph.D.

Why Is Healthy Attachment Important?

Healthy attachment forms the basis for future development in the following areas:

  • social (ie. friends, significant others, family relationships)
  • emotional (being able to be vulnerable and connect with another human being, showing empathy towards others)
  • cognitive (higher level critical thinking and concentration)
  • physical (cardiovascular and pulmonary health)
  • mental (feeling optimistic, resilient against stress, and reaching for healthier coping strategies)

Attachment Is the Template for All Future Relationships

Attachment, whether healthy or not, is THE template for all future relationships including:

  • marital
  • business
  • parental
  • societal

Attachment Ensures the Safety of the Child

According to John Bowlby, the father of attachment theory, the point of attachment is to keep the child close to the caregiver to ensure the protection and survival of the infant/child.

If the primary caregiver proves themselves to be a secure and safe base, that child is confident and free to

  • explore
  • play
  • learn

These are foundational elements critical to the healthy development of children.

Establishing Trust

Consistent and sensitive responding from a primary caregiver creates trust between infant and caregiver. Predictability can be comforting and calming to a child in a chaotic world. The child trusts that its needs will be met, and over time this creates a secure base. This secure base is the hallmark of a secure attachment.

Imagine the confidence one must have in their partner during the trust fall exercise. There is a very special sense of knowing that develops when the person behind you catches you, repeatedly and consistently over time. A healthy sense of interdependence develops within that relationship. You will grow to depend that they will be there for you when you need them, which will also permeate into the expectation one has with the world and trusting that it, too will meet its needs in one way or another.

Distrustful Relationships: The Lucy and Charlie Brown Example

Now, imagine the chaotic and distrustful relationship that develops when needs are inconsistently met or just blatantly ignored. Let's look at the interaction that occurs between Lucy and Charlie Brown when he expects that she will hold the football in place for him to punt it. If she inconsistently holds the ball steady and at other times she takes it away, as Charlie Brown is just about to kick it, how secure would his confidence be that she will come through for him when he needs her do to her part in their relationship under stressful conditions?

What would your relationship look like when the relationship is under pressure and you need to depend on the other person to successfully do their part to resolve the problem?


The Importance of Good Attachment

Good attachment quality between primary caregiver and child = good emotional/affect regulation (control) in the child = confidence for learning, play, and environment exploration in the developing child. This frees up the child's emotional and mental space to trust that their caregiver will be there for them when they return from exploring and interacting with their world.

The child will not have to experience an underlying anxiousness of not knowing if their caregiver will be there to fulfill their physical and/or emotional needs. They just know that they will be. That is secure attachment, and this secure attachment is what puts that later adult into a position to focus on finding their personal meaning of success and happiness in life.

The Results of Increased Security and Self-Esteem

Increased sensitive and attuned primary caregiver responses to a child's needs and cues over time will increase the child's sense of security and self esteem which will free up the child to be able to

  • play
  • learn
  • explore
  • relate to others

Why Is a Healthy and Secure Attachment Important in Early Childhood?

A healthy and secure attachment bond is critical for

  • emotional regulation (the child can maintain composure during stressful events because they know that their feelings will be validated by the caregiver)
  • resilience to stress (If triggered into a stressful state, that child will learn how to self soothe in healthy and adaptive ways or they will trust that they can seek out their caregiver for comforting. What coping strategies are used in that later adult: ie. substance abuse versus good communication skills)
  • good self esteem & healthy personal boundaries
  • template for future relationships in marriage, parenting, business, and interpersonal social relationships

The Adult Attachment Interview

The Adult Attachment Interview is a way to assess how your early attachment relationships impact your emotional health in adulthood and how it correlates with parenting styles. It was created by Mary Main and her colleagues in 1984.

The Adult Attachment Interview & How it Changed Attachment Research History


What Are the Types of Attachment?

There are 4 types of attachment

Secure (1) (organized and healthy attachment style)

Insecure (2 organized attachments with predictable and maladaptive patterns of behavior)

  • insecure anxious/ambivalent (2)
  • insecure avoidant/dismissive (3)

Disorganized (4) (disorganized style of attachment - may resort to use of all maladaptive coping style behaviors)

Earned secure: "These individuals are defined as those who acknowledge that they experienced dysfunctional parenting experiences in childhood, but as adults are able to describe these memories in an accurate, coherent, and contained manner." (excerpt taken from the article below)

Quiz: Types of Attachment

For each question, choose the best answer. The answer key is below.

  1. How many attachment types are there?
    • 7
    • 2
    • 4
    • 10

Answer Key

  1. 4

How Attachment Shapes the Brain

The healthy attachment bond that is created beginning from birth, (and some would support from inside the womb), shapes important structures of the brain. Attachment, either healthy or dysfunctional, literally shapes structures of the brain which will either assist the individual in living a fulfilling life or create negative behaviors and/or reactions that the individual will have to overcome to lead a fulfilling life.

These important brain structures are needed in learning, impulse control, and creative endeavors. Some of these structures include the hippocampus, (memory and learning), amygdala, (fear center of the brain), and the prefrontal cortex, (critical thinking and executive function). The goal of an optimally shaped brain in the individual is the increased potentiality of whole brain living. This allows the individual to think rationally and creatively under stressful situations. It allows the thinking part of the brain to take into consideration the emotional part of the brain's input while taking into consideration other individuals' needs and feelings that may be involved in the issue at hand.

Caregiving Shapes the Brain Like a Potter Shapes Clay

Sensitive caregiving or attuned caregiving literally shapes brain structures like a potter gliding their hands over a formless lump of clay. Time contributes to the potter's creation, as the spinning motion allows the lump to glide through the potter's attentive and sensitive responding fingers. Brain structure formation does not occur simply during one event, just as the clay cannot be sculpted, if it is static and there is no spinning motion. The potter's attunement (pressure or retraction from the fingers into the spinning and forming clay), acts a guide for where more or less focus is needed in the forming lump of clay and will ultimately result in the beautifully sculpted creation that can be appreciated through a lifetime.

The forming clay is interacting with the specific touch from the potter. The potter is responding to the formation of the clay taking shape, in the moment to moment feel under their hands, as it spins. The sensitive response in the potter's hands is akin to each specific opportunity the caregiver is given by the child to respond to a cue.

For example, a verbal or vocal cue is a request by the child through words or sounds to indicate hunger, thirst, or fear. A nonverbal cue can be seen in facial expressions such as a grimace or gaze aversion and an emotional cue can be seen when the child seeks soothing, comfort, or closeness to the caregiver. Children want to feel safe, seen, and soothed to feel secure in the relationship with their primary caregiver, as expressed through the work of Daniel Siegel. His books are a valuable resource for parents.

It's Not Just About Being Physically Present

Being there for your child as the primary caregiver, is not just about being there in body, but also in showing interest in their emotional world. It is about being there for your child physically to prepare them dinner, help them with homework, and to play with them, yes.

However, it is also about, and more importantly, about being emotionally there for them and with them. It is about joining in with your child's joy and appreciation of something that they have created or feeling sad with them and validating their feelings when they have been hurt by a friend or fearful of the pediatrician's visit.

There has been a lot of recent information on childhood emotional neglect and how it can be just as damaging as physical abuse/neglect, but with less obvious scars or bruises. Dr. Jonice Webb is an informative and reliable source to delve into the topic of childhood emotional neglect (CEN):

The First 3 Years Are Critical for Attachment Bond

The first 3 years are a significantly important window for the development and maturation of the right brain in the developing child. The right brain is the part of the brain that is required for emotional development and creativity. The right brain can be attributed to the ability to read non verbal social cues like tone of voice and facial expressions, the ability to relate to others, emotional regulation.

Early attachment bonding and therefore, development of the right hemisphere of the brain can lay the ground work for future cognitive development and learning as seen in the increased tolerance to frustration and trial and error processing for effective learning. This is especially important when cultivating resilience when recovering from mistakes. Early right brain development enhances and supports the left brain development needed for cognitive development as the child ages towards the school years.

The more that you touch your baby such as through kangaroo care, infant massage, cuddling, and during feeding times, (holding the baby in your left arm is optimal for right brain stimulation between mother and child), and the more a sensitive and attuned caregiver responds to the baby's cues over time, this will create a sense of trust in the caregiver and the world, at large, which will ultimately create a scenario of less cortisol present in the baby and caregiver's bodies. Therefore, less cortisol, (stress hormone), flowing through both the infant and caregiver's system, will facilitate improved emotional regulation in both parties.

A primary caregiver acts as an external emotional regulator for the child. The child is not yet able to manage their emotions, on their own, within a window optimal for learning and attending. Too much cortisol in the system is toxic and can negatively impact and negatively shape important structures of the brain, including the amygdala and hippocampus. The hippocampus has been studied to show a decrease in size and a loss of function in memory and learning when it is swimming in the toxic cortisol cocktail, especially over a chronic period of time.

Experiment Results: Mother Rats Licking Their Pups

In experiments with rats, securely labeled rat offspring secrete higher levels of growth promoting hormones and decreased levels of stress hormones. When a mother rat licks and grooms her pups frequently, those offspring exhibit decreased stress and increased resilience to stress over a lifetime. Also, rat pups who were licked and groomed frequently become rat mothers who frequently lick and groom their pups and down the generational tree it continues for generations to benefit from.

Licking Rat Pups: The Genetics of Nurture

Where Do We Go From Here?

After reading this, I hope that it is clear how important it is to create a healthy attachment between the primary caregiver and the child. It is the template for all future relationships and can facilitate the healthy shaping of critical brain structures, which will assist in learning, creativity, and resilience in times of stress.

It is crucial that caregivers appreciate the fundamental importance of not only nurturing their child physically through offering healthy nutrition and opportunities for play and movement, but to invest in your child's emotional trust fund through the support and development of a child's inner emotional world by validating, mirroring, and regulating how and what they are feeling. Empathy is the antidote to shame, as noted by famed shame researcher, Brene Brown, and the lack of empathy creates a whole cluster of personality disorders, such as Narcissism, Borderline, Anti-social, and Histrionic, which wreaks havoc all of its own on unsuspecting victims.

As the quote in the beginning states, "Raising secure children matters". The increasing mental health disorders, such as depression and anxiety, the increased labels of various learning disabilities, such as ADHD, and many physical health ailments seen in adulthood such as cardiovascular disease, may have its roots in how healthy a child's initial attachment bond was/is with their primary caregivers.

That green-ish blue section of the overlapping circles, may be the key area of focus to a healthier and happier society, one child at a time. When we know better, we do better. It is never too late to begin, right where we are.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.

© 2020 Dawn Brauer MSPT CIMI