Welcome back! This is the second post in a series of posts about the Attachment Theory and its importance to parenthood. In these posts I hope to help you understand why I think the attachment system is such an important issue for parenting. Also, I'd like to show you how we can use the vast research around attachment to improve and enhance our parenthood.

The last post told the origin story of attachment theory and of John Bowlby, its progenitor. This post will describe the basic principles of the theory.

First, two notes about language and concepts. First, about the word “theory”. Sometime people read “theory” in the sense of “some ideas that are not proven yet”, but what I mean here is more in the notion stated by Merriam-Webster’s dictionary:

a plausible or scientifically acceptable general principle or body of principles offered to explain phenomena”.

It’s important to acknowledge that Bowlby developed a theory of attachment, but that theory was based on many observations and scientific research has validated aspects of attachment theory time and again.

Second, I’m gonna use the phrase “attachment figures” a lot. What do I mean by that? Usually, the attachment figures are the parents. However, it could mean any significant, older other who raises the child (foster parents, step parents, grandparent etc.).

Now we are ready to step into the Attachment System! Follow me.


What is the Attachment System

So, in my last post about attachment I talked about how Bowlby put so much emphasis on the way the environment – ie. the attachment figures – influences the mental development of the child. 

Bowlby understood that babies – very much like the offsprings of other species – are born with a very intense need to survive, and that the attachment system is the baby’s tool to accomplish that.

The attachment system is a behavioral system with one goal – to make sure the child survives. It’s a congenital system, hardwired to our brains like other behavioral systems such as those responsible for feeding or reproduction. The baby doesn’t need to learn how to cry when she’s hungry, she knows to that from day 1.

What’s the meaning of a “behavioral” system?
It means that its a system that holds several basic behaviors that manifests in certain times. In the context of attachment we can look at behaviors such as smiling, cooing, crying etc. – everything the baby does in order to catch the parent’s attention.


A Secure Base and A Safe Haven

Let’s imagine a situation you probably know very well. You go with your child to the playground. And she walks to the slides. You watch as her little feet climb the little ladder and she reaches the top of the slide. Then, as she’s standing there, ready to go down the slide, she looks back to you. Why does she do that? What is she looking for?

child using the attachment system

She’s searching for your face, and more specifically, she’s looking to see your expression and reaction. Will you smile back and encourage her to slide? Or will you open your eyes in horror and let her know that it’s dangerous?


You see, between a child and his parent there’s a lot going on, both verbally and non-verbally. Our reactions to our kids establish in large part their security to explore the world.



The attachment system has this basic “conditions”:

  • The parent as a secure base – that’s when the child feels the parent as close and available to him. The parent is perceived as a secure base from which the child can go and explore the world (for example, go down the slide).
  • Searching for the parent – the child is looking for the parent, trying to assess the situation through the communication with the parent. If he needs to, acts in a way that’s supposed to bring the parent close (by crying, crawling to the parent etc.)
  • The parent as a safe haven – if the child encounters some threat (real or imagined), he’ll go as quickly as possible to the parent to find refuge and solace.


The Cliffs of Insanity*!

* Yes, I'm a Princess Bride fan. After all, it's the best movie in the world.

Let’s look at a classic experiment that shows what I just wrote about in a really cool way. The experiment is known as The Visual Cliff. Now, I could explain a lot but the next video will show it much better:

And just a quick recap in case you didn’t watch the video: babies are encouraged to crawl on a transparent plexiglass surface that was built in such a way that it looks like there’s a sudden drop (hence, a visual cliff). The baby, of course, doesn’t understand that he can crawl on the transparent surface. On the other side stands the mother and she’s instructed to make either a happy, smiling face, or one of fear and trepidation.

This experiment shows vividly how the reaction of the mother is a major factor in the child’s behavior. When the mother was encouraging the baby to come to her, he could disregard his fear of the cliff and go on, and not so when the mother was conveying fear.


So, the take-off message is this: the way we react to our children and whatever we communicate to them – both verbally and non-verbally, has a lot of influence on how they perceive themselves and the world and how confident they are.


It may seem obvious, but there are a lot of times we don’t realize our roles in those situations. For example, when our child gets a little bit older and starts expressing various fears. How we react to that, again – both verbally and non-verbally – will determine a lot of the way she’ll cope with her fears today and in the future.

And while you may not see that, it’s actually a GOOD THING! That’s because you can work on your reactions and be better prepared to be your best-self (that’s what I want to help you achieve).


When the parent doesn’t respond

So we get now how important it is to react to our children and really let them know what’s going on. In an ideal world, every parent would react in the exact time and fashion their children need. But, we’re not living in an ideal world, don’t we?

So in this section I’d like to show you what happens when the parent doesn’t respond to child. That way we can understand better the how important we are to the emotional state of our kids.

The main thing you need to remember is this: children will do whatever it takes in order to keep their attachment figure close. That’s what the attachment system was developed for.

If the parent is present and attentive, the child doesn’t need to work to hard to get attention. The attachment system doesn’t get triggered that much.

But, when the parent – for whatever reason – is not present and doesn’t attend to the child in accordance to her needs, the child will show attachment behaviors that will escalate with time. Remember, all of those behaviors have one goal – let the parent know he’s needed and keep him close.

Let’s take a quick look at another important experiment. This time it’s The Still Face experiment.

As you can see, the parent and baby are sitting one in front of the other. They communicate as they usually do. Suddenly, the mother stops reacting and adopts a still face (that was of course on queue from the researchers).

This is when things gets interesting (and actually not easy to watch). Remember when I said that children will do whatever it takes to keep their attachment figures with them? That’s what we see. First, the baby uses her usual attachment system options (smiling, hand waving). Then, she starts to protest (yelling, crying). Eventually, she just shuts off and looks away.

Now, I KNOW that you don’t want that for your kids. And I bet that’s not how you react to them either. Almost no one adopts a still face in front of their kids. But remember that this was an extreme situation in the lab. In real life, we can be less attentive to our children, whether it’s because we’re too busy working and reading parenting blogs on our phone.

So, part of what we need to learn to do as parent is to notice where our attention is around our kids. Only when we develop this awareness we’ll be able to harness the attention and guide it to where it is so needed.

To summarize the attachment system

When we are confronted with stressful situations, the attachment system gets triggered. They could be real life situation or internal situation such as thoughts or imagination. The attachment system drives the child (and the adult) to do whatever it can to make the significant other attend to him or her.

In this way the attachment system develops our feelings of safety in the world; helps us to regulate our feelings and express them; and enables us to explore the world.

The more interactions a child has with a present, attentive parent, the better. He or she will have a more resilient and secure sense of self, because of the feeling that they are being cared for. This is the basis for the feeling that we can take of ourselves.


That’s is for now. I hope you enjoyed this post about the attachment system. Remember, this is part of a series of posts about attachment and parenting. The next post will deal with the different types of attachment patterns.

Please leave a comment below and let me know what did you think while reading the post. If you want to share what you felt while watching the videos, I’d love to read that. Also, feel free to throw in any questions you have either in the comment section or if you prefer a more private route, go to the contact page.

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