Attachment: More Than a Parenting Style

Posted on Fri, Mar 01, 2013 @ 09:39 AM

RadioMDsmHave you ever heard someone say that they don't agree with attachment?  Well, in all likelihood, what they really mean is that they don’t like the popular parenting styles that go by the label attachment parentingAttachment and attachment parenting are not interchangeable terms. Attachment parenting is simply one way that parenting gurus have tried to apply the scientific understanding of attachment theory. To say one disagrees with attachment is somewhat like saying one disagrees with the theory of relativity.

Unfortunately, Time’s famously provocative magazine cover that came out almost a year ago didn’t go very far in clearing up this kind of misunderstanding. The media debates that followed called on all the popular parenting experts, from attachment-parenting guru Mayim Bialik—who actually has a neuroscience degreeto Pamela Druckerman, an American freelance journalist living in France, who wrote about what she admired in the French parenting approach. Even the Tiger Mom was dragged into the debate, although her book was actually a personal memoir rather than a parenting book. 

Of course, the point was to get everyone into debate mode, because that’s what often sells—so the media frenzy focused on the differences between the approaches rather than the similarities.  And there were similarities to be seen if you understand what attachment is. Unfortunately, as brain researchers tell us, the way our brain works in debate mode is that we typically decide what arguments to buy into—not by weighing the issues, although we like to think that’s what we do—but by jumping to emotional conclusions about what we like or don’t like, and we do it pretty much at first sight without thinking much about grey areas. 

This is essentially what happened in the attachment parenting debate that played out in the media after Time’s story was published. And it did play out mostly in the media—real mothers are too busy to obsess very much about what other mothers may be doing. 

Unfortunately, during this debate the opportunity to actually inform parents about what children DO need was completely missed, disappearing down that huge chasm that exists between research and popular opinion. It’s not just that opponents of attachment parenting that misunderstand attachment research. Even its supporters don’t always understand. And the media is no less in the dark.

As just one example, you might have seen the term “attached parents” in some books and articles.

This term is scientifically meaningless. It reflects a basic misunderstanding of attachment bonds. By definition an attachment bond is one in which you’re seeking security and comfort, and of course, parents aren’t looking to their kids for security and comfort, so you wouldn’t say a parent is “attached.”  The other side of that is that all children—even abused children—become attached to their caretakers. They will have a dysfunctional attachment style because they aren’t receiving the security and comfort they desperately need, but they are still “attached.” 

Of all the other attachment relationships we grow up to have throughout our lives, our parents are especially important because we need them to provide security and help us regulate distress during a crucial period of brain development: the first two years of life. The process of parent-infant bonding teaches us to make certain assumptions about our social world, including how we should expect others to respond to us in the future. So it’s laying the foundation for our future emotional and mental health. Sometimes what we’re learning is very tragic—and of course we’ll see the results down the road. And research is finding that it’s not only mental health that suffers when there’s dysfunctional attachment, but also physical health.

On the other hand, when parents do engage—when they attune to a child’s needs and respond with comfort and security, the attachment is “secure,” and we have the foundation we need for emotional regulation and general well being.  

Is attachment parenting the only way to work toward secure attachment? Not at all. It can take you there, but so can many other approaches. In fact, Attachment parenting is just as scientifically meaningless as the term “attached parent.” It implies that there is a specific set of parenting practices underlying secure attachment. This isn’t the case. There is attachment research . . . and then there are a lot of different people’s ideas about how to apply what we’ve learned from that research.

When researchers John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth first developed attachment theory in the 50s and 60s, they weren’t trying to define limits for how long babies can be allowed to cry or how old they should be when they’re weaned. Instead, they focused on the core idea that our emotional and social development depends heavily on responsive relationships with caregivers during early life. For more than half a century, almost every field related to the development of the mind for has continued their research—and in the last 20 years neuroscientists have been out in the forefront with new tools that allow us to confirm that in all the essentials, Bowlby was right.

The very different term, attachment parenting, was coined by parenting gurus. It initially outlined an approach by pediatrician William Sears in The Baby Book, a popular parenting manual written in 1992, but more recently it has been applied to the slightly different approach popularized by Bialik. Her book, Beyond the Sling does not refer to Sears at all, focusing instead on Bowlby’s research. Of course, Bowlby himself didn’t actually coin the phrase “attachment parenting.”  And he certainly didn’t set down a prescribed list of parenting practices.

To be fair, neither does Bialik, when it really comes down to it. She is pretty straightforward in admitting that many of her recommendations go beyond “good-enough” parenting and may not be for everyone. But the core of her philosophy does square with Bowlby’s attachment theory because it’s all about being attuned and responsive to the needs of children. That said, so is the philosophy behind Druckerman’s “French” parenting. And even the Tiger mom, by the end of her book, came around to realizing her confrontational approach wasn’t working.  Clearly any parenting philosophy that advocates empathy—and a sensitive emotionally responsive approach is going to be in the right ballpark.

This is good news for parents. The takeaway point is, if last year’s cover of Time didn’t resonate with you, don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. You don’t have to be a proponent of attachment parenting to apply attachment research to your own parenting style. The important thing is to stimulate the right kind of growth in your child's brain through attuned, responsive interactions, thereby laying the foundation for empathy, self-regulation, and the social and emotional intelligence that will support his or her mental health far into the future.


Attachment: Battleground in the Parenting Wars?
It may be the latest buzzword in parenting circles, but the concepts underlying “attachment parenting” aren’t clearly understood by most people—including many of those who practice it. Exactly what is attachment, and what does it have to do with parenting?

Tags: attachment, attachment relationships, attachment parenting