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Can Your Child Trust You? Attachment, Love and Parenting

(3 minute read)

Back in 1928, John Watson, the father of behavioral psychology, wrote a book in which he said “Remember when you are tempted to pet your child that mother love is a dangerous instrument”. He warned parents to “Never hug and kiss” their children and to “never let them sit in your lap.” Acknowledging that some parents might be tempted to have physical contact with their offspring, he advised “If you must, kiss them once on the forehead when they say good night. Shake hands with them in the morning.” Even the US government distributed pamphlets warning parents to limit the hugs they gave their children. Sending children away to boarding school at the age of eight or even younger was considered reasonable. Denying hospitalized toddlers access to their parents was standard practice.

This certainly seems cruel to us today, but it was the gold standard of child rearing advice at the time. It was believed that children were attached to their mothers only because that was where food came from, so affection was at best worthless and probably harmful. And the other experts in the field of psychology, the psychoanalysts who were followers of Sigmund Freud, were of little help. They were focused on the sexual and fantasy lives of infants and toddlers, and had little to say about parental affection. Freud himself, trying to understand his lifelong phobia of trains, ascribed it to having seen his mother naked while he was on a train trip at the age of three. This despite the fact that he had no memory of, nor was there any evidence of him having seen his mother naked.

If you’re now feeling a little skeptical of the value of psychological advice, remember that doctors treated many ailments with bloodletting for about 2,000 years. Experts in many fields can be just as wrong as the rest of us.

Fortunately, in 1946 a pediatrician named Benjamin Spock published The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care which urged parents to “Trust yourself. You know more than you think you do.” Within a year sales were approaching a million copies, and by the time Spock died in 1998 it had sold 50 million copies in 39 languages.

But Spock was writing from his own experience with patients, and was criticized for having little evidence to back up his advice. It wasn’t until the 1950’s and 60’s that a trio of researchers named Harry Harlow, John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth changed the thinking around child rearing forever.

It was found that when baby monkeys were separated from their mothers, they struggled to survive, despite being given adequate food. When put in a cage with two inanimate objects — a wire frame with a nipple dispensing milk, and a terrycloth covered figure that provided no food — the baby monkeys spent almost all their time clinging to the soft and furry figure. Clearly, monkeys needed their mothers for more than just food. But a soft and furry figure was no substitute for a real mother as became clear when these baby monkeys grew up. They struggled to relate to their peers, were often anxious and easily stressed, showed abnormal social behavior and, as parents, were abusive and even murderous. So much for the advice of John Watson!

But that was monkeys. What about humans? The researchers clearly weren’t going to detach human babies from their mothers, but they did have another idea. They believed that some babies and toddlers felt safe in their mother’s love, while others felt their attachment was less secure. Nothing revolutionary in that — we all know parents who are warm and affectionate with their children and others who are cool and more distant. But they guessed that children who felt safe would be happier and less anxious than those who felt insecure in their mother’s affections.

And so was born the Strange Situation experiment. It’s been tweaked in innumerable ways, but in its simplest form this is what happens: A mother brings a baby into a room full of toys. Gradually the child starts to explore the room, moving further from the mother although looking back frequently to check that she’s still there. The mother then leaves the room, returning a few minutes later to reunite and comfort an often distressed child. Researchers coded the behavior of both mother and child.

And what did they find? Some babies became only slightly distressed and were quickly comforted by the returning mother. These children were deemed “securely attached” to their mothers. A short absence didn’t upset them much, and they were happy to receive the care and attention from their mother that enabled them to calm down. And their mothers were very effective in delivering that care and attention. These children had learned that their mothers could be relied upon to return and to provide the comfort the children needed.

“Insecurely attached” babies had a range of responses. Some became acutely distressed when their mother departed and took a long time to calm down upon her return. Some ignored both her departure and her return, as though they had learned not to count on her support. And some became both clingy and angry upon her return, both holding and hitting their mothers. The mothers were generally less tuned into their children, sometimes anxious or distracted.

Here’s where it gets really interesting: Researchers followed the children in these experiments for decades, and they found that securely attached children grew up to be happier, more enthusiastic, more resilient, less anxious, more independent, more empathic and have higher self esteem.

So it seems that our primary caregiver (whether mother, father or other) can help us build a model of the world as a safe place, and give us a start toward a better life. If we learn that our caregiver is trustworthy and reliable, we tend to assume that others will also be trustworthy and reliable. If people do let us down, we see it as an exception to our safe world, rather than confirmation of what a dark and dangerous place we know the world to be.

If you’re a parent reading this, you’re no doubt wondering whether you provided or are providing a secure attachment for your offspring. If the answer is “no”, don’t despair: there are many children who are insecurely attached and get over it. History is not destiny — something I see daily in my counselling room.


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