Attachment Parenting, Attachment Theory, and Being “Attached”

Every few months I think this post – one differentiating the different meanings we use for “attachment” – needs written but then…I get lazy.  🙂  Ok, here goes.  In the past two weeks there has been a couple of blogs with interesting discussions that usually come to a halt when it is apparent that everyone is not on the same page on the difference between these terms.  Let’s look at each of them.

Attached

Dictionary. com has the following definitions of the word “attached”:

at·tached

attached pronunciationr inter /əˈtætʃt/ Show Spelled[uh-tacht] Show IPA

–adjective

1.joined; connected; bound.
2.having a wall in common with another building ( opposed to detached): an attached house.
3.Zoology . permanently fixed to the substratum; sessile.

Attached in the colloquial sense means a physical joining.  Like my arm is attached to my body.  In discussions of Attachment Parenting, like the recent debut of Mayim Bialik’s blog on Today.com where she discusses her parenting choices, you often see comments like “your kid will never grow up if they are always attached to you!”
It is easy to see how this confusion develops.  If Mayim wants her children to have a strong attachment then people often imagine that as my arm that is attached to my body.  That kind of attachment doesn’t allow for my arm to have much alone time, independence, or its own agenda.  So an “attached” kid would also be at the complete whim of their parent unable to function alone.  No one wants that right?

Attachment Theory

I’ve talked before about Attachment Theory and the Strange Situation.  Attachment Theory uses psychology, brain science, and evolutionary biology to define the normal and abnormal development of human relationships.  The core tenet is that early attachments, formed in infancy, effect the future cognitive and social development of a child.  The formation of these early relationships dictates the way a child will relate to others his whole life.

In Attachment Theory everyone is attached.  The question is how?  The goal of attachment parenting is to develop a secure attachment as opposed to an avoidant, anxious, or disorganized attachment.  The nature of the attachment in infancy leads us to develop a model of self and model of others.  The following diagram[1. Bartholomew, K. (1990). Avoidance of intimacy: An attachment perspective. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 7, 147-178.] describes how these models intersect.  From left to right is the model of self defined by level of dependence on others (low to high) and the model of others is represented from top to bottom defined by avoidance of others (low to high). 

A securely attached person (upper left quadrant) exhibits low dependence (and thus high independence) and low avoidance (and thus interacts well with others).  If you had this same level of independence but avoided people you would fall in the lower left quadrant of Dismissing.  Highly dependent people often need to reach out to others (low avoidance in the upper right quadrant).  If they both need and avoid people they would fall in the final quadrant of fearful. Basically if your child is “attached” (a shorthand for “securely attached”) then they have a high level of independence and can easily have relationships with other people.  The opposite of what you would think about my arm’s ability to be independent because of its “attachment” to me.

Telling Mayim that her parenting style (called “attachment” parenting) will lead to clingy, dependent children is to misunderstand the attachment that attachment parenting is intended to cultivate.

Attachment Parenting

The last area of confusion actually exists within the attachment parenting community.  Dionna, over at Code Name: Mama, recently had a post about finding an AP-friendly caregiver for your kids.  The comment section quickly veered off track when a mother said “I think that leaving your child with someone else to raise is, in and of itself, un-attachment parenting. Why force a caregiver to do what you aren’t willing to do yourself?”  She then posed the question, “Would YOU, general commenter on this thread, feel MORE attached to YOUR young child were you with them more?”  Now this statement is really negative to the attachment parenting movement in general because it alienates people.  It is like saying why breastfeed if you can’t do it exclusively.  It turns people off to make attachment parenting an all or nothing ordeal.  Furthermore she is confusing Attachment parenting with Attachment theory.  Here is my response to her (empahsis added),

Hmmm, you seem to be confusing Attachment Parenting and Attachment. Attachment Parenting is a set of tools and skills designed to ensure your child will be securely attached. I believe that these tools work and thus I am an “attachment parent”

The whole point though is the science of attachment. There are four types of attachment: Secure, Anxious-resistant, Anxious-avoidant, and Disorganized. It is much less a sliding scale than you are stating. It isn’t a matter of “my kids is more attached than yours” but simply does my child have a secure attachment since this type of attachment is associated with great cognitive and emotional maturity and general life satisfaction (and can easily work through the stages of emotional development in the research of Larry Brentro, Martin Brokenleg and Steve Van Brockern.

Also, note that attachment has nothing to do with how I, as the parent, FEELS. Of course I wish I were with her 24/7! I ache when I leave her but that has nothing to do with whether she will form a secure attachment and strong foundation for her life.

Can a SAH mom be “more AP”? Perhaps by sheer number of hours babywearing, cloth diapering, and generally being a hippie (:)) but it does not translate into a more attached child. If you rated my “AP-ness”, aka how much I did x number of attachment parenting tools, I might lag behind a SAHM. However, that has no effect on the level of attachment my child has.

Attachment parenting is a set of tools and skills meant to ensure a secure attachment.  Is it the only way?  No.  I think it is the best way and thus I’ve chosen to parent that way but Attachment Parenting is a toolbox the grew out of Attachment Theory NOT Attachment Theory itself.  We should not confuse the two.  85% of all people are securely attached so clearly there are other paths to this goal.

There is no prize for being the most babywearingest, longest breastfeedingest, cosleepingest mama on the block. We need to maintain a flexibility (as Dr. Sears’ books always point out) to do what works for you!  Understanding the goal through Attachment Theory can help you make the best choices in Attachment Parenting.

How can we help to alleviate the confusion with these three nearly identical terms?  Should we use another terms like “Natural Parenting” or “Responsive Parenting”?  What are your thoughts?


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10 thoughts on “Attachment Parenting, Attachment Theory, and Being “Attached”

  1. I call what I do reflective parenting. Meaning I reflect on what is happening and how we are doing and try to change to suit my children and our circumstances. I have used quite different tools with each child – for example one co-slept and the other didn't – because that is what they needed. It isn't about me and what I want to do, although that's part of the equation.

    I don't use AP too much because its image is so closely tied with particular techniques, but as you've explained the techniques are just tools and we have to decide if they are good or bad ones. I'd be quite happy with responsive parenting, although I prefer reflective because to me it implies more long term thought rather than instant response.

    I can't stand the label natural parenting for many reasons, partly I don't think you can define 'natural' for humans because culture is what makes us what we are, partly because 'natural' is in no way a synonym for 'good' and partly it is very alienating to others – if you aren't natural you must be unnatural, and I don't think that's a productive way to have a conversation with other parents. I have nothing against the tools usually associated with natural parenting, but I don't like the label.

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  2. Thanks for this post, Paige — I'm so glad you wrote it, because your comment on Dionna's post really stood out for me. I had recently had my own "aha" moment (reading a guest post at Mama Eve) when I understood the distinction between attachment theory (having to do with how children relate to others) and attachment parenting (a set of tools intended to promote healthy attachment).

    Alas, for better or for worse, I think we're stuck with these terms. (BTW, do you know why Bowlby happened to pick the word "attachment" to designate what he was talking about in his theory?) I just wish that there was more upfront discussion of the theoretical bases of attachment parenting practices. For example, I find it odd that Dr. Sears never mentions attachment theory in his books.

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  3. Wow, this is great! It makes me so happy to see more explanations about how attachment parenting isn't a set of techniques, but a philosophy of relationship-building. I think it helps relieve the guilt that some people (including me!) feel about not being "perfect" parents.

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  4. This is a fabulous post!
    You cut through a lot of the judgement and confusion and clearly explain the terms and theories and how they link to each other.
    I often feel like things are so 'all or nothing' in some AP circles – unless I do 'x' I can't be an attached parent, but you are so right, these things are tools and developmental theories, not score cards.

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    • Great analogy – score cards! This is how mommies alienate one another instead of supporting. We need to throw away the score cards and band together!

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  6. You know, ever since you wrote me a while back to use one of my images, I’ve been reading your blog and loving it. I tend to read blogs on my ipod and then never get around to commenting on them (have you ever typed on an ipod? it sucks.) So anyways, here I am finally. Congratulations on your babies! What a joy and thrill. My sister, who lives downstairs, is due in April with her third baby and so I get to live vicariously through her with another baby without going through the sleepless nights myself. Sort of the like the joy of being a grandparent. Love them. They’re crying? Hand them back. Ha ha.

    Anyways, I wanted to write my two cents about attachment parenting as well. I like that you’re trying to open up the definition because I think it’s so funny that somehow this whole huge wide field of attachment theory and attachment parenting (the whole emotional attachment from birth to death) has been completely taken over by the definition of co-sleeping (which I never did), babywearing, and breastfeeding. So then once you’re not co-sleeping, babywearing or breastfeeding anymore, then everyone things they’ve done their whole job of parenting and don’t need to worry anymore.

    My attachment parenting guru is Gordon Neufeld, and he opens it all wide up teaching how to do attachment parenting through all the stages of childhood. But one of the most fascinating things is that he talks about 6 different stages of attachment, which correlate with the different ages (if things are going well in the child’s development):
    1. Physical attachment, and attachment through the senses (birth to age 1) which is where the babywearing, breastfeeding comes in.
    2. Attachment through being the same and copying(age 2)
    3. Attachment through belonging and loyalty (age 3) (ie. mine! my mommy!)
    4. Attachment through significance (age 4)
    5. Attachment through love (age 5)
    6. Attachment through being known and sharing secrets (age 6)

    If the attachment is strong, a child will progress through all of these levels naturally. If they don’t, you know you have a problem with the relationship and you need to work on it. I’ve had such a difficult time with my oldest daughter, especially once she started school and was getting really peer attached and then could not attach back to me after school. I’ve been studying his work and listening and re-listening to all of his parenting videos for the last two years and it has made an incredible difference. I even done several counselling sessions with some attachment parenting counsellors (trained by Gordon Neufeld) and within a month a went from feeling like I hated my daughter because of all of the horrible behavior, to truly feeling like I loved her again. It’s incredible!

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