When most of us hear the word “attachment”, especially if we live in progressive cities like Portland, it brings up images of attachment parenting groups, extended breastfeeding, co-sleeping and delayed or no vaccinations. This is the “attachment parenting” espoused by Dr. Sears and rigidly embraced by many parents looking for a lifeline when they find themselves overwhelmed by new parenthood. This iteration of attachment parenting presents a vague, one-size-fits-all approach and leaves parents who adhere to it in the lurch when their children age out of toddlerhood and the specified guidelines and behaviors no longer apply.
One of Dr. Gordon Neufeld’s great contributions to the field of child development is his articulation of the stages of attachment, which provide parents with a map of attachment that is relevant far beyond toddlerhood (in fact, it is relevant for all relationships children and adult alike – we never “outgrow” our needs for attachment).
In this post, I am going to briefly summarize Dr. Neufeld’s model of the Six Attachment Roots; these are invaluable for us as parents to understand as we seek to strengthen our connections with our children. Dr. Neufeld likens his model to a plant; each root, which roughly corresponds to a year of life, goes deeper than the previous one. although the previous ones remain important and relevant.
In the first year of life babies attach through proximity; through touch, taste, hearing, smell and sight. They attach by being physically close to those who are caring for them. This is where Dr. Sears got it all right; the first year of life is all about close physical contact.
As babies move into their second year they are able to attach in an additional way: through sameness. They feel attached through feeling the same as their parent—they want to do what we do and share everything in common with us; this is where imitation comes into play and how they learn to talk, walk and eat solid foods (how brilliant is nature?). As this second attachment root comes into play, the first does not go away (children still want to be physically close); there is just another way they can attach and therefore their attachment roots deepen.
The third mode of attachment is through belonging and loyalty; this is where we start to see possessiveness (“MY Mama!!”) and wishes to “marry” a parent. Again, this root goes a bit deeper than the previous ones and provides a way to feel attached that is not contingent on being physically close or being the same as. When our children feel they belong to us and we belong to them; that they are loyal to us as we are loyal to them, then they are securely attached three-year-olds.
The fourth year brings the ability to attach through significance; our children now can feel that they are dear to us. Of course we have known this all along, but they haven’t been able to register it in the way that they can now. When they feel how special they are to us; when we let them know this through our words, our warmth, our smiles and the twinkles in our eyes, their ability to attach at an even deeper level develops.
With the fifth year of life comes a very vulnerable and deep way of attaching; if all is going well our children give us their hearts. This attachment root is about love pure and simple. If our child is able to feel vulnerable enough to give us their heart, of course we must treat it with the utmost care. The development of this mode of attachment is often accompanied by drawings of hearts, gifts and professions of love.
Finally, the deepest mode of attachment is that of being known. When our child wants to be fully known by us; when they don’t want to have any secrets that would divide them from us, they have arrived at this deepest of the attachment roots. Not all children get here by age six – heck, not all adults get here by age 50 (or ever!) –but it should be our hope that we can support our child’s ability to attach in this most deep and vulnerable way. It may not (and often doesn’t) happen in neat one year increments such that by age six our children are capable of deep attachment, but we should be yearning in this direction because attachment is the womb of maturation. Our children must be deeply attached for healthy development to unfold.
We should note that the development of deeper and deeper roots of attachment allow for the increasing ability of our children to become their own people. If we needed to be physically close to be attached, parents couldn’t go to work and children couldn’t go to school without damaging repercussions. Instead, children develop the ability to stay attached while apart through the deeper roots. If children needed to be the same as their parents in order to stay attached, they couldn’t develop their own opinions (hello adolescence!); thankfully, the deeper modes of attachment allow for children to remain attached to their parents via love and being known, regardless of whether or not they are “the same.” Children who have trouble separating are never “too attached”—would we ever say a plant has roots that are too deep?—they are simply too superficially attached; they need deeper attachment not less attachment. There is no such thing as too much attachment, only attachment that doesn’t go deep enough.
Understanding these roots, and the gradual ability to attach more deeply, brings clarity to the realm of attachment, transforming it from a vague nice-sounding goal into a clearly articulated concept that we can use to both assess our children’s abilities to attach and to foster deeper attachment when needed.
Want to learn more about these attachment roots (as well as so many other good things)? The Vital Connection is coming to Portland in October!