Dr. Gordon Neufeld’s model of the six attachment roots provides us with a rich understanding of how attachment is meant to unfold. If all is going well, this can unfold in the first six years of life with each year opening up the capacity to attach at a deeper level, but for many children (and for many adults) the process can take longer (and for some, the deeper levels are never reached). The capacity for each root to unfurl is dependent on the previous mode of attachment having been realized and each deepening root requires deeper vulnerability. Unlike Bowlby and Ainsworth’s model of attachment styles, this model recognizes that the nature of attachment varies in our different relationships and is not a personal, predictive or static characteristic.
Senses (0-1-years-old): The only capacity infants have for attaching is through touch, sound, smell, sight and taste. We all know this intuitively; this understanding informs how we have cared for infants for generations, in every culture around the world.
Sameness (1-2-years-old): This desire to be the same as their caregivers fuels the developments that characterize this age, such as talking, walking and eating solid food. We can satisfy the attachment needs of those attaching through sameness by pointing out all the ways we are alike: We both love strawberries! You have beautiful brown eyes just like Papa! We are both wearing our yellow sweaters today!
Of course, our children will not always be the same as us– thankfully when the next mode of attachment opens up, we can let them feel that they belong to us and that we are loyal to them no matter what!
Belonging/Loyalty (2-3-years-old): At this level, our children feel that they belong to us, that we belong to them and they feel that we are loyal to them (as they are to us!). I remember my two-year-old son shouting at a passerby when he walked on the newly planted grass that my husband had been tending; he felt loyal to his papa!
The next three attachment roots require much deeper levels of vulnerability than the previous three, due to this many children (and adults) never attach more deeply than the first three roots
Significance (3-4-years-old): This more tender root involves feeling cherished, chosen and invited by the person to whom you are attached. For children to feel significant to their parents means that they don’t need to be in physical proximity, the same as, or even loyal to them or their beliefs; they are attached simply because they matter deeply to them. As we can begin to see, the deeper levels of attachment allow for more and more individuation and physical distance in the relationship, without attachment being threatened.
Love (4-5-years-old): When this root opens up, children give us their hearts. The responsibility for gentle and tender care of this most precious gift cannot be overstated. When children attach at this level, they are able to feel our love, and their love for us, across many would-be separations–bedtime, physical distance and, even, death. Attaching at this level translates into a deep, secure and nourishing home base.
Being Known (5-6-years-old): This root is the crowning glory of our capacity to attach: to be fully oneself. This root provides the spaciousness to be both fully individuated and deeply attached. Being attached at this level involves being moved to share what is inside oneself; it means having the desire to not have any secrets divide us from the person to whom we are attached. In children, this shows us in them “confessing” their “transgressions” to us and sharing their innermost thoughts and feelings. In adults, it actually looks quite the same!
When we look at the attachment roots model, we can see that the ways that our society often views attachment as the enemy of individuation is misguided. When a child cries at school drop-off, people often say the child is “too attached” to their parent. When we look at the situation through this lens, we can see that, actually, the child is not “too attached,” rather, they are too superficially attached rendering them unable to hold on when not physically close to their parent. If the attachment were deepened, they would be able to hold on through other roots (looking down at their socks and remembering that mom was wearing the same pair that day or remembering how dad told him that he was his “his best boy” that morning) even while being out of physical proximity.
Part of the beauty of this model is how it makes clear that deepening attachment and blossoming individuation go hand-in-hand. While popular culture tells us that parents of teens need to “cut the apron strings,” we can see that a deep and fulfilling attachment is the necessary womb of individuation as it provides the anchor and safety from which to become fully oneself. We can see that as attachment deepens, there becomes more and more room to “not be the same as” and to be evermore deeply attached.
We can also see that it is adults (parents, grandparents, teachers, neighbors, aunts and uncles) who, generally, have the maturity necessary to provide for the attachment needs of kids and teens. It takes maturity to provide the invitation for significance that is not dependent on behavior, maturity to offer a safe and gentle place for a child’s heart to be open, maturity to understand and protect a teen’s innermost thoughts and feelings. When we push independence instead of inviting deep attachment, we too often end up (inadvertently) pushing our kids to attach to other kids, because until attachment is satiated, development does not move towards individuation. Kids simply cannot provide the attachment invitation that adults can. Peer attachments usually stall out at the less vulnerable levels of Sameness or Belonging and Loyalty, which is why they breed conformity.
Try this model on for size and see if it doesn’t help you make better sense of your own relationships as well the ways that you can invite deeper attachment for the children in your care.