Attachment: the preeminent need of all creatures

GORDON NEUFELD

The capacity for relationship requires certain conditions to develop in children, and we need to foster those conditions for children to develop it.

What is attachment?

Attachment at its very essence is the longing for togetherness — for human togetherness.  It's about the pursuit of contact and closeness.  It is the preeminent need of all creatures.  It's even more important than food, because children need to attach in order to get fed.

There are many ways that we seek togetherness: we seek to be with, we seek to be liked, we seek to belong, to be a part of, to be on the same side as; we seek to be significant to, to matter to.  We want emotional closeness, emotional intimacy, love.  And we seek psychological intimacy — to be seen and heard from the inside out, to have no secrets that would divide.  There are many kinds of contact and closeness.

In actual fact, the capacity for relationship takes years to develop, and it requires certain conditions to develop in children.  It is not generally taken into consideration that we need to foster those conditions for children to develop a full capacity for relationship.


Why is attachment between parents and children so important?

I'd like to turn that around a little bit, because as adults we tend to be adult-centric.  Where you said "between parents and children", I'd like to turn that around and put children first: "between children and parents".  It is absolutely important that children attach to the adults who are responsible for them.  This is the context in which children are meant to be raised.

There's a lot of concern today among parents that parenting is getting harder, and teaching is getting harder.  In fact, that is true.  But it's ironic.  We've never had more books, we've never had less children, we've never had more gurus, we've never known more about this.  But none of this counts; what counts is whether a child is attached to the adults responsible for them, because that's the context.  When that happens, it brings out the right intuitions in the adult, and it creates a sense of receptivity in the child, and so a child becomes much easier to teach, to take care of, and to manage.


How can parents know whether their child is showing healthy attachment?

You could think of it in the same way as you would a plant.  The fundamental way you know that the roots are healthy is that there is fruit.  If there's the maturation part of the plant, there are leaves, and the plant is realizing its potential, that's your indication that the roots are in good shape.

Basically, to put it in a nutshell, an attachment is healthy if, just like a plant, the child is deeply attached, the child isn't too superficially attached, and the roots are getting what they're looking for, what they're seeking for: a sense of significance, a sense of belonging, a sense of being with, a sense of connection.  Because ultimately there needs to be rest from the pursuit of proximity.  If there is no rest, then the child will be preoccupied with this.

And this is what we're finding among many children, with Facebook and other kinds of things — a complete preoccupation with contact and closeness.  In fact, we find that the pursuit of proximity (especially digital proximity, but this could apply to anything) in which you look for closeness but it's not fulfilling — there is no rest — is more addictive than even cigarettes and alcohol.

And so, fundamentally, just as with a plant, the roots have to find what they are seeking.  If they don't find what they're seeking, the preoccupation with the pursuit of proximity goes on and on and on and on.


What does unhealthy attachment look like?

Basically, to put it in a nutshell, an attachment is healthy if, just like a plant, the child is deeply attached, the child isn't too superficially attached, and the roots are getting what they're looking for, what they're seeking for: a sense of significance, a sense of belonging, a sense of being with, a sense of connection. 

We'll put it this way: attachment that lacks health.  There are a number of things to this.  First of all, when a child can't hold on when apart, this would suggest that the child is not deeply attached, so when they are physically apart, they lose a sense of connection, because the attachment roots have not gone deep enough.

Secondly, when the child is totally preoccupied with contact and closeness, touching and clinging, and has to pursue it all the time, then you know that there is no rest, no release, that the child doesn't experience a provision that's greater than the pursuit.

Another example of unhealthy attachment is when a child is attaching to the wrong individuals, to individuals who are not responsible for the child.  When the child attaches there, then that is who they want to be with; that is who they want to be like.  It pulls the children out of orbit from those who are responsible for them.  That's an unhealthy attachment.  You could think of it the same way as you would a marriage.  How do you say when your spouse has an unhealthy attachment to golf, or to another woman or to another man?  It's basically when it interferes with yours.  That's unhealthy — that's not the way it was meant to be.

How about the attachment to you?  Well, if they're not secure in that attachment, that would be an indication of a lack of trust and contact and closeness.  Or if it's too superficial, if when they are away their heart wanders, rather than their growing fonder, they're not deeply attached.

These are actually all quite the same.  The problem is that the word attachment is not an intuitive word.  All attachment means is — it's the science of relationship, and we needed a word in science in order to be able to organize our information.  But we must never forget that its simply all about relationship, and we know a lot about relationship.

 

 



ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Gordon Neufeld. "Attachment: the preeminent need of all creatures." The Institute of Marriage and Family Canada (December 13, 2013).

Reprinted with permission from The Institute of Marriage and Family Canada.

The Institute of Marriage and Family Canada conducts, compiles and presents the latest and most accurate research to ensure that marriage and family-friendly policy are foremost in the minds of Canada's decision makers.

THE AUTHOR

Dr. Gordon Neufeld is a Vancouver-based developmental psychologist with over 40 years of experience with children and youth and those responsible for them. A foremost authority on child development, Dr. Neufeld is an international speaker, a bestselling author (Hold On To Your Kids) and a leading interpreter of the developmental paradigm. Dr. Neufeld has a widespread reputation for making sense of complex problems and for opening doors for change. While formerly involved in university teaching and private practice, he now devotes his time to teaching and training others, including educators and helping professionals. His Neufeld Institute is now a world-wide charitable organization devoted to applying developmental science to the task of raising children. Dr. Neufeld appears regularly on radio and television. He is a father of five and a grandfather to five.

Copyright © 2013 The Institute of Marriage and Family Canada




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