An interview with an Early Years Psychologist
By Jet Sichterman
As an international parent, you may have a different lifestyle compared to most parents but like any parent you want what is best for your child. You would go far and beyond to see your children grow up happy and healthy. Maybe you heard about infant-parent attachment and it’s importance in early life. Whatever it is you need to do to get that secure attachment – you will. But what is this attachment really? And how does living an international life influence the attachment of your child? And what can you do if – for whatever reason – the early days with your child were not all that sunshine and happiness you were hoping for? We interviewed Sara Dominguez of Early Years Psychology to find answers to these questions. Today, in our first blog in a series of three, we will explore what is meant with the term ‘attachment’.
Sara, before we get started, can you tell us a bit about yourself?
Yes, I am a child and parent psychologist supporting families with young children. My personal life has been anchored in an international environment and so I know the specific challenges of growing up, and raising, international children. What drives me is the idea that a child’s early interactions are the foundation for the child’s later social, emotional and cognitive development. Children express themselves differently – not with words – with my work I would like to see and hear them and tune in to what they are really willing to communicate, so I can help parents understand them.
So in your work, you include the child and the parents?
Yes, this it is very important. Winnicott, who was a pediatrician and psychoanalyst and very influential in the theories of early childhood development, said “a baby alone does not exist”. It means a baby exists only in a dyad with someone who takes care of that baby. A child and caregiver influence each other, all the time. I do not see one without the other.
What is attachment?
There are many ideas about attachment out there, and many misconceptions. Attachment in infancy is a long-lasting emotional bond between a child and their caregiver, which endures over time and space. John Bowlby, who originally introduced the concept of attachment proposed that babies come into the world pre-programmed to seek the proximity of an adult that would protect and comfort them in times of distress. This is where the dyad comes into play; a child who experiences distress shows signals – for example, they may cry – and with this, they move the parent to offer support and comfort and downregulate the child’s distress. And through these early interactions, a child creates an internal representation of future relationships and their associated interactions. A person’s later attachment style is rooted in infancy but it can be shaped throughout life.
What then makes for a secure attachment between a child and their parent or caregiver?
When a child’s internal ‘call for attachment’ is met by adults, when the child’s needs are met in a predictable and sensitive manner, this forms the basis of a secure attachment. So for parents, the task is to observe the child and respond sensitively to their needs in a timely, warm and consistent manner. This is especially important in the first 9 months of life when the attachment bond with the main caregiver is formed. When parents can be predicable the child will learn what they can expect and when, this will help to establish the secure connection.
So the first year really is crucial?
Yes the first year is important and determines a lot for the child, but nothing is set in stone. People can change and adapt over time. The environment may not provide a child with quality interactions during the first year due to a variety of circumstances, but maybe things change and the child will find themselves in a better environment later. This can help change their mental representations of relationships. Next to this, when we talk about attachment we are not talking about just one relationship. While a child usually has one main figure of attachment, they are also part of a larger group of people; they have parents, extended family, nanny’s or teachers with whom the child can create secondary attachment bonds. Each of these early relationships a child has is unique, and can help a child form a secure base even if the circumstances within the main attachment relationship have been less than ideal.
Thank you, Sara, now that we know what attachment is, we will continue to explore how one can recognize a secure attachment and what can be done if the attachment is not secure.
Curious? Part 2 of this series will be published in two weeks!