Attachment Matters

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Why Do Children Need the Same Parents?

a man and a woman holding each other on a beach

This question is adapted from work by Dr Daniel Hughes

Why do children need to have a unique set of parents with whom to relate over time as opposed to parents who are interchangeable over time? At one level the answer is obvious; the bond from parent to child and the attachment from child to parent is reciprocal. The prospect of, and then the actual arrival of a tiny dependent being awakens caregiving from the parent. The presence and involvement of a parenting figure provides multiple experiences of nurture, care, safety and protection from danger for the child. Over time the child learns to become who he is in this relational context, which when observed is a thing of wonder and beauty. 

What are the benefits of this secure attachment relationship for the child? 

  1. They learn to identify and regulate emotions.
  2. They acquire language.
  3. Brain development is dependent on pre, and post-natal experience. In a very real sense parents ‘grow’ their child’s brain.
  4. The child learns to know his own mind and that of others.
  5. The child’s physical self has opportunity to develop in an optimum way.
  6. It frees the mind to learn.
  7. It protects children from toxic stress. 
close-up of hands holding each other

When a child's need for secure attachment is broken or interrupted or disrupted by on-going traumatic events natural progress is impacted in seven separate but interconnected domains of child development.

Cook, A., Blaustein, M., Spinazzola, J., & van der Kolk, B. (Eds.) (2003).Complex trauma in 

    children and adolescents. National Child Traumatic Stress Network.

Domain 1. Affect Regulation

  1. Difficulty with emotional self-regulation
  2. Difficulty describing feelings and internal experience
  3. Problems knowing and describing internal states
  4. Difficulty communicating wishes and desires

Domain 2. Behavioural Control

Poor modulation of impulses

Self-destructive behavior

Aggression against others

Pathological self-soothing behaviors

Sleep disturbances

Eating disorders

Substance abuse

Excessive compliance

Oppositional behavior

Difficulty understanding and complying with rules

Communication of traumatic past by reenactment in day-to-day behavior or play (sexual, aggressive, etc.)

Domain 3. Cognition / Thinking

Difficulties in attention regulation and executive


Lack of sustained curiosity

Problems with processing novel information

Problems focusing on and completing task

Difficulty planning and anticipating

Problems understanding own contribution to what happens to them

Learning difficulties

Problems with language development

Problems with orientation in time and space

a baby crying with a person in the background
a man and a woman embracing
a blue and white liquid

Domain 6. Dissociation "Zoning Out "

  1. Distinct alterations in states of consciousness
  2. Amnesia
  3. Depersonalization and derealization (a feeling that surroundings are not real)
  4. Two or more distinct states of consciousness, with impaired memory for state-based events
a woman with a drawing on her face

Domain 5. Attachment

  1. Difficulty in showing vulnerability and seeking appropriate care
  2. Uncertainty about reliability and predictability of the world
  3. Problems with boundaries
  4. Distrust and suspiciousness
  5. Social isolation
  6. Interpersonal difficulties
  7. Difficulty attuning to other people’s emotional states
  8. Difficulty with perspective taking
  9. Difficulty enlisting other people as allies

Domain 4. Sensory and Motor Issues

Hypersensitivity to physical contact 


Problems with coordination, balance, body tone

Difficulties localizing skin contact


Increased medical problems across a wide span, e.g., pelvic pain, asthma, skin problems, autoimmune disorders, pseudoseizures

Domain 7. Self-Concept

  1. Lack of a continuous, predictable sense of self
  2. Poor sense of separateness
  3. Disturbances of body image
  4. Low self-esteem
  5. Shame and guilt

a close-up of a baby's hands
a couple of children in yellow shirts