Attachment is an affectionate bond between a caregiver and a youngster—an infant, child, or adolescent. It’s the bond that tells that child they’re safe, their needs matter, and they are precious. Within the attachment bond, the caregiver acts as the external regulator for all the child’s needs. For several decades, we have understood what is called the “attachment cycle,” which essentially says that a baby cries and a caregiver comes, and a baby cries again and a caregiver comes again. This cycle happens over and over…and over and over. And a child learns, “If I have a need and I cry, someone comes and tenderly meets that need.” So if the child is hungry, the caregiver brings food. If the child is cold, the caregiver brings warmth.
If a child is lonely, the caregiver brings a soft shoulder and a lullaby to rock them to sleep. This external regulation and the giving of nurture make us human. All that is beautiful and glorious about us as human beings develops in the arms of attachment. The child learns not only that they’re precious but also that they have a voice—when they cry, somebody shows up. The child learns that their needs matter.
We often call this pattern “the giving of yeses” because when you think about development, the parents essentially say yes for the child’s first two years of life. A baby cries because she’s hungry, and her parents say, “Yes, I will feed you” and meet that need. A baby cries because she’s cold, and her parents say, “Yes, I will warm you” as they hold their little one.“Yes, I will comfort you.” “Yes, I will cradle you.”“Yes, I will sing to you.”
In fact, it isn’t until the child is about two years of age that they might take a dangerous object toward the electric socket and we have to say our first no. This giving of yeses happens hundreds of thousands of times in the earliest years of life. The baby cries, and the caregiver comes. The child learns that their needs are going to be met, so they learn trust. This is the lesson of the first year of life—“I can trust.” A child learns to connect to their caregivers because they know Mommy or Daddy will come, bringing food, warmth, love, snuggles, or dry diapers. In addition to establishing trust, the repeated completions of this cycle lay a strong foundation for self-worth, self-efficacy (the child knows he has a voice), self-regulation, and mental health.
Young kids under the age of three routinely cling to their parents. They may chase after them, cry when they are not near, and be unhappy when they have to share their parent's attention with others. Children can't be too attached, they can only be not deeply attached.