THE BLOG
04/19/2010 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

PBS' 'This Emotional Life': The Building Blocks Of Connection, Part 1

Connection is created, navigated, broken, and repaired almost daily from the moment we are born. At the heart of being alive lies the vitality of being connected to others -- feeling that what we do matters. What's more is that we rely on being deeply understood by those around us in order to thrive. But how do we learn about healthy connection? What does it look like to build strong ties with others? Where do we learn about relating with people and the world more broadly? If connecting is so central to happiness, why does it seem so challenging to create deep bonds that last?

These are among the myriad questions I hear daily in my practice as a clinician working with pregnant women, new mothers, couples, and men. Intuitively we all have some sense that what happens during childhood impacts who we are, but making sense of why we are who we are can be a challenging, confusing, and daunting process. Arming ourselves with the basic tools to gracefully negotiate emotional intimacy may be a lifelong journey. I've gathered some meaningful questions that may shed light on the ingredients that comprise a healthy recipe for relating. Here are the top five frequently asked questions about how to help inform meaningful attachment relationships from birth onward.

Q: What is attachment?

A: Attachment is the process as well as the quality of the relationship that an infant forms with caregivers. Initial experiences in relationship with primary caregivers lay the groundwork for subsequent relationships -- how the developing child views connection, how she experiences her self, and the world around her. Attachment can occur with biological and adoptive mothers, fathers, stepparents, grandparents, and any other consistent person in the child's life. Embedded in repeated experiences of predictable care, the infant learns about trust and security. Growing up in an environment infused with safety and intentionality ensures healthy social and emotional development. "Children with a history of secure attachment show substantially greater self-esteem, emotional health and ego resilience, positive affect, initiative, social competence, and concentration in play than do their insecure peers" (Wallin, 2007).

Q: What are some concrete ways to set the stage for my child to experience a secure attachment?

A: Research has found that it is the quality of the infant-caregiver interaction rather than the quantity of care that establishes the health in the attachment bond. In other words, the caregiver's sensitivity to the infant's gestures when they are interacting is of paramount importance. Number of hours spent together is not necessarily equated with security of attachment. For example. if a mother is home with her child full-time and feeling depressed, notably overwhelmed, and appreciably disconnected from her infant, the distressing quality of their interactions may deleteriously impact the child's sense of comfort and security. Having a sense of what helps you feel the most present with your child will benefit the emotional health of the family.

The caregiver-infant patterns of communication hold great potential in establishing a secure attachment. Consistent maternal attunement facilitates the infant's ability to freely explore the world around her, engage in spontaneous play, and rely on the caregiver to provide loving responses. Repeated instances of feeling cared for results in a child's establishment of behavioral expectations--she learns to expect that people can provide safety and continuity.

Security is further felt when the caregiver illustrates thoughtful actions and mindful behaviors. These include: narrating for your child the events of the day as you move from one activity to the next, prolonged gazing and smiling, cuddling and comforting, skin to skin gentle touch, as well as calmly and consistently tolerating the variety of affective states your baby exhibits as she begins to take in the world around her.

Babies often feel distressed and unequipped to modulate their changing feelings. Infants depend on the attachment figure to help them manage and tolerate their affective experiences. This requires caregivers to "bear within herself, to process, and to re-present to the baby in a tolerable form what was previously the baby's intolerable emotional experience" (Wallin, 2007). During the course of the first number of months of life, the baby learns that her caregiver is able to gracefully navigate challenging moments with love and understanding. Caregiver consistency, responsiveness, and sensitivity yields infant flexibility, resilience, and a sense of attachment security.

Stay tuned for The Building Blocks of Connection: Part Two...

For more information, see www.pbs.org/thisemotionallife