Attachment describes the pattern and quality of connection a child has with his or her primary caregiver. It is distinct from bonding, which is the sense of connection a parent develops toward her child. A child’s secure attachment to his mother—or other primary caregiver—is key to his long-term cognitive, physical, and social-emotional development. A secure attachment emerges out of consistent, reliable parenting that is responsive to a child’s cues—body signals that indicate needs, desires, intentions, and motivations. When a mother is able to be mindful of her child’s separate mind, particularly in times of distress, their pattern of relationship is described as being “secure.” Neglect, illness, prolonged separation, unresolved trauma within a parent, or other disruptive circumstances are all factors that can lead to “insecure” or more “anxious” forms of attachment.

The interactive nature of this process between mother and child is understood to be co-regulatory—the emotional cues communicated between parent and child inform the response of the other either favorably or unfavorably, sensitively or with anger. For example, in a relationship between a quiet, slow-to-warm child and an active, outgoing mother, the mother might want her child to join in play with others more quickly than he is able. As a result, the child might not be able to regulate his emotions being over-stimulated by his mother’s more energetic pace and expectations, resulting in a misattunement. On the other hand, the mother may be able to recognize his difficulties and will slow down to meet his needs, thereby helping the child to cope better and to feel emotionally supported.

All this being said, it’s important to remember that there is no such thing as a “perfect” mother, and no two human beings that can always “click”. Noted pediatrician and psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott coined the term “good enough mother” to express the notion that a child doesn’t need a perfect parent but rather an ordinary, devoted one who makes mistakes but has the ability to repair and reconnect. In this process of “rupture and repair,” a child learns that his relationship to his mother is resilient. He learns to trust others and to trust his own capacities to manage and value his relationships.
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Deborah Groening is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, Psy.D. Candidate and Certified Infant-Mental Health Specialist. She is also the Executive Director of Well Baby Center.