Saturday,23 February, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1379, (1 -7 February 2018)
Saturday,23 February, 2019
Issue 1379, (1 -7 February 2018)

Ahram Weekly

Difficult to detach

Mai Samih sheds light on the importance of attachment in building a child’s personality


ow are the personalities of children formed? What forms them? One theory, the attachment theory, ties the process of attachment to the choices of children in life and tries to answer these questions.

“The theory of attachment is one of the most important of the 20th century. It started to appear in the late 1960s and beginning of the 1970s. A British psychiatrist, John Bowlby, came up with the theory. He was assigned by the United Nations to write a psychological report about children who had lost their parents during World War II, and as a result of his studies of such children at London clinics and orphanages he found that children who had lost one of their parents or caregivers experienced various problems, leading him to make hypotheses about attachment,” explained psychiatrist Ahmed Nour in a lecture organised by the Cordoba Cultural Salon in Cairo.  

“Attachment is an instinct that is different from basic needs, like the need for food and drink. But that does not mean it is not an essential need in humans,” he said. 

Bowlby’s work was a development out of the science of ethology, or the science of animal behaviour. He found that many animals were also attached to their mothers, especially in the early years, and that this was a basic need to preserve the species, Nour said.  

The theory says that children are born biologically pre-programmed to form attachments with others because this will help them to survive. A child produces innate “social-release” behaviour such as crying and smiling that stimulate innate care-giving responses from adults. The determinant of attachment is not food, but care and responsiveness. 

Bowlby suggested that a child would initially form only one primary attachment (monotropy) and that the attachment figure then acted as a secure base for exploring the world. The attachment relationship acts as a prototype for all future social relationships, so disrupting it can have serious consequences. The theory also suggests that there is a critical period for developing attachment from birth to about five years old. If attachment has not developed during this period, then the child could suffer from irreversible developmental consequences, such as reduced intelligence and increased aggression. 

Nour explained how attachment develops in a child. “Attachment is formed over phases. The first phase is when the child responds to his physiological needs from his birth until he is about six weeks old. This is called the asocial phase in which a child lacks any social response to those who are around him. The main aims of a child in this phase are physiological ones like the need for food and drink, and these form the basis of the tie between him and his mother.”

 “From six weeks to six months, the child starts to form types of ties between human beings, like distinguishing human faces, and he is attracted more and responds more to other humans. Anyone might be welcome to carry the child and stop it from crying, and as a result this is called the ‘indiscriminate attachment phase’. Then there is the ‘specific attachment phase’ when the baby is approximately seven to nine months old, in which a child starts to form an attachment with particular people or a particular person. This person becomes the safe spot that a child resorts to in his relationship to the world and builds his expectations on this person. He can now start discovering the world around him as he feels safe,” he said.

After that a child begins to make attachments to other human figures than his mother, who is still the most important person in the process. Other people start to play a role in the process of attachment for the child, in what is called the “multiple attachment phase”. The most important phase in attachment is the childhood phase. A child by then would have formed models of attachment that are responsible for attachments throughout his life and the way he expresses his need for closeness. If, for example, he is raised in a way that makes him anxious about losing his mother, this could affect the types of relationships he forms as an adult in the future.  

In this case, his attachments are full of anxiety, and he may form relationships or exit them in ways that are full of anxiety as well in a repetition of his first relationship with the mother. The same thing goes for friendships. Some children develop troubled attachments to friends since they feel that their needs are not being answered. They start to develop a model of attachment in which they do not ask for or express their needs. Therefore, they have problems in forming relationships and expressing their feelings as adults because they see expressing their emotions as dangerous. 

This all occurs subconsciously. When this damage occurs has not been precisely determined. However, the first five years of life are a very important period in terms of forming relationships for all human beings. This is because what comes afterwards is mostly built on it. 



UTURE PROSPECTS: If for any reason a child does not form these primary attachments, all may not be lost, however. Some later relationships can fix the damage of deformed relationships in the past, Nour said. 

If a healthy relationship is formed in a person’s life after that, it could fix disorders that occurred in the first relationship with the mother, for example.  

Although the mother is a source of security, she is not the only source of safe attachment in the family. “The father also has an important role to play in the process of attachment, like the mother. This was not focused on in the early research, however. What we understand about the role of the father is that it is slightly different to the role of the mother. A mother has a role to play in the process of attachment that is related to the child’s feeling of safety. A father plays the role of stimulating discovery and practical experimentation and is also a source of security for the child.”

“However, the first source of security has been proven to be the mother, especially in the first two years. After that, attachment to the mother becomes less intense. A child, especially a son, can be more attached to his father than his mother when he is about three to five years old,” Nour said. The reason a child is first attached to his mother is a biological one, since it starts in the womb when he is affected by any chemical or physiological changes that occur in his mother, and there is a form of joint reaction between them and a feeling of closeness even before birth. 

“I was happy to attend the lecture, and I learnt a lot, especially as I had some misconceptions about the proper role of attachment in raising a child. I felt that the lecture was very informative,” commented one mother who had attended the event. 

Nour gave parents tips for the benefit of their children when raising them. “A great part of the mental health of children relies on the mental health of the parents and their ability to deal with the stress that they have been subjected to in their lives, especially during the early stages. Children are probably subjected to the same stresses that their parents were subjected to. If couples want to have children, they should first address their psychological problems, if these exist, especially psychological shocks. They should seek the assistance of experts, especially those parents who may have anxiety or other psychological disorders,” he said. 

“Premarital counselling, as well as pregnancy counselling, is very important for the mental health of future parents. It is important that parents are there for their children, especially in the first two years of their lives, meaning the physical and emotional presence of at least one of the parents for their child.” 

Parents should also understand how to cater for the needs of their child and know how he expresses his needs. “It is very important not to take too much time trying to understand what a child’s needs are. Harmony is what creates safe attachment. Unhealthy attachment can be formed when parents do not understand the needs of their child and provide him with these needs when it is too late or even ignore his needs altogether. This is destructive in terms of attachment, and can lead to unhealthy forms of attachment in the future,” Nour concluded. 

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