Early Childhood Attachment and Development

By Susan Molitor, Director of Compliance, Outreach, and Licensed Child Placing Administrator

Children enter the world biologically predisposed to learn, attach, and grow. They have a brain filled
with neurons ready to make billions of synaptic connections. How those connections are made, which
connections are strengthened, and which are left to wither away depends on the stimulus each child’s
brain receives. As human beings, some of the most important connections we make are those related
to attachment, the healthy attachment that develops from a safe, stable, supportive, repetitive
connection to a primary caregiver or parent. Unfortunately, for some children, this type of connection
and stimulus is not available, and healthy attachment and growth can be disrupted. For good or ill,
connections are being made every moment of every day in a young child’s brain. The brain makes no
distinction between a ”good” or a “bad’ stimulus. It simply responds to the stimulus by strengthening
the connection.

When children are growing and developing in an environment rich with opportunities for learning and
attachment – an environment that provides enough calories for necessary physical growth, enough
cognitive stimulation for appropriate intellectual development, and a healthy family unit that provides
secure attachment as well as physical and emotional safety children can begin to access their full
potential. In a family with sufficient basic resources, these developmental opportunities are typically
presented in patterned, repetitive, predictable ways, offering children the potential to maximize
cognitive, physical, and social-emotional development and growth.

Children lacking these same opportunities will often have a more complicated developmental trajectory
than their peers. Living in a family under duress, where sufficient resources are intermittent and life is
routinely unpredictable and perhaps even threatening at times, children may struggle to meet certain
developmental milestones. These children will have a greater need for support and understanding
from adults in their lives when they face challenges.

The good news is that people involved in a child’s life can provide opportunities to strengthen skills across the developmental and attachment spectrum without requiring that they be experts in either field. Below are just a few general ideas for interacting with young children who may have experienced some form of early adversity:

  • Create predictable routines that the child can rely upon
  • Have food available for the child and offer predictable opportunities for the child to access food
  • Maximize language exposure by narrating, identifying, labeling, reading and singing
  • Provide opportunities for safe play and exploration of their environment
  • When a child is upset or dysregulated, consider bringing the child in closer to you, or even next to you, rather than separating the child from you. They may need an adult to help them feel safe and regulate their emotions.
  • Make sure there are adequate opportunities for face-to-face, “serve and return” interactions throughout the day. Watch this video to learn more: How-to: 5 Steps for Brain-Building

A supportive environment, filled with opportunities that promote healthy social and emotional development, allows children to capitalize on opportunities to learn how to navigate the complex relationships human beings develop throughout a lifetime. Every opportunity for positive interaction matters, whether large or small.