Attachment: The First Core Strength

By Bruce Duncan Perry, M.D., Ph.D.

The ability to form attachments is the first of six core strengths that are an essential part of healthy emotional development. These core strengths are the foundation of Scholastic's company-wide program, Keep the Cool in School: A Scholastic Campaign Against Violence and Verbal Abuse. In this article, Bruce D. Perry, M.D., Ph.D., explores attachment and how it contributes to preventing aggression and anti-social behaviors in children.

"My teacher!" The 5-year-old child blurted out in the grocery as she ran, smiling, to hug her kindergarten teacher. It made both their days.

Throughout life, each of us will form thousands of relationships. These bonds take many forms. Some are enduring and intimate-our dearest friend-while others are transient and superficial-the chatty store clerk. Together, relationships in all forms create the glue of a family, community, and society. This capacity to form and maintain relationships is the most important trait of humankind, for without it none of us would survive, learn, work, or procreate.

The first and most important of all relationships are attachment bonds. Initially, these are created through interactions with our primary caregivers, usually parents. First relationships help define our capacity for attachment and set the tone for all of our future relationships.

What Is Attachment?

Attachment is the capacity to form and maintain healthy emotional relationships. An attachment bond has unique properties. The capacity to create these special relationships begins in early childhood.

Unique Features of an Attachment Bond

  • Enduring form of a bond with a "special" person
  • Involves soothing, comfort, and pleasure
  • Loss or threat of loss of the special person evokes intense distress
  • There is security and safety in context of this relationship

At birth, a baby is essentially emotionally "unattached." Despite the obvious physical connection of the umbilical cord, the newborn does not yet have strong connections to another human. During infancy and early childhood, one form of attachment-socio-emotional-begins to replace the original physical attachment of the cord. As dependent as ever, a baby requires constant attention and care from another human being in order to survive. Calories and a "bath" of physical sensations-sight, sounds, smells, touch, and taste-help the infant survive and grow to meet her potential. This "somatosensory" bath from a loving caregiver-the rocking, hugs, coos, and smiles-is transformed by the infant's sensory systems into patterned neuronal activity that influences the development of the brain in positive ways. It is in this dependent relationship between the primary caregivers and the infant that the new form of attachment grows. This attachment-the emotional relationship-is not as easy to see or document, yet it is nonetheless as important for human development as the umbilical cord is in utero.

It is these experiences of infancy and early childhood that create the roots of attachment-the capacity to form and maintain healthy emotional relationships. Except in the most extreme cases we are all born with the genetic capability to form and maintain healthy emotional relationships. When the infant has attentive, responsive, and loving caregiving, this genetic potential is expressed. And as this infant becomes a toddler and more people-family, friends, peers-enter his life, he will continue to develop this capacity to have healthy and strong emotional relationships.

Attachment and Pleasure

Our brain is designed to promote relationships. Specific parts of the human brain respond to emotional cues (such as facial expressions, touch, scent) and, more important, allow us to get pleasure from positive human interactions. The systems in the brain that mediate pleasure appear to be closely connected to the systems that mediate emotional relationships. Indeed this inter-relationship-the capacity to get pleasure from other people-creates a major positive learning tool of infancy and childhood. Young children want to please their teachers. They model adults and children they admire.

When attachment capacity develops normally, the child gets pleasure from interacting with other people. The degree of pleasure is related to the degree of attachment-pleasing a parent brings more pleasure than pleasing a stranger. It is this very property that helps parents and teachers shape pro-social and social behaviors in a child. In the process of teaching children emotional, social, and cognitive tasks, the strongest rewards for a child are the attention, approval, and recognition of success that the parent or teacher can give. Conversely, when a child feels he have displeased a parent or teacher, he can be devastated.

Attachment Capacity Matures

In order to be capable of forming the wide array of healthy relationships required throughout life, a young child's attachment capacities must mature. While the roots of attachment are related to the primary caregiving experiences in early childhood, full expression of attachment potential requires social and emotional interactions with non-caregivers. As children become older, they spend less time with parents and more time with peers and other adults. This time with peers and other adults provides many opportunities for continued emotional growth. In early childhood, the relationships with peers start as acquaintanships. With more time together, however, young children create friendships and the opportunity for strong emotional bonds can develop. In a similar fashion, a young child may form a strong connection with an attentive and nurturing teacher. The acquaintance, the friend, and the teacher all provide different and complementing social and emotional opportunities that help a child's attachment capabilities mature.

When Attachment Goes Wrong

If a child has few positive relationships in early childhood or has had a bad start due to problems with the primary-caregiving experiences of infancy, this child is at risk for a host of problems. In a very real sense, the glue of normal human interactions is gone. A child with poor attachment capacity is much harder to "shape" and teach. This child will feel little pleasure from the teacher's smile or approving words. And he does not feel bad disappointing, angering, or upsetting a parent or teacher. Without the capacity to use human interactions to "reward" and "punish," the teacher and parent often are confused and frustrated in their attempts to promote appropriate social behavior. In extreme cases, the child with poor attachment capacity demonstrates no remorse when harming others and risk developing further anti-social or even aggressive and violent behaviors. This child needs help. Research and clinical experience show that attachment capacity is easiest to shape if early identification and intervention takes place.

What you can do to promote the development of healthy attachment:

  • Smile and look children in the eyes as you greet them
  • Spend time with the child. Quantity matters. During this time, get on the floor, listen and establish eye contact.
  • Use touch to comfort-even as a pre-school teacher, it is appropriate to hug, gently touch a shoulder, or hold hands.
  • Help children learn appropriate social-emotional language (how close to stand, how to use eye contact, when to touch, how to touch).
  • Remember that there are many styles of forming and maintaining relationships-a shy child is not an unattached child. If you sense a child is having a hard time engaging others, help facilitate this by actively including her or pairing her with another child who has a matching temperament.

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This article orginally appeared in Early Childhood Today magazine.


Dr. Bruce D. Perry, M.D., Ph.D., is an internationally recognized authority on brain development and children in crisis. Dr. Perry leads the ChildTrauma Academy, a pioneering center providing service, research and training in the area of child maltreatment ( In addition he is the Medical Director for Provincial Programs in Children's Mental Health for Alberta, Canada. Dr. Perry served as consultant on many high-profile incidents involving traumatized children, including the Columbine High School shootings in Littleton, Colorado; the Oklahoma City Bombing; and the Branch Davidian siege. His clinical research and practice focuses on traumatized children-examining the long-term effects of trauma in children, adolescents and adults. Dr. Perry's work has been instrumental in describing how traumatic events in childhood change the biology of the brain. The author of more than 200 journal articles, book chapters, and scientific proceedings and is the recipient of a variety of professional awards.