Even before children start forming episodic memories, they’re learning relationship dynamics that will color their entire lives. Consider a mother holding an infant, in the first weeks and months of life. Their eyes are locked in dyadic bliss. Then, in one of the earliest forms of exploration, the child looks away. After about five seconds — ideally — the child will turn back on their own rhythm. But some parents, called “preoccupied” in relative literature, will interrupt, and call the child’s attention back — which already gives the tiny human the message, wait, wait, what about me. “By the time the child is 12 months old, they’ve figured out what makes a parent anxious,” says Kent Hoffman, co-author of Raising a Secure Child and a psychotherapist with over 40 years of experience.
If a parent struggles with autonomy — with allowing the child to explore the world on their own — then the child will struggle with autonomy, will feel compelled to always cling close to mom. If the caregiver is anxious about support — as in, providing a steady presence when emotions get overwhelming — then, by the time the kid turns 1, before they grasp language, they’ve learned not to go to their parent for soothing, for sorting through difficult feelings.
The thing about kids is that they become adults. And the thing about adults is they inevitably fall in love. When they do start in on romantic relationships, they naturally enough revert to the dynamics that governed their first experiences with love — their parents. The research indicates that about 50 to 60 percent of the U.S. population has “secure attachment,” meaning that as babies, they get a little distressed when a parent leaves but can do things on their own, knowing that the parent will return. That leaves the remaining 40 percent with some matured, often unconscious form of relational anxiety — making them extra sensitive to separation (and thus always needing to feel as close as possible to their partner) or vulnerability (and thus getting spooked by the emotions and emotional displays that accompany intimate relationships).
This is one of the fundamental, and perhaps most personally useful, findings within the Western psychological tradition. It’s at the core of attachment theory, which Hoffman and his colleagues traffic in, and you can see it in Sigmund Freud and his projective hypothesis. Psychotherapist Louis Cozolino describes this as the “process by which our brains create and organize the world around us.” Basically, when what’s going on in a situation is unclear (like, say, every day in a relationship), your brain generates a structure and projects it out into the world, providing a framework for understanding. It’s like black holes, Cozolino tells Science of Us: “No one’s ever seen a black hole, we can only measure how it exerts force,” he says. “Same thing with the unconscious, we can’t see it directly, but we can see the way people distort their realities.”
This is why, according to psychoanalytic theory, Bruce Wayne always sees bats in Rorschach inkblots, and why, conveniently enough, everybody superimposes their childhood experiences of love (or lack thereof) onto their adult relationships.
Temperament, or the raw ingredients of personality, does play a factor. As Colgate University psychologist Rebecca Shiner told Science of Us, some children are higher in “negative emotionality,” a higher sensitivity to threats in the environment that manifests in adulthood as a propensity to worry, ruminate, or get angry. They’ll be more likely to withdraw from novel situations, like meeting new children, or get angry with frustrating situations, like being strapped into a car seat. “It’s more challenging to be an effective parent if the child is prone to negative emotions,” says Shiner, who’s also co-editor of the Handbook of Temperament. She cites a landmark 1994 study where a hundred 6-month-old infants were selected for irritability. Mothers in an intervention group were coached to improve their ability to “to monitor infant signals attentively, perceive infant signals accurately, and respond appropriately and contingently,” and those in the control group were not. At 12 months, just 28 percent of control infants were assessed as secure, compared to 62 percent of intervention infants — baseline for the general population.
According to Hoffman, the Raising a Secure Child co-author, kids who are temperamentally sensitive need lots of support for “organizing their emotions”: someone who can sit them on their lap and say, “This is a moment of sadness, this is a moment of fear, this is a moment of anger, and I will help you talk about it.” They also need to see that their own volatility doesn’t spill over onto the parent. The child needs to know that the caregiver isn’t afraid of their emotionality, and the caregiver needs to show that they’re not going to be terrified if the kid’s upset. It comes down to knowing and trusting that someone is in charge of the relationship, he says, and at the same time, showing that the child’s emotions aren’t going to run the family. “Offer soothing,” he says, “but offer limits when life intervenes” — when dinner needs to be made, a sibling needs to be attended to.
When the child hits 14 months or so and is playing with a toy, the parent doesn’t quiz them about what they’re playing with. “Secure parents don’t interfere but stay attentive,” he says. “Not 24/7, but they watch over and don’t interfere.” The parent is available in two- or five-minute chunks of time, and then they go about their business. They aren’t interfering, but they’re also not distracted by their smartphone — they’re available. Hoffman says that if you study tapes of these interactions, as attachment researchers are wont to do, the rhythms are revealing: If a 2-year-old is playing, they’ll look back about every six seconds and see if the caregiver is available, to see if they’re present in a psychological sense. But if the caregiver thinks their job is over, and they take out their phone and start scrolling through Instagram, it tells the child that they need to be right next to them in order to make mom or dad available.
If you’re a parent, the key is not to “get caught up in worrying about ‘Phew, I’m safe’ or ‘Oh no, my child is doomed,’” Hoffman wrote in a follow-up email. “It’s not a blood test that says you’re cancer-free or in sudden danger.” It’s not about being error-free, it’s about being good enough. And kids, the empathic little sponges that they are, can pick up on the anxiety that parents have about being perfect. “Children can read between the lines and they’d much rather be in a relationship with a parent who makes mistakes and is open to working on where they struggle vs. a parent who is doing everything possible to never make a mistake,” he added. It’s of a piece with the value of being able to “rupture and repair,” or re-threading a nurturing connection when it’s broken, rather than being brittle perfection all the time. If that’s normalized, then the conflicts “belong,” Hoffman says, and the repair is expected to come.
If, on the other hand, you’re one of the millions of people on Earth without the fortune of growing up with secure attachment, you’re not damned to a fate of endlessly projecting your unmet childhood needs on the next pretty face you see. If you learn to be your own caregiver — organizing your emotions through things like journalling, contemplation, and consciously befriending yourself and “practicing autonomy” rather than insisting that the people close to you all text you four times a day — then, over time, you can arrive at one of the more empowering phrases in psychology: earned security. “You do not have to have had a secure childhood to have a secure adulthood,” Hoffman says. “But you have to have a road map.”