Attachment theory

Attachment 101 – The theory and neuroscience behind how we do relationships

Alison Lees Attachment theory March 6, 2017

Attachment theory and the neuroscience behind how we “do” relationships is founded on the cornerstone that the brain is a social organ, developed and changed in interactions with other brains. Human beings spend the first 25 years of their lives with an immature brain. With this immature and developing brain, children are vulnerable, easily distressed, and unable to meet their own physical and emotional needs. ALL learning and development in the child’s brain has to happen in relation to an adult who has a mature brain. Children are entirely reliant on the attachment process between themselves and an adult in order to survive and thrive

There are two key components that impact how healthy and secure the attachment relationship is between the child and the adult. They are:

  1. The parent or caregiver’s availability and ability to tune in (or attune) to the child’s emotional and physical needs

  2. The parent or caregiver’s ability to respond to that need and offer the emotional co-regulation required

A well known expert in attacPicture containing a pregnant woman and her foetus with an umbilical cord depicted as bi-directional arrows. The arrows show the inflow of positive aspects of parenting and the outflow of negative experiences of the child. hment, Dr Renee Marks, says that an attachment can very simply be compared to the umbilical cord which keeps a baby alive whilst growing in utero. There is one vein that carries blood rich in oxygen and nutrients from the mother to the baby while there are two arteries that return waste products (such as deoxygenated blood) from the baby back to the mother. When this anatomical connection between a mother and baby works well, the unborn baby grows and develops optimally. However, if anything goes wrong with that connection (the umbilical cord), there is a very serious and often fatal impact on the baby.

Similarly, within a healthy and secure attachment relationship, the adult provides the child with positive experiences such as being consistently attuned, comforting, nurturing, respectful, praising and acknowledging.  This ultimately gives the child what they need in order to grow a positive identity and maintain acceptable behaviour needed to build positive relationships.

Picture of an adult woman and a child with a bidirectional arrow between them indicating the flow from the adult to the child of attunement, comfort, respect, acknowledgement, praise and nurturing and the outflow from the child to the adult of shame experiences, big feelings and emotional pain. There are many things in a child’s day to day experience that will cause him/her to feel distress or experience what we call “big feelings”. If the child, however, does not have an available adult who is able to tune in to their needs and process their ‘waste products’ such as emotional pain, shame experiences and other BIG feelings, children will not have the emotional capacity, or opportunity to learn how, to regulate their own emotions. In this instance we would see the child engaging in unacceptable behaviour, displaying anger and other big feelings, and experiencing difficulties with interpersonal relationships.


Stay tuned! Our next blog post will focus on practical steps that will help you work towards being attuned and staying connected in a relationship.