Our future hangs on a wider understanding of this concept

Chris Whitehead
5 min readJun 21, 2020


We’ve all heard people say “children are our future”, but how seriously do we as a society take that statement? They are the future of our family, our country, our civilisation, but does our education system reflect that?

There’s one particular psychological concept that I believe should be common knowledge throughout our society. And it is just possible that if we all understood it, we could change the course of our civilisation. Yet, is it taught in schools? — no. It is often left to psychiatrists and therapists to explain to parents when it is far too late.

It’s called “Attachment.” Right now we face an attachment epidemic, one that is far more threatening than Covid-19. The UK National Institute for Clinical Excellence estimates that 30–35% of children have some sort of insecure attachment that impairs the way they relate to others [ref 4 below].

First propounded by British psychologist John Bowlby in 1988, attachment theory has been further developed by modern neuroscientists. It concerns that idea that in the first preverbal years of life, the developing brain learns a strategy for staying connected to the lifeline that is their primary caregiver, normally a parent. It is now known that our attachment experiences affect our memory, emotional regulation, and interpersonal skills.

If the infant’s parent responds in a timely and sensitive way when the child is distressed, the infant learns to trust safe people and to count on their care. Daily repetitions of this cycle both protect the brain from prolonged periods of stress and reinforce the child’s learned ability to self-regulate. This is a secure attachment relationship where the child feels protected and safe, which in turn allows them to explore their world with confidence.

Now, if instead of responding immediately the caregiver is somehow preoccupied and does not respond sensitively, the child ‘up-regulates’ their attachment behaviour: they become very distressed and maybe angry and are not quickly calmed when comfort is finally offered. This is an insecure-ambivalent attachment. Adults with this style are constantly scanning their environment for potential threats to their relationships.

On the other hand, the caregiver might not know how to respond to their infant. In this situation eventually, the infant gives up and ‘down-regulates’ their behaviour. They have to deal with their own distress and no longer signal a need for comfort. They may become distant and avoid contact with their caregiver altogether. This is insecure-avoidant. Adults with this style tend to be independent, decide what they should do on their own accord, and make the working assumption that they are smarter than everyone else.

Finally, what if the caregiver is frightened themselves and frightening or hostile towards the infant? The caregiver is now the source of alarm, and the infant appears dazed or frozen or draws away when the parent appears. This is insecure-disorganised attachment. Around 10% of the general population but 80% of high-risk infants, such as the children of drug-addicted parents, have this style. Insecure-disorganised manifests itself in the adult as unpredictable, confusing, and erratic behaviour.

I have a friend who is a family therapist and his main role is to explain attachment to foster children and their parents. A great many foster children have difficulty with attachment, and it means that they are like a ticking bomb that goes off in adolescence. The challenge that this stage of life poses to them results in extreme behaviour for which, without counselling, the foster parents often blame themselves.

Siegel observes “infants who have no attachment relationships … before the end of the third year of life, at the latest, may have extreme difficulty forming attachments later in life. The motivational system of attachments-its circuits and its potential for development-may have become not readily available for maturation in the future.” [ref 3 below p253]

The attachment rabbit hole is actually deeper than this, going well beyond how we respond to the distressed infant. I think many parents know this intuitively. When we engage closely with a child a phenomenon called attunement — the resonance of states of mind between child and caregiver-occurs. It is through this that the child learns, for example, to sense the intention of another person and to develop a concept of others’ minds. Siegel uses the term ‘mindsight’ to refer to our ability to perceive the focus of attention, intention, and emotional state of others.

It’s beyond the scope of this brief article to discuss all the benefits of establishing a close connection with your developing child. Needless to say that attachment difficulties are correlated with a lack of empathy, a lack of compassion, and anti-social behaviour later in life.

It is not becoming any easier for parents to form loving attachments with their children. Work crowds out the ‘quality time’ we spend with our children, media and technology companies have spent billions developing pleasant distractions for our infants (sometimes marketed as ‘educational’), and, with families ever more fragmented, the role of grandparents and other relatives has diminished.

We are in danger of creating a psychologically disconnected society, one in which the ability to empathise and form lasting relationships is reduced, and compassion is at an all-time low. That’s why I believe attachment should not be the sole province of psychology professionals, but taught to prospective parents everywhere.

If you have the privilege of having a young son or daughter on this father’s day, I hope you have the unalloyed pleasure and joy of spending it with them in play, and, through connection, expressing your unconditional love. You’re investing in their future and our common future.


If you’d like to read more then try:

  1. Siegel, D. (2010). Mindsight: The New Science of Personal Transformation. New York: Bantam.
  2. Golding, K. & Hughes, D. (2012). Creating Loving Attachments: Parenting with PACE to Nurture Confidence and Security in the Troubled Child. London: Jessica Kingsley.
  3. Siegel, D. (2012). The Developing Mind: How Relationships and The Brain Interact to Shape Who We Are. New York: Guilford. (At 387 pages this is more of a book for practitioners.)
  4. Clinical Guideline NG26. Children’s Attachment: Attachment in Children and Young People who are Adopted from Care, in Care or at High Risk of Going into Care. May 2015. Consultation Draft. Available at: https://www.nice.org.uk/guidance/NG26/documents/childrens-attachment-full-guideline2
  5. Whitehead, C. (2019), Compassionate Leadership: Creating Places of Belonging. Solopreneur.



Chris Whitehead

Coach, podcaster, writer, and speaker, author of the book Compassionate Leadership