The theory of Attachment

Over the years, my work has been increasingly influenced by the theory of attachment. This theory deals with how the principal caregiver develops a bond with his/her child. (A lot of research in this area is currently taking place.) There is clear scientific evidence that a person who has bonded with his principal caregiver(s), usually one or both parents, will profit from this basic feeling of security through his or her entire life.

Eye contact is very important in the bonding process.

Eye contact

How does a child learn that his/her principal caregiver is available when he or she is needed? The answer to this fundamental question is that the feeling of attachment becomes established as the caregiver responds to the child’s needs in a sensitive, consequent and appropriate manner. What does “sensitive” mean? It means that when the principal caregiver observes small signs of discomfort in the child (e.g. when the child sees a strange object), he/she reassures the child by holding him/her more tightly, or by speaking words of reassurance. These situations occur often in a young child’s life. When the caregiver does not miss the child's signs of anxiety, and responds appropriately, a model of basic trust and security grows in the child’s mind: When I need her, she will be there to protect me.

There are good video examples on the Internet of bonding between mother and child. Google “mother baby bonding.” You can also find several clips on YouTube of John Bowlby, the “father of attachment theory,” at:

It can be assumed that a child with deafblindness is at risk for not developing this feeling of security and trust. It’s often extremely difficult to respond to a deafblind child’s emotional signs, because they are often “hidden away” in the total complex of behaviours. A child with normal vision looks with big eyes at his mother. She interprets this as fear, and responds accordingly. The faces of deafblind children are often very hard to “read.” For example, a child whose vision is either absent or severely impaired may express fear with motionless hands. Without adequate training, this behaviour may go unnoticed by the caregiver, and leave the child alone with his/her anxiety.

For the bonding process to develop, there must be a synchronicity between the behaviour of child and caregiver(s). The child acts, the mother responds and takes the initiative for a new act, the child responds and takes the initiative for a new act, etc. These scripts are sometimes limited. Sometimes, a long chain of “action-reaction” occurs.

How easily is this process of mutual responsiveness established between a mother and her deafblind child? Mathijs Vervloed, Rick van Dijk, Harry Knoors and I analysed the mutual responsiveness of a deafblind child and his teacher. The study’s outcome is predictable. Many acts and responses were missed by both partners, which limited their interactions to one act, or a simple (often missed) response.

Read my article "Interaction between the teacher and congenitally deafblind child" which is on this web site. It was published in the American Annals of the Deaf, in 2006.

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