Understanding the impact of the parent-child relationship awakens our deepest concern, for we intuitively perceive that initial bonds with others affect who we are for our entire life. Our physical, emotional, and spiritual connections constitute what is called attachment. Attachments are enduring emotional bonds whose existence provides the cornerstone for the development of trust and intimacy in human relationships throughout life.
These early bonds can also affect our ability and capacity to trust God and have faith. The dynamics in our earliest bonding experiences provide the template upon which we build intimate connections with all others-God included. Our former relationships establish the foundation for our current relationships. The relationship between attachment theory and faith is not definitive; however, one's ability to develop trust in God is driven by one's early attachment experiences. The healthy dependency that we feel toward our parents can develop into a more general healthy feeling of dependency on God. Just as children perceive their parents as good caretakers who they want to know and love, as adults God is experienced in a personal way as this symbol of the good. That transfer of trust is the result of healthy attachment in early childhood. To understand that process, it is important to first understand attachment in a child's first years. Attachments first occur between the child and his or her primary caregiver, whether parent or caretaker, that is, whomever the child is exposed to most often. Research in child development demonstrates that without successful bonding during the first 2 years of childhood, the child's personality can be harmed. Children deprived of nurturance, who have not formed personal, human bonds during the first 2 years of life, show permanent difficulty establishing meaningful relationships in later childhood and throughout their adult lives. In other words, the quality of care provided in the first 2 years has a significant effect on the child's relationships for the duration of his or her life. Of course, this fact does not diminish the importance of continued care throughout childhood and adolescence for the full development of a person.
The substantial literature called "attachment theory" explains how the relationship between a dependent individual-the attached person-evolves between one or more nurturing providers, or the attached figures. Based on the newborn's bonding experience, three attachment styles have been characterized that extend into childhood and well beyond: secure attachment, avoidant attachment, and ambivalent attachment.
In general, the securely attached child's caretaker is warm and sensitively attached, producing a secure adult who usually has securely attached children; the avoidantly attached child's caretaker is emotionally unavailable or rejecting, developing into a dismissive adult, and usually has avoidantly attached children; the ambivalently attached child's caretaker is unpredictable or chaotic, growing into a preoccupied adult, and usually has ambivalently attached children. The lack of nurturing experiences early in life gives rise to both damaged emotional developments and the reenactment of dysfunctional homes. Poor attachments lead to a spectrum of behaviors described as "attachment disorders"-from shyness to antisocial behaviors, which often create a "snowball effect" as poor child care often leads to the child becoming a neglectful parent for his or her own children. Emotionally paralyzed children often become parents of emotionally paralyzed children, as they seek to care for their children in the same way that they were not cared for. Studies show that children who have spent most of infancy in an environment lacking human partners or sufficient conditions for sustained human attachment later demonstrated measurable impairment in three areas: attachment to parental figures, intellectual functioning, and impulse control-particularly control of aggression. Therefore, there is a connection between attachment and both how personalities form and how early struggles with caretakers resurface in later relationships.
To nurture healthy attachment, children must feel that the world is a positive place and that they have value and importance in that world. Parents must successfully form a deep connection with the child and convey their presence. They must demonstrate through their actions (1) their attention to the child's significance and value, (2) their recognition of the child's needs and wants, and (3) their love and its unconditional quality.