Caregiver-Infant Attachment for Aboriginal Families


This paper was prepared for the National Collaborating Centre for Aboriginal Health (NCCAH) by Dr Cindy Hardy Ph. D, R. Psych Associate Professor, Psychology, UNBC and Sherry Bellamy, MSc. UNBC.

“Attachment relationships protect infants and children when they are too small to protect themselves, by keeping them close to their caregivers.  Infants and children develop an attachment bond to caregivers who consistently provide comfort and care, especially during times when they are afraid, distressed or ill…Infants are highly dependent on their caregivers for soothing because their nervous system is still immature and they are unable to calm or soothe themselves. (Lewis, Amini & Lannon, 2000).  The ability of the caregiver to help the infant feel safe and calm is especially important during the early years of life, when the brain is undergoing rapid development.  This is because high levels of stress hormones are detrimental to early brain development (Shore, 2008).”

“Attachment relationships may be linked to health outcomes through the impact of emotion regulation on physical health….Emotion regulation may be defined as the internal and external processes that serve to evaluate, monitor and modify emotional reactions with special emphasis on the duration and intensity of emotions” (Thompson, 1994)

The paper discusses the health implications for children and adults with poor emotion regulation skills, particularly the link between the quality of attachment relationship and cortisol secretion under stress, which can lead to increased risk of respiratory infection and the development of chronic diseases such as hypertension and diabetes.

Healthy childhood attachment relationships help build coping skills and emotion regulation abilities for adult life and reduce the likelihood of engaging in health threatening behaviours during adolescence and adulthood.

While parenting styles and practices vary from culture to culture, attachment is not about parenting styles, values, or even about different parenting behaviours.  The attachment relationships between the caregiver and child not only impact them as individuals, but are also connected to the health of their family, community, culture and nation.

The impact of residential schools and exceptionally high historical rates of foster care in the Aboriginal community create particular challenges in the area of attachment.  “Many of today’s Aboriginal parents and grandparents were raised in foster care or the residential school system....As adults, people who experienced abuse, grief, loss or trauma as young children are more likely to form unhealthy attachment relationships with their infants and children, particularly if they have not resolved the hurt feelings and emotions linked to the experiences (Lyons-Ruth, Respacholi, McLeod & Silva, 1999).”  Strategies for strengthening and supporting healthy attachment relationships can help heal the hurt.

The paper recommends six strategies for Aboriginal caregivers to use to strengthen and support healthy attachment relationships in children:

  1. Comfort infants and children when they are distressed in a way that is soothing to them, for example by holding or rocking them, or by giving calm, gentle reassurance.  When children experience regular and predictable comfort from their caregivers, it helps them feel safe and secure in the world.
  2. Respond to infants and children, so they know you care.  Giving positive attention, helping with a problem, or sharing special moments together helps build strong attachment relationships.
  3. Create warm and joyful memories.  Every family has traditions that vary according to their culture and history.  Traditions and activities related to holidays, spiritual celebrations or special events such as birthdays or weddings help develop a sense of predictability and security in children and create positive memories to hold over their lifetime.
  4. Attempt to be predictable when responding to children’s behaviour.  Let them know where you are going and when they can expect you back.  Establish clear guidelines and rules for behaviour.  If you find you are unable to respond predictably, develop a strategy to help you calm yourself when reacting to your child’s behaviour.
  5. Express love, joy and other positive feelings toward children.  Accept that children have feelings such as sadness, anger or jealousy.  Letting children know they are loved and are important to their caregivers helps develop a sense of security and well-being.  Accepting and helping them to deal with negative emotions helps them to learn that they will have their needs met in good times and in challenging times.
  6. Allow children to explore the world around them as much as possible while keeping them safe.  Be careful not to overwhelm children with overly intrusive or directive behaviour.  Children develop a sense of trust in their abilities when their caregivers allow them to be independent and do things for themselves, keeping them safe without being overly directive.

Aboriginal Children hugging

Families experiencing the following situations might require assistance in restoring healthy attachment relationships:

  1. Lost or broken relationships.  Loss of a caregiver through divorce, death or separation, or placement in short or long term foster care, can cause intense distress to a child.  Remaining caregivers should offer comfort and reassurance to the child that he/she is loved and will be cared for.  Pictures and objects that remind the child or the lost or absent caregiver can be helpful to the child.
  2. Unpredictable or frightening caregiver behaviour.  “In order to feel safe, children need to be able to predict their caregivers’ behaviours... If the person or people who are meant to protect the child instead harm or frighten the child, he/she will go into a state of distress that is very detrimental to his/her well-being. (Shore, 2002)  Caregivers who engage in such behaviours on a regular basis need support to learn to treat their children with increased care and respect.”

The paper concludes with a list of online resources for Parents and Caregivers that could be passed on to program participants.

Click here to access this research paper.