The protection of the family

From the School Counsellor

In November last year, the Weekend Australian reported:

KOLKATA: A speeding goods train killed seven elephants in India after the animals tried to rescue two calves stuck in the tracks. The baby elephants became trapped as a herd crossed the line in West Bengal on Wednesday. The adults had crowded around the calves to protect them when they were hit. The surviving members of the herd were still at the scene the next morning. (Agence France-Presse).

Elephants are renowned for their close relationships, in fact, along with all mammals, they are neurologically ‘wired’ to attach (Bradshaw et al, 2005). Perhaps this is why we can’t help but feel deeply moved by the lengths to which these adult elephants went in their efforts to protect their vulnerable calves. Similar stories of the courage and sacrifice humans make, from a desire to protect, evoke feelings of awe, humility and gratitude.

In our own society, as in the pachyderm world, it is within the family that the crucial functions of care, attachment and protection of the child occurs. When a baby is born, the family protects it from the unexpected intrusions – physical and emotional – of a world not yet known or understood. An infant comes into the world with attributes which will encourage attachment. In ‘The Nature of the Child’s Tie to his Mother’ (1958), John Bowlby, a British psychologist, psychiatrist and psychoanalyst noted for his work on child development, explains “it is fortunate for their survival that babies are so designed by nature that they beguile and enslave mothers”. From the first touch, parents and children begin to create a bond and, as the infant grows emotional attachments develop which lead to a sense of security and safety. Crying, sucking and smiling at the sight and sound of other people prompt adults to provide food, comfort and smiling back. This is the basis of a reciprocal and interactive relationship. The quality of that relationship helps define what sort of attachment develops between the parent, or carer, and child.

Bowlby extensively researched the concept of attachment, describing it as a “lasting psychological connectedness between human beings” (Bowlby 1969, p. 194). His pioneering work in the 1950s and 1960s revolutionised thinking about babies and their parents or carers, and formed the basis of what is now known as attachment theory. Attachment is often thought to exist only between mother and child. While the source of the earliest attachment is usually the mother, attachments also form with other members of the family (father, siblings, grandparents) and with other significant care-givers (foster and adoptive parents, teachers and other carers). Bowlby used the term ‘attachment figure’ to describe the person to whom the infant formed an attachment.

Attachment is not something that parents ‘do’ to their children; rather, it is something that children and parents create together, in an ongoing, reciprocal and interactive relationship. Bowlby argued that early mother-child attachment has an evolutionary basis – “The propensity to make strong emotional bonds to particular individuals [is] a basic component of human nature” (Bowlby, 1988, p.3) – promoting the child’s survival by increasing mother-child proximity, particularly when the child is stressed or fearful. He noted that this early closeness and dependency on the mother, or attachment figure, provides not only physical protection but also a psychological sense of security for the child. Bowlby observed infants’ reactions to separation from the mother, or attachment figure, and concluded that the child’s ability to eventually leave the mother, and become independent, was deeply influenced by this initial dependency. Good attachment gives the child a sense of having a secure base, and with a secure base, the child feels supported enough emotionally to be able to gradually move away from the close proximity of mother and explore the world around her. The child can then grow in self-confidence and self-competence which in turn will allow her to form relationships with other people.

Controversial at first, attachment theory became a dominant principle of social and personality development by the 1980s, generating thousands of research papers and serving as a theoretical basis for clinical intervention programs. It has been shown that attachment is a physiological, emotional, cognitive and social phenomenon that influences a child’s ability to learn and achieve scholastically (Jacobson et al 1974). Parents and teachers know instinctively that good learning is not possible unless a child feels emotionally secure. A child who feels secure can form trusting relationships with peers and teachers. Emotional as well as intellectual growth develops through those relationships.

One of the important roles the family plays in the emotional development of the child lies in its provision of an environment which allows dependence of a high degree when that is required, while also providing the opportunity for the individual to gradually break away from the parents to the family, from the family to the social unit outside the family, and from that social unit to another and then another, in ever widening circles. Both physically and psychologically, the family ‘holds’ the individual together during the gradual movement from the total dependence of infancy towards growth and independence.

Within the family, the infant is held in the minds of her parents, just as importantly as she is held in their arms. This emotional ‘holding’ allows the infant to feel safe as she goes through the normal and necessary process of moving in and out of different emotional states until a sense of integration and competence develops. Through this process, she will recognise that there is something in others, and importantly, in herself, that is good, durable and reliable. As she grows more confident in herself and those around her, she will begin to be able to perform the function of ‘holding’ herself together physically and emotionally for brief, then lengthening, periods of time. She will tolerate not having her needs met immediately, knowing that she will survive. Knowing that she will recover after feeling fear, pain, or when others fail to meet her needs, is important for her ongoing emotional development towards competency, independence and eventual maturity.

Secure attachment is central to healthy child development and lays the foundation for a child reaching her emotional, intellectual and social potential (Jacobson & Hoffman 1997, Scrouf et al 2005). In the school setting, a student who feels emotionally and socially secure will feel secure in her ability to learn and apply herself fully to her studies. Good attachments allow her to trust others and to believe in their willingness and capacity to respond to her needs. Such a student is able to ask questions, seek assistance and draw strength from the support given. She feels confident enough to take risks in learning, knowing that she has the capacity to recover from mistakes made. In short, she has healthy intellectual and emotional resilience. Socially, the student relates well to teachers and other students and feels confident in her capacity to feel and express love for herself and others and to form secure relationships.

During the turbulent years of adolescence, there is a need for the family to tolerate and safely ‘hold’ the adolescent as she once more moves in and out of different levels of dependence, independence, competence and confidence and towards completing the ‘tasks’ of adolescence, one being to establish her adult identity. During this period, which takes several years, some of the anxieties and struggles of early childhood regarding dependence and independence resurface to be ‘reworked’ by the adolescent. All families experience the difficulty of holding the adolescent during this period when feelings of hate, resentment and anger are felt and expressed by the adolescent and family relationships are pushed to the limit. Good attachment with parent/s and peers will assist the adolescent to feel confident that she can establish a mind of her own which will be valued and welcomed by other family members and society, and that she will be supported to find a place of her own in the world, rooted in, and yet distinct from, the sources and models which are available in the family, school and society.

The family has a clearly defined position as the place where the developing child meets the forces that operate in society. Family bonds are a link to our beginning and a guide to our future. The family holds the ‘memory’ of each individual member’s familial origins – genetic, social, economic and cultural. Within the family the child learns some of life’s most important lessons. She will learn about love from the experience of being loved, nurtured and valued unconditionally, and that wherever she goes, whatever she does, however much she might annoy, let down, disappoint or frustrate her parents, they will still love her because their love is based not on what she does, but on who she is. It is within the family that she will learn, by example, the most important lesson of all – the need to take other people seriously, to listen to them and to accept them as they are. Within the family she will learn about family values, that the whole matters more than the part, and that good citizenship requires decency, tact and a degree of self-abnegation. As Kofi Annan said, “it is within the family that the notion of human rights becomes a reality lived on a daily basis. If tolerance, respect and equity permeate family life, they will translate into values that shape societies, nations and the world”.

She will absorb the value that her family places on education, hard work, co-operation, loyalty, fairness and mutual obligation within the family. She will discover also that she is not the centre of the universe, and that being a member of a community – even one as small as a nuclear family – entails responsibility for other people’s well being. It is within the family that she will have the opportunity to learn, in an honest way, that forgiveness is not excusing but an act of giving up resentment and anger; that to overcome feelings of envy and jealousy she needs to learn humility; that love and hate can be felt and expressed, and survived; and that strength comes through self-control. Within the family she can learn about herself because self-examination and self-awareness are only possible in a reciprocal relationship, where the space between ‘thou’ and ‘I’ leads to the experience of ‘we’.

Our families are crucial and precious. The best emotional and educational outcomes are possible for our students when family and School work together. It is hard to think of any institution more deserving of our recognition, support and protection than the family.

Mrs K Belbin


Bowlby, J. (1958). The nature of the child’s tie to his mother. International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, XXXIX, 1-23.

Bowlby, J. (1969), Attachment and loss, Vol. 1: Attachment. New York: Basic Books.

Bowlby, J. (1988). A secure base: Parent-child attachment and healthy human development. London: Routledge.

Bradshaw, G. A., Schore, A. N., Brown, J. L., Poole, J. H., & Moss, C. J. (2005). Elephant breakdown. Social trauma: early disruption of attachment can affect the physiology, behaviour and culture of animals and humans over generations. Nature, 433, 807 (24 February)

Jacobsen, T., Edelstein, W., & Hofmann, V. (1994). A longitudinal study of the relation between representations of attachment in childhood and cognitive functioning in childhood and adolescence. Developmental Psychology, 30(1), 112-124.

Jacobsen, T. & Hofmann, V. (1997). Children’s attachment representations: Longitudinal relations to school behavior and academic competency in middle childhood and adolescence. Developmental Psychology, 33(4), 703-710.

Sroufe, L. A., Egeland, B,. Carlson, E. A., & Collins, W. A. (2005). The development of the person: the Minnesota study of risk and adaptation from birth to adulthood. New York: Guildford Press.

Leave a Reply