Infants require consistent and reliable care, reflection, touch and soothing to meet their attachment needs. Remember Harlow’s monkey craving the soothing of the cloth “mother” when it was scared? Infants and children are the same. The best intentioned caregiver can meet and exceed their child’s physical and safety needs, but if touch and visual and auditory reflection, like mimicking an infants frown and saying “oh you’re grumpy” when they cry, are missing from the earliest times in a child’s life they are put at a massive disadvantage when it comes to developing not only internal skills like object permanence and emotional regulation, but also external social skills, like empathy and basic morality (Perry, 2006; Santrock, 2007).

Harlow’s monkeys who were denied a cloth mother did not thrive. Nor did the children in orphanages or American hospitals during the 1940s and 50s with their focus on sterile environments and minimizing parental involvement. Not being touched as an infant is traumatic. Not being soothed or mimicked as an infant is traumatic. Obviously, physical and sexual violations as an infant are traumatic.

Harlow's Distressed Monkey

Poor little guy! He just wants to be cuddled!

Much of the research on moral development largely ignores the influence of trauma, neglect and abuse. Kohlberg and Selmen got it right with their ideas about the construction of morality and empathy as being more important than the actual choices people make (Damon, 2008) but in both of these constructions, the paramount role that early attachment processes, or lack thereof, plays in establishing the framework from which to build morality was ignored. Kids and adults who lack early attachment objects often grow up either unaware or unable to provide effective attachment objects to their children or others around them.

This would not really matter, were it not for attachment being the basis for development of empathy and regard for others.  In talk of oxytocin, the bonding chemical, coercive cycles, and the intellectual battle between nature and nurture as the clincher in developmental outcomes, we are missing the forest for the trees (Granic, 2006; Public Library of Science, 2007; Santrock, 2007).  Under girding all of these factors (bonding, reciprocal interactions, goodness of fit versus responsiveness of care), is attachment.  If a child is not adequately attached to a, or possibly a couple, primary caregivers, their likelihood of developing these skills and getting reinforcement out of using them is decreased dramatically.

In short, when securely attached caregivers’ hearts are warmed when their child smiles at them, even though they same smiley baby kept them up all night, on a neurological level, caregivers’ limbic systems release oxytocin and endorphins and on a whole person level, suddenly all of the hours awake seem worth it.  These caregivers are likely to continue to provide physically responsive care and cuddles largely because it feels good to do so.  Their children are more likely to grow up with secure attachments and secure internal objects from which to move out into the world.  They have the early frameworks necessary for the development of moral behaviors.  In fact, due in large part to the social feedback offered by primary attachment objects, being good feels good.  Being bad feels bad.   They are more likely to be good and avoid being bad because it literally feels concordant.   Conversely, children who do not receive the same sort of responsive, validating care from a caregiver infancy often lack the clearly defined and integrated internal object that is necessary to recognize that others also have feelings, that are sometimes conflicting, but equally valid (Engler, 2006).

Just as the informed caregiver would never really expect a preschooler to be able to engage in mutual perspective taking, an attachment informed caregiver would not expect an adolescent, who is at a preschool developmental level to hold the opinions of two different people at once. Effective practitioners address a primary underlying mechanism of morality through awareness of attachment needs and processes.

An early attachment disruption is incredibly damaging, but it is not a death sentence.  Children who demonstrate a lack of empathy, low behavioral functioning, and/or odd social behaviors resultant from an early history of neglect can developmentally “catch up” from experiencing the crucial aspects of their development that were missing: touch, rhythm, soothing, patting, and so forth.  They will then age developmentally, as opposed to chronologically, and develop moral skills at developmentally appropriate times as opposed to chronologically appropriate times (Perry, 2006; Santrock, 2007).  In helping insecurely attached kids develop morality, practitioners must address attachment.

Damon, W., Lerner, R.M. (ed.) (2008). Child and adolescent development: An advanced course. John Wiley & Sons: Hoboken, NJ.

Engler, B. (2006) Personality Theories. (7th ed.) Houghton Mifflin Company: Boston, MA

Granic, I., Patterson, G.R. (2006) Toward a comprehensive model of antisocial development: A dynamic systems approach. Psychological Review, 113(1), 101-131

Perry, B.D., Szalavitz, M. (2006) The boy who was raised as a dog: and other stories from a child psychatrist’s notebook. Basic Books: New York, NY

Public Library of Science (2007, November 8) Empathy and Oxytocin Lead to Greater Generosity. ScienceDaily. Retrieved April 6, 2010, from /releases/2007/11/071107074321.htm

Santrock, J. (2007) Adolescence. 12th ed.  McGraw-Hill: New York, NY