Attachment and Culture

Understanding Attachment


Download PDF


The core concepts of attachment theory (security, sensitivity and social competence) are well established. However culture, family and community shape the way a child is nurtured and develops into an adult. While attachment theory provides a useful framework for defining and understanding the bonds that exist between a caregiver and infant or young child it needs to be used in a culturally appropriate way.

Are the core concepts of attachment theory applicable to Aboriginal cultures?

The core concepts of attachment theory may be viewed and expressed differently across and within cultures including in remote, regional, and urban aboriginal communities.


The sensitivity concept

In attachment theory a caregiver who is sensitive to a child’s needs creates a secure

attachment. In Aboriginal culture, sensitivity can be expressed through anticipating a child’s needs and minimising their distress before it occurs. For example an aboriginal caregiver may look for a smile on a baby’s face following a feed because

this indicates “wind tickling the tummy” that is relieved through a mum burping the baby. In contrast western mothers will often wait until a child cries and communicates their distress before responding.

What constitutes a sensitive caregiver can vary across and within cultures.


The social competency concept

  • According to attachment theory secure attachments result in a socially competent child and adult.
  • In western culture competency is defined by autonomy, resilience and efficacy. In aboriginal cultures, competency can be characterised by early interdependence, group cohesion, spiritual connectedness and traditional links to land and community.
  • It is possible to inappropriately interpret that an Aboriginal child is insecurely attached because they feed themselves or  do  not comply with adults’ directives.. Similarly, in some aboriginal communities the expression of negative emotion may be seen as disrespectful of elders. Therefore a  child who doesn’t show negative emotion could be misunderstood as having an insecure attachment.
  • It is important to remember that competency is defined differently in various cultures.

The secure base concept

  • Attachment theory asserts that securely attached children use their primary caregiver as a secure base from which to explore the world around them. Studies show that Aboriginal children may be discouraged from exploration before the age of two and that older children are encouraged to be self-reliant and keep a look out for their siblings. Lack of exploratory behaviour should not automatically be considered as insecure.
  • In many Aboriginal communities children have a number of regular female attachments who provide enduring relationships of support until adulthood. Multiple “mothering” is common and children are cared for by different women interchangeably who are not their natural mother. Children may seek out and form attachments to other mothers and derive their sense of security from this network of regular caregivers. This should not be interpreted as indiscriminate attachment.

Kinship and attachment theory

  • Aboriginal kinship is described as a network of social relationships and a form of governance for Aboriginal people.
  • It is extensive and includes relationships and inter- relationships of all creation: from the celestial to mother earth, from inanimate objects to living creatures. In Aboriginal cultures everything is connected.
  • The kinship system determines how people relate to each other and their roles, responsibilities and obligations in relation to one another, ceremonial business and their connection to the land.
  • Grandmothers and grandfathers play a central role in nurturing Aboriginal children. They consider themselves responsible not just for the infant or child but for the adult the child will become. They “grow adults” and prepare them to be warriors who are responsible for keeping their communities safe.
  • Grandmothers and grandfathers are responsible for helping to build a resilient adult. Sharing totemic and skin systems helps them to “grow the adult”.
  • Totems are symbols that acknowledge specific birds, animals, rocks or flora species and are considered sacred by their owners. They are passed from one generation to the next.
  • The skin system identifies and positions each individual generation in Aboriginal society in relationship to other people, the law and to the land.
  • Knowing your totem and skin name helps Aboriginal children to develop their sense of belonging, security and identity. They are central to Aboriginal ways of knowing, being and doing.
  • When thinking about relationships between Aboriginal children and their caregivers it is important to think beyond a dyadic perspective of attachment and consider the importance and value of family, extended family, kinship networks, culture and community.
  • To watch Dr Christine Fejo- King discuss aboriginal kinship and attachment theory please go to….