The Language of Attachment

Anna Frenkel
3 min readNov 20, 2016

“We’re only as needy as our unmet needs” — John Bowlby

Written to the song: I Wish I Knew Natalie Portman — K-OS

John Bowlby is known as the Father of Attachment Theory (Bowlby, 1969). “Attachment” is the emotional bond created between a child and their parents or between partners in a relationship, to develop a sense of security. If a child fails to form secure attachment due to abuse or trauma, there are long-term effects such as anxiety, conduct disorders and post-traumatic stress disorder (Cherry, 2016). On the other hand, infants who form strong attachment have stronger self-esteem, are more independent, and form healthy relationships. Can language shape attachment?

Mom used to call me a “leach” because of my attachment #clingy

Healthy attachment is creating a supportive relationship. The language used in a supportive relationship is one that encourages the other individual, actively listens and provides a sincere response. Active listening can be accomplished by listening rather than waiting one’s turn to speak, and responding through paraphrasing one’s words when responding to a conversation.

“I feel that I am at peace when I am by the sea” — active listening response: “what specifically abou the sea makes you feel at peace?”

There are always certain kids who struggle with saying goodbye to their parents before going to school. The child that is attached to their parent is worried that their parent may not return. Instead of having the teacher pull the child away from the parent, a parent can simply say “after school let’s bake cookies together”. Therefore, the child can walk-away happy with something to look forward to, thinking “of course Dad is going to pick me up after school, we have plans to bake cookies together”. Simple, but powerful.

Sisters, 1999.

Another key aspect is changing “I” language to “we” language. Instead of “you will get through this” it is “we are a team, we will overcome this together”. Language shapes attachment by ensuring that individuals feel like they are part of a greater collective group, feeling supported, encouraged and needed. As someone studying to become a teacher, I find that shifting my language works wonders — both in my classroom practicum and my personal life. It is offering support, asking why someone looks sad and asking them what you can do to make them feel more comfortable. Tweaking our language is a simple way that one can create a therapeutic environment, supportive of all individuals. How powerful is that?


Bowlby J. Attachment. Attachment and loss: Vol. 1. Loss. New York: Basic Books; 1969.