It’s well known that the relationships a baby forms in the first years of their life have a deep impact on their long-term well-being.
When babies have access to warm, responsive caregivers, they’re likely to grow up with a strong, healthy attachment to those caregivers.
On the other hand, when babies don’t have that access, they’re likely to develop an unhealthy attachment to these caregivers. This can affect the relationships they form over the course of their lifetime.
A child who’s securely attached to their caregiver develops a range of benefits, from better emotional regulation and higher levels of confidence to a greater ability to show caring and empathy toward others.
When a child is insecurely attached to their caregiver, though, they may face a range of lifelong relationship challenges.
One way a child can be insecurely attached to their parent or caregiver is through an avoidant attachment.
An avoidant attachment is formed in babies and children when parents or caregivers are largely emotionally unavailable or unresponsive most of the time.
Babies and children have a deep inner need to be close to their caregivers. Yet they can quickly learn to stop or suppress their outward displays of emotion. If children become aware that they’ll be rejected from the parent or caregiver if they express themselves, they adapt.
When their inner needs for connection and physical closeness aren’t met, children with avoidant attachment stop seeking closeness or expressing emotion.
Sometimes, parents may feel overwhelmed or anxious when confronted with a child’s emotional needs, and close themselves off emotionally.
They might completely ignore their child’s emotional needs or needs for connection. They may distance themselves from the child when they seek affection or comfort.
These parents may be especially harsh or neglectful when their child is experiencing a period of greater need, such as when they’re scared, sick, or hurt.
Parents who foster an avoidant attachment with their children often openly discourage outward displays of emotion, such as crying when sad or noisy cheer when happy.
They also have unrealistic expectations of emotional and practical independence for even very young children.
Some behaviors that may foster an avoidant attachment in babies and children include a parent or caregiver who:
- routinely refuses to acknowledge their child’s cries or other shows of distress or fear
- actively suppresses their child’s displays of emotion by telling them to stop crying, grow up, or toughen up
- becomes angry or physically separates from a child when they show signs of fear or distress
- shames a child for displays of emotion
- has unrealistic expectations of emotional and practical independence for their child
Avoidant attachment can develop and be recognized as early as infancy.
In one older experiment, researchers had parents briefly leave the room while their infants played to evaluate attachment styles.
Infants with a secure attachment cried when their parents left, but went to them and were quickly soothed when they returned.
Infants with an avoidant attachment appeared outwardly calm when the parents left, but avoided or resisted having contact with their parents when they returned.
Despite the appearance that they didn’t need their parent or caregiver, tests showed these infants were just as distressed during the separation as the securely attached infants. They simply didn’t show it.
As children with an avoidant attachment style grow and develop, they often appear outwardly independent.
They tend to rely heavily on self-soothing techniques so they can continue to suppress their emotions and avoid seeking out attachment or support from others outside of themselves.
Children and adults who have an avoidant attachment style might also struggle to connect with others who attempt to connect or form a bond with them.
They might enjoy the company of others but actively work to avoid closeness due to a feeling that they don’t — or shouldn’t — need others in their life.
Adults with avoidant attachment might also struggle to verbalize when they do have emotional needs. They may be quick to find fault in others.
To ensure you and your child develop a secure attachment, it’s important to be aware of how you’re meeting their needs. Be mindful of what messages you’re sending them about showing their emotions.
You can start by ensuring that you’re meeting all of their basic needs, like shelter, food, and closeness, with warmth and love.
Sing to them as you rock them to sleep. Talk warmly with them as you change their diaper.
Pick them up to soothe them when they’re crying. Don’t shame them for normal fears or mistakes, like spills or broken dishes.
If you’re concerned about your ability to foster this sort of secure attachment, a therapist can help you develop positive parenting patterns.
Experts recognize that most parents who pass an avoidant attachment to their child do so after forming one with their own parents or caretakers when they were children.
These sorts of intergenerational patterns can be a challenge to break, but it’s possible with support and hard work.
Therapists focusing on attachment issues will often work one-on-one with the parent. They can help them:
- make sense of their own childhood
- begin to verbalize their own emotional needs
- begin to develop closer, more authentic bonds with others
Therapists focusing on attachment will also often work with the parent and child together.
A therapist can help make a plan to meet your child’s needs with warmth. They can offer support and guidance through the challenges — and joys! — that come with developing a new parenting style.
The gift of secure attachment is a beautiful thing for parents to be able to give their children.
Parents can prevent children from developing an avoidant attachment and support their development of a secure attachment with diligence, hard work, and warmth.
It’s also important to remember that no single interaction will shape a child’s entire attachment style.
For example, if you usually meet your child’s needs with warmth and love but let them cry in their crib for a few minutes while you tend to another child, step away for a breather, or take care of yourself in some other way, that’s OK.
A moment here or there doesn’t take away from the solid foundation you’re building every day.
Julia Pelly has a master’s degree in public health and works full time in the field of positive youth development. Julia loves hiking after work, swimming during the summer, and taking long, cuddly afternoon naps with her sons on the weekends. Julia lives in North Carolina with her husband and two young boys. You can find more of her work at JuliaPelly.com.