The attachment theory is probably one of the most studied when it comes to parenting. That’s not surprising. Although attachment in the early years centers on the relationship of a child and their caregiver (usually Mom), it also influences future relationships — including romantic ones.
Let’s take a closer look at how you (knowingly or unknowingly) shape how your child reacts in certain situations — and how it comes down to attachment style.
Parents have many roles: You teach your children, discipline them, and take them to the dentist. And whether you realize it or not, you also influence them just by being there.
Your presence is about making your child feel loved, safe, secure, and protected. This leads to attachment.
The attachment theory was developed in the 1960s and 1970s by British psychologist John Bowlby and American Canadian psychologist Mary Ainsworth.
It discusses how parents (specifically moms) who are present and responsive to their baby’s needs give their child a safe base from which to venture forth with confidence to explore the big, wide world — and then return to for comfort.
So, you’re building a future. And here’s why:
- Raising your child in a way that makes them believe you’re there for them means that they actually experience less fear than children who aren’t raised that way.
- This precious feeling of trust is built during infancy, childhood, and adolescence — phew, you’re granted a good few years to get it right! — and influences future relationships. Take note, however, that at
6 months old, your baby is already beginning to anticipate your responses to their distress. And they’re already shaping their own behaviors to jive with those responses.
- By giving your child positive caregiver experiences, they’ll trust that others can do the same.
Ainsworth defined three main types of attachment. Later researchers added a four type. These are:
Secure attachment is what you’re aiming for. It happens when parents or other caregivers are:
In relationships with secure attachment, parents let their children go out and about but are there for them when they come back for security and comfort.
These parents pick up their child, play with them, and reassure them when needed. So, the child learns they can express negative emotions and someone will help them.
Children who develop secure attachment learn how to trust and have healthy self-esteem. Sounds like bliss! As adults, these children are in touch with their feelings, are competent, and generally have successful relationships.
This type of attachment happens when parents respond to their child’s needs sporadically. Care and protection are sometimes there — and sometimes not.
In anxious-insecure attachment, the child can’t rely on their parents to be there when needed. Because of this, the child fails to develop any feelings of security from the attachment figure.
And since the child can’t rely on their parent to be there if they feel threatened, they won’t easily move away from the parent to explore.
The child becomes more demanding and even clingy, hoping that their exaggerated distress will force the parent to react.
In anxious-insecure attachment, the lack of predictability means that the child eventually becomes needy, angry, and distrustful.
Sometimes, a parent has trouble accepting and responding sensitively to their child’s needs. Instead of comforting the child, the parent:
- minimizes their feelings
- rejects their demands
- doesn’t help with difficult tasks
This leads to avoidant-insecure attachment.
In addition, the child may be expected to help the parent with their own needs. The child learns that it’s best to avoid bringing the parent into the picture. After all, the parent doesn’t respond in a helpful manner.
In avoidant-insecure attachment, the child learns that their best bet is to shut down their feelings and become self-reliant.
Ainsworth showed that children with an avoidant-insecure attachment won’t turn to the parent when they’re distressed and try to minimize showing negative emotions.
About 15 percent of babies in groups with low psychosocial risk — and as many as 82 percent of those in high-risk situations — develop disorganized-insecure attachment, according to
In this case, parents show atypical behavior: They reject, ridicule, and frighten their child.
Parents who display these behaviors often have a past that includes unresolved trauma. Tragically, when the child approaches the parent, they feel fear and increased anxiety instead of care and protection.
The first three attachment styles are sometimes referred to as “organized.” That’s because the child learns how they have to behave and organizes their strategy accordingly.
This fourth attachment style, however, is considered “disorganized” because the child’s strategy is disorganized — and so is their resulting behavior.
Eventually, the child starts to develop behaviors that help them feel somewhat safe. For example, the child may:
- become aggressive toward the parent
- refuse care from the parent
- simply become super self-reliant
So, how do children with different attachment styles react in any given situation?
- In her famous study (The Strange Situation), Ainsworth showed that children who are securely attached go to their parent (or other caregiver) for soothing when they feel insecure and are comforted quite easily.
- The child shares how they feel: “I was shy in the new playgroup.”
- The child shows empathy for others and tries to comfort another child in distress.
- In The Strange Situation, children with anxious-insecure attachment weren’t easily comforted when distressed and took a long time to calm down.
- The child is reluctant to explore a new playground.
- The child clings and cries in an exaggerated manner when left with a new caregiver.
- The child is at ease interacting with a stranger and won’t turn to their parent for comfort.
- The child is quite happy to run off and explore and won’t return to the safe base of their parent for a quick hug.
- The child is super self-reliant and prefers to figure out by themselves how to deal with a toy box lid that just won’t open.
- The child may run to their parent for comfort when distressed, but at the same time will kick and struggle when the parent tries to comfort them.
- The child totally ignores the presence of the parent.
- The child appears dazed or confused when the parent is around.
Childhood attachment styles can affect the way adults feel and behave in their relationships. While that puts quite a burden on parents’ shoulders, it’s important to remember that everyone makes their own choices.
Children who experienced secure childhood attachment generally move on to successful intimate relationships as adults.
They are honest, supportive, and comfortable with sharing their feelings. Secure attachment can prepare a child for other social challenges and this, in turn, leads to their success.
Clingy children may grow into clingy adults.
Adults with an anxious-insecure attachment are more likely to become demanding and possessive in relationships and even codependent. They’re constantly second-guessing whether they’ve done too much — or too little — for their relationship.
Related: 8 tips for overcoming codependence
Do you know someone who just won’t commit? Adults with avoidant-insecure attachment may avoid relationships, period. They’re more likely to be dismissive and fearful and keep others at a distance.
They were also more likely to show impaired formal operational skills and have trouble with self-regulation as they got older.
Bowlby believed the attachment styles that you develop in your early years remain relatively unchanged for the rest of your life. He suggests that people react according to an “if, then” paradigm: “If I am upset, then I can count on my partner to support me (or not).”
Luckily, neuroscience has shown us that things aren’t as simple as that.
We can change the way our brains work. The first step is noticing there’s a problem and deciding you want to make a change. The second is actually making that change.
Parenting is about sculpting a future for your child. Aim to be there for them — emotionally and physically — and you can encourage the secure attachment that leads to the healthiest behaviors in adulthood.
Don’t worry if you don’t always get it right. And if you feel that you’d like to work toward changing your own attachment style, remember that nothing is carved in stone.