Why should parents understand attachment styles?

"Attachment style" is such an important concept for parents and caregivers to understand because it impacts every relationship we have in our lives, even with our own children. Parents or primary caregivers are responsible for the kind of attachment style our children develop, that will influence how our children connect with others throughout their entire lives.

Attachment styles are learned in the first years of a child's life. At that early stage, a child's main goal is to learn how to be as closely connected to their caregiver as they can. The way that the parent or primary caregiver responds to the child's needs and behavior determines how the child interacts in a bond — their attachment style. Essentially, a parent or primary caregiver imprints on their child as their child is learning how to connect in the world.

For example, if a parent is very inconsistent with their responses to their child's needs — sometimes responding with intense frustration, and sometimes responding with warmth — the child will learn that they can't always trust that mom or dad will respond warmly and calmly to their needs. This child may develop an anxious/ambivalent attachment style.

Here are the four different attachment styles:

Secure Attachment Style

A child who has a secure attachment tends to be trusting and happy. They feel “secure” enough in their relationship with their parent that they are not afraid to explore the world and test their limits as individuals.

A great definition of healthy and secure attachment comes from Dr. Karyn Purvis in her book The Connected Parent, which says that: 

attachment is 'an affectionate bond between a caregiver and a youngster, an infant, child, or adolescent. It's the bond that tells that child they’re safe, their needs matter, and they are precious. Within the attachment bond, the caregiver acts as the external regulator for all of the child's needs.'"

Anxious/Ambivalent Attachment Style

A child who has an ambivalent attachment tends to be highly anxious and insecure. They may always want to be with their parent/caregiver, but may also reject attention when they become the center of it. They may be fearful of people they don’t know.

Anxious/Avoidant Attachment Style

A child who has an avoidant attachment tends to be distant emotionally. They may prefer to play independently rather than with other children or adults. A child who has this attachment style may avoid physical contact, and may rather do things on their own instead of asking for help.

Disorganized Attachment Style

A child who has a disorganized attachment tends to have challenges with regulating their emotions. They may have outbursts of angry behavior, but may also seem reserved, depressed, or withdrawn.

Becoming curious about our own attachment style is often something the social workers at Maine Children's Home discuss when working with adults looking to build their family through adoption. But it's also a concept that all parents and primary caregivers would benefit from becoming familiar with, since a parent's attachment style will impact their own child's attachment style.

Interested in learning more about attachment?

The Connected Families Project will have training offerings for parents, caregivers, and teachers relating to attachment and other helpful information for those working closely with children.