As a child psychologist, I know the importance of positive and secure attachment in child development.
I want to outline what this means in real life so that you can apply it to your relationship with your child.
In this article, I will explain what attachment is, why it is important, and how parents of children aged 5+ can support a secure attachment with your child.
Why Is Attachment Important?
Simply put, attachment is important because a strong bond with a caring adult is more likely to generate a happy, secure child. Early childhood interactions with our parents and caregivers shape our attachment style in years to come.
Attachment Theory: Early Years
The early months and years of a child’s life shape the way they respond to the world.
These emotions are so big, a child needs an adult to help soothe them. Otherwise, the world can seem a terrifying place.
It’s vitally important that all children have at least one specific caregiver who helps soothe them when they feel scared or vulnerable, or when feelings get too big for them to manage.
Even teenagers need support to manage their emotions and may need you to “co-regulate” their feelings.
How Does Attachment Affect Emotional Development?
If a parent is consistently available for a child whenever they feel unsafe or scared, they can provide physical soothing and comfort. This helps the child feel safe again. Being a role-model like this allows the child to learn how to calm themselves.
Secure attachment relationships can take several years to develop. Children will still need to return to their “secure base” (mum, dad, grandparent or another safe adult) for comfort if they face a new fear or a bigger challenge.
The Impact of Attachment on Child Development: Independence
Gradually, a securely attached child builds confidence and roams further and further from their “secure base”.
They know there is always a safe place to return to when they need comfort – even in the teenage years.
Through this constant process of comfort and reassurance-seeking, exploring, and returning to the safe base, children develop a solid sense of independence and confidence. They gradually learn to “self-soothe”, and therefore they can manage tricky emotions as and when they come along.
Importance of Attachment For Future Relationships
A child who has had a secure attachment with her parent or another safe adult is more likely to be able to develop lasting successful relationships as an adult.
Research has confirmed that our adult relationships are shaped by our early patterns of attachment and the ways we learn to deal with closeness and separation.
Important of Attachment: Positive Case Study (Kris)
Kris is a 16-year-old boy who has developed secure adult relationships as a result of a secure and loving attachment and feeling safe as a younger child.
Kris’s parents were always there for him when he was growing up. They provided him with a safe and loving environment, and they were always responsive to his needs. Kris knew that he could always count on his parents for love and support.
As a result of his secure attachment, Kris developed a healthy sense of self-worth. He knows that he is worthy of love and respect, and he is confident in his ability to form and maintain close relationships.
Kris is also able to communicate his needs and feelings openly and honestly. He is not afraid to share his thoughts and feelings, and he can listen to and understand the needs and feelings of others as well.
Kris has recently begun dating. Because of positive past experiences he feels he can trust his girlfriend. He knows she is there for him, and that he can count on her for support. He gives her support in return.
Here are some specific ways Kris’s secure attachment has helped him start to develop secure adult relationships:
- Kris is in a loving and supportive relationship with his girlfriend, Seren.
- Kris is also able to maintain close relationships with his friends. He is always there for them when they need him, and he knows that they are there for him as well.
- Kris has a positive relationship with his parents. He knows that he can always count on them for love and support, and he is grateful for their presence in his life.
Attachment in Children: When the Attachment Relationship Is Not Secure
Sometimes a child does not have a positive experience of developing a healthy, strong attachment with a close emotional bond. One reason might be that a parent can’t, for whatever reason, soothe and comfort their child regularly when this is needed.
Perhaps the parent is going through a great deal of stress, or is mentally or physicaly unwell.
The child feels huge emotion but no way of coping. They may feel unsafe and fearful about new situations, because there is no consistent adult who can contain and regulate the emotion.
This can lead to huge anxiety.
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Importance of Attachment: Attachment Styles
Attachment theory has been around for around sixty years and was first proposed by the British psychologist, psychiatrist, and psychoanalyst John Bowlby.
It was further developed by his student Mary Ainsworth, a developmental psychologist who suggested three basic attachment styles, later expanded to four.
1. Secure Attachment
Secure relationships occur when an adult is consistently available to meet the child’s needs and to respond in a way which contains the emotion, making the child feel safe.
It is normal for children with a secure attachment to experience separation anxiety in the early years and even into the teenage years.
Once reunited with their caregiver they will show relief and warmth towards the caregiver.
2. Anxious-avoidant Attachment
Anxious-avoidant attachment develops when the parent or main caregiver is unable to meet a child’s needs.
The child still feels big emotions such as fear and sadness, but they learn strategies to cope alone.
These strategies may not serve them well.
For example, they may cope by denying the importance of the feelings or pretending they are not there, but underneath, huge anxiety remains. The child does not learn healthy skills to self-soothe effectively because no-one has modeled this for them.
As adults, people with an anxious-avoidant attachment style may be afraid of intimacy and commitment. They may even sabotage relationships, perhaps lashing out emotionally at anyone who tries to get close to them.
Through bottling up or denying their emotions, they are vulnerable to mental health difficulties.
3. Anxious-resistant Attachment
Anxious-resistant attachment is also called ambivalent attachment.
This type of attachment is thought to occur when a parent or caregiver has been available only inconsistently to meet a child’s emotional needs.
The parent or caregiver is only intermittently attuned to the child’s needs.
The child may understandably find it hard to trust their parent, but they show clingy and desperate attachment behaviours. They learn that the only way to have their needs met is to cling to their primary attachment figure.
As you can imagine, this has implications for the child as they move into adulthood. It can contribute to trust issues and over-clinginess in adult relationships and is a risk factor for poor mental health including longstanding anxiety.
4. Disorganised Attachment
A disorganised attachment is the most worrying attachment style in terms of its implications for mental health, wellbeing and future relationships.
It develops in children who live in an environment full of fear, often involving abuse or neglect.
The child’s caregivers are the child’s only known source of safety, but they are also a source of fear. In other words, there is no organised strategy that works for the child. Parent behaviour is unpredictable, so the child cannot get their needs met without fear.
A child with a disorganised attachment often expresses contradictory behaviour towards the parent such as running up to them and then immediately pulling away. This can have a pervasive and negative impact on future relationships and social interactions.
Importance of Attachment in Child Development: Can Attachment Become More Secure?
If your child does not have a secure attachment relationship with you then you may need professional support to work on this.
Insecure attachment styles are common in children who are in the looked after system; in foster care, residential care or have been adopted.
Whilst you await support, use these key principles:
- Provide clear, consistent boundaries to help your child feel safe and contained.
- Remember your child may require a great deal of patience, time, and secure, consistent relationships, to develop into a secure, confident young person.
- Help them to identify and name their worries – such as “Mum/Dad will leave me”. Create an atmosphere of openness and “worry-sharing”. Help your child voice their fears, talk them through, and find a healthier perspective.
- Don’t dismiss worries and fears, but “model” coping with them.
- Provide as much extra nurture as your child needs, regardless of their age or the developmental stage you feel they should have reached. Give them what they need emotionally, and they will begin to progress in their development.
Significance of Attachment in School
If a child starts school and doesn’t have a “secure base” at home, school can feel very scary.
All of a sudden, your child is in a classroom with strange adults and a crowd of new children. Rules and expectations are completely different, and a child has to gain multiple skills very quickly. A child’s senses can be easily overwhelmed, for example by the noisy classroom and unfamiliar school uniform.
Feeling safe helps a child cope with these demands. If your child doesn’t feel safe, the anxiety will be huge.
Even if your child has a secure relationship with you, their relationship with the class teacher may not feel so secure and safe.
Your child may show it by “acting out” (difficult behaviour) either at school or at home, or by withdrawing into themselves.
Attachment Styles in Children: Case Study (Eliza)
Eliza is a little girl who was adopted by Al and Sarah when she was 2 years old. Eliza has an anxious-resistant attachment style. She is clingy and wary of new people and situations.
Eliza is having difficulty settling into starting school. She cries when her parents leave her in the morning, and she often has tantrums in the classroom. She is also struggling to make friends.
Al, Sarah, and Eliza’s teacher, Mrs. Barton, are working together to support Eliza. They are using the following strategies:
- Providing clear, consistent boundaries: Al and Sarah have established clear rules and expectations for Eliza at home to help her feel safe. They are also consistent in their enforcement of these rules, whilst remaining warm and loving in their interactions with Eliza. Mrs. Barton has also established clear rules and expectations in the classroom.
- Providing extra nurture: Al and Sarah are giving Eliza a lot of extra love and attention. They are also spending time with her at school to help her feel more comfortable. Mrs. Barton is also giving Eliza extra attention and support in the classroom.
- Helping Eliza to identify and name her feelings: Al, Sarah, and Mrs. Barton are helping Eliza to identify and name her feelings, such as “scared” and “sad.” They are also helping her to express her feelings in a healthy way.
- Creating an atmosphere of openness and trust: Al, Sarah, and Mrs. Barton are creating an atmosphere of openness and trust with Eliza. They are letting her know that she can come to them with any worries or concerns.
As a result of the support she is receiving from her parents and teacher, Eliza is slowly starting to settle into school. She is still clingy and wary of new people, but she is having fewer tantrums and she is making a few friends.
Importance of Attachment: Build a Healthier Attachment Relationship
If a child doesn’t have a secure base in their early years and doesn’t feel nurtured and safe, dealing with other challenges will also be more difficult.
But it is never too late.
A child can learn to feel safe over time, even if they have missed out on this healthy strong attachment in early life.
Even if a child has parents who are consistently available to help them with big feelings, at times they will still feel scared and vulnerable. Your child’s needs for support may increase during times of uncertainty and transition, such as the move from primary to secondary school.
Imagine a graph with a line moving up and down regularly, depending on how secure your child is feeling. Child development does not occur in a straight line, and this is equally true of emotional development as physical, motor and cognitive development.
So, what can you do to help your child feel more secure, and to enable them to manage big feelings such as fear?
Here are some practical strategies…
1. Offer Regular “Nurture Time“ Appropriate to Your Child’s Age
Every child, regardless of age, needs nurture time. They need to know that someone is interested in them and is looking out for them.
Don’t make the mistake of seeing a child’s need for nurture as “attention seeking”. If a child is seeking attention, it is because they need it. We can reframe attention seeking as attention needing.
What does “nurture time” mean?
It could be ten minutes per day where you are one hundred percent focused on your child and their needs, chatting and listening to them. Or – at times of stress – your child might need a great deal more than this.
For a two-year-old, it might involve a story, a cuddle and some milk. For a teenager, this might be a one-on-one chat in the evening over a warm drink, where you really listen to what they are saying without judgement and show empathy towards whatever feelings are expressed.
This of this special one-on-one time as investment in your child’s brain development and in their future mental health. Secure attachment bonds actually alter the structure of your child’s brain, believe it or not!
Attachment impacts your child’s development of the brain in a number of ways.
When a child feels safe and cared for, a brain can focus its energy on developing crucial pathways for higher level thinking. For example, it can focus on developing the frontal cortex, which governs decision making, judgment, and reasoning.
Furthermore, when children have a “secure base” to safely explore the world (a secure attachment), they are free to have more varied experiences, which create more connections in the brain.
You can learn more about how positive relationships and early experiences influence brain development in this video from the NSPCC:
2. Practise Strong Listening Skills
As parents, we tend to have strong opinions about what is best for our children. This often causes us to impose our views on them or interrupt when they are trying to express how they feel.
Whilst, of course, we have to set boundaries and will sometimes have to impose rules and sanctions, we can still listen to a child’s thoughts and ideas, and acknowledge the feelings they have.
For example: “I know you are really disappointed and frustrated to be missing your friend’s party on Saturday, but we had already planned a trip to visit Grandpa”.
You can read more about listening skills in this article, but here are 2 simple tips:
- Practise really listening for 2 minutes at a time, and spotting any feelings that your child mentions. Focus on processing what is being said without any intention to bring your own views or opinions in, and without interrupting.
- Reflect the feelings back to your child, even if they have not been able to actually use the feelings words. For example: “From what you have just said it sounds as though you are frustrated by what is going on in the classroom”. “You said that you feel sad and lonely sometimes in the playground. That must be really hard for you.” By labelling the emotions, you help your child to identify them in the future, and you also validate the emotion. You show that you are really listening to them and that their feelings are important.
3. Create Regular Predictable Routines
Family movie night every Friday?
A leisurely family lunch every Sunday?
A bath, a story and a ten-minute mindfulness track before bed each night?
Create routines to give a child a sense of control and comfort in their lives: “I can feel safe and in control because I know what is coming next.
4. Be Aware of Your Own Feelings
When a child is going through a phase of being very needy they may express it in ways that are hard for you as a parent. This is especially true if you yourself are under stress or experiencing strong emotions.
You may feel, how can I help my child with their big feelings when I have so much going on in my own life?
It’s vital that if you feel unable to support your child with their feelings because you are struggling with your own feelings, you seek support. This support could be from a partner, family member, friend, or from a professional such as a counsellor or psychologist.
You need get into a position where you can weather the storm of your child’s emotions, and in the meantime try to enlist some help to support your child with their emotions, perhaps from a family member or friend.
This article on staying calm with your child will also help you with some “in the moment” strategies.
What Impacts Feelings of Security?
As already mentioned, how secure a child feels will fluctuate, even with loving parents who are consistently warm, nurturing and set up strong boundaries.
Things that can cause a “dip” in a child’s feelings of security include:
- A difficult family life event such as a bereavement
- A positive family life event that involves change, such as going on holiday
- A transition at school, such as moving up to secondary school
- A developmental stage, such as going through puberty
- A change of friendship groups
Even the most secure child might feel vulnerable and temporarily unsafe at times like these.
Importance of Attachment in Child Development During a Vulnerable or Insecure Phase
It’s helpful to anticipate periods in your child’s development when they may feel more vulnerable or insecure.
For instance, many children feel vulnerable when moving from primary school to secondary school. So, you might predict that this could be the case for your child too.
However, we can’t always predict these tricky periods.
Look out for an increase in “fight or flight” behaviour. If a child is not feeling secure or safe, the brain will regularly interpret a threat as being present. It might interpret even the smallest thing as a threat. For example, not getting 10 out of 10 in a spelling test.
When the brain detects a threat, it releases stress chemicals including cortisol. This increases “fight or flight behaviours”.
In ancient times when most dangers were physical ones, the brain evolved a quick response to fight the danger or to get away quickly (flight).
So, what kinds of behaviours might we see?
Anger or irritability, anxiety, worry, and withdrawal are all common. You won’t see all of these things, but look out for changes in your child’s typical behaviour.
What Can I Do To Increase My Child’s Sense of Security During These Times?
During times when your child feels insecure, stressed or vulnerable, focus on that “secure base”, and do not be afraid to take a few steps back.
Warmth and nurture, without being overbearing or stifling, are crucial.
Do what you can to help other adults understand the importance of attachment in children too. If fellow parents and grandparents also understand what you are trying to achieve, you can work together to provide that secure base.
Consider a twelve-year-old girl who had been happy-go-lucky and relaxed, but suddenly experiences a change in friendship groups and also starts puberty at the same time. She might have a period of increased worrying, which may, in turn, affect her ability to get to sleep and cause her to feel anxious and stressed.
Even though she may have been settling herself to sleep for a long time, during this period why not offer to read to her at bedtime?
Or perhaps plan a special day out offering “dad and daughter” or “mum and daughter” time?
Or make her favourite meal and watch a movie together?
When a child is under stress give them a higher level of nurture. Treat your child as though they are younger emotionally, just until they are through this tricky patch.
Once they feel safe and secure again, they can venture out from the “safe space” again, flourish and take on new challenges!
Summary: Why Is Attachment Important in Child Development?
I hope the above summary will help you to deepen your attachment relationship with your child and help them to feel more safe and secure as they venture into the world.
If you remain concerned, you may wish to look for a therapist to help you and your child with your relationship and your child’s development and wellbeing. You will find information about how to access therapy in this article.
Attachment in Children: Related Articles
Dr Lucy Russell is a UK clinical psychologist who works with children and families. Her work involves both therapeutic support and autism assessments. She is the Clinical Director of Everlief Child Psychology, and also worked in the National Health Service for many years.
In 2019 Lucy launched They Are The Future, a support website for parents of school-aged children. Through TATF Lucy is passionate about giving practical, manageable strategies to parents and children who may otherwise struggle to find the support they need.
Lucy is a mum to two teenage children. She lives in Buckinghamshire with her husband, children, rescue dog and three rescue cats. She enjoys caravanning and outdoor living, singing and musical theatre.
Join They Are The Future’s free Facebook group for regular tips on supporting teens and pre-teens with their mental health! Join the group: Parent Tips for Positive Child Mental Health UK.