Behaviour & Emotions Core Concepts

Attachment theory 101: Safe and secure

Parenting Place Attachment theory

Attachment can mean a lot of things in parenting. The word might first lead you to think about a particular parenting philosophy and style. It can also refer to special soft toys or scraps of blankets that parents live in fear of losing. Maybe it reminds you of a critical piece of parenting kit that attaches capsule to pushchair, or coffee cup to buggy...

This article looks at attachment theory – a theory about human relationships in general, and specifically concerned with how children develop a close relationship with at least one caregiver. Mothers have been most frequently studied in attachment research, because they are most often the parent providing the secure base from which the attachment relationship can develop. However, it is increasingly being recognised that the attachment relationship is not limited to mothers and infants, and an infant can develop a positive attachment with other consistent caregivers (such as the child’s father and grandparents). We’ll use the term ‘parent’ in the rest of this article to refer to a child’s primary caregiver, whomever they may be.

Our babies form an attachment with us (not us with them) and how we respond to our babies determines the nature of that attachment.

Before delving into a deeper understanding of attachment theory, it is important to define what attachment is and what it is not. Other words for attachment include the ‘bond’ or ‘tie’ between a child and their parent, and it is used to describe the set of behaviours from the child towards the parent. Our babies form an attachment with us (not us with them) and how we respond to our babies determines the nature of that attachment. Attachment is not the same as ‘love’ and ‘affection’, and it is not the same thing as ‘attachment parenting’ – the philosophy advocated by William and Martha Sears (more on this later).

Born for this

Attachment theory suggests that children are born into the world with two main needs –

  1. The need for closeness, comfort, safety, security and protection – this ensures they will survive until they are old enough to take care of themselves

  2. The need for exploration, independence and autonomy – this ensures that they will learn and develop

Children thrive when their parents are sensitive (recognising which need their child is expressing), and responsive (offering support that fits that need). Children need their parents to be accessible, available (both physically and emotionally), and attuned.

Children also come into the world with the tools they need to form this attachment with their parent. It is intrinsic, instinctive and something we are all wired to do. Babies cry, and it moves their parent to feed them, soothe them or change their nappies. Babies babble and coo, and parents speak to their baby in ‘parentese’ – that special nonsense language we make with a higher than usual pitch! When babies express their distress and experience soothing from their parent, they become confident that their parent can handle their feelings so they openly express their feelings, and over time, learn to how to handle their own feelings. In this way, attachment is important for the child’s social and emotional development, as well as their safety.

A secure base and a safe haven

When children are exploring their world and asserting their independence, they need their parents to allow them the freedom to do that safely. Parents can watch over their child, can share in the child’s delights and discoveries, and can offer help or support when the child needs it. In this way, the parents are the secure base from which the child explores the world and develops their capabilities.

Sometimes children become tired, scared, hurt or overwhelmed in the course of their exploring, and they will return to their parent for closeness and comfort. At this time, the parent becomes their safe haven. Parents can help soothe their child’s emotions, and offer comfort and protection, providing rest and reassurance until the child feels ready to take on the world again.

This cycle goes on continuously, and over many repetitions, as the child experiences their needs being met reliably and predictably, the bond between child and parent is strengthened.

This cycle goes on continuously, and over many repetitions, as the child experiences their needs being met reliably and predictably, the bond between child and parent is strengthened. The child develops a deep sense that they can depend on their parent, that the world is a safe place, and that they, the child, are worthy and competent. These beliefs are called internal working models and give the child a pattern for predicting what will happen. They also shape the child’s expectations of self, others and the world, and serve as a template for future relationships. This leads to flourishing – the child can achieve their potential, and they can develop fulfilling relationships with others. A secure attachment is the building block for good emotional regulation, empathy, social skills and learning.

Children engage in patterns of behaviours to keep their parents close when they are distressed, and how they form attachments will depend on the environment they are raised in and the responses they receive from their parent. The above describes the ideal situation – a secure attachment, where the child seeks their parent’s closeness and comfort, and consistently experience acceptance, warmth and their needs met.

A secure attachment is the building block for good emotional regulation, empathy, social skills and learning.

When it comes to the role parents play in secure attachment, consistency and predictability are key. You don’t have to get it right all the time and you certainly don’t need to be perfect. Keep in mind what our kids need to thrive – sensitive and responsive parents, who are consistent and predictable as opposed to perfect!

Less than ideal

There are several things that can be considered risk factors for developing an insecure attachment relationship. These include:

  • A parent’s depression or psychological distress can make it more difficult for them to engage sensitively and responsively to their baby’s needs.

  • A parent’s recollection of their own childhood experiences with their parents also affects the attachment relationship. When a parent recalls unfavourable relationships in their past, it may compromise the development of secure attachment.

  • Some (but not all) literature suggests that if an infant has a difficult temperament, it may affect the quality of attachment.

  • Poor infant health (e.g. premature birth) may also compromise the quality of attachment, because those infants may be more at risk for developmental delays and physical, cognitive and visual impairments. As a result, attachment behaviours such as smiling, crying and resistance to separations may look very different in these infants.

In these cases, a child might experience less optimal patterns of having their needs met, and may not develop a secure attachment.

If a child were to consistently experience rejection (from an unresponsive parent who did not meet their needs), they would be likely to develop an avoidant attachment style. The child may learn that expressing their needs has no ability to influence their parent, so instead they suppress their feelings. They tend to avoid or ignore the parent – staying close enough for protection, but not so close that they might experience rejection.

If a child sometimes experiences their needs being met, but at other times doesn't, they are likely to develop an ambivalent attachment style. These children may engage in a pattern of angry, then helpless, behaviours to keep their parent close. Their ‘angry’ outbursts gain their parents attention, and their ‘helpless’ behaviours are attempts to keep the parent close. The child perceives the parents as unpredictable or neglecting, and might become overly clingy and needy – the child lacks attention and starts working harder to get it.

Finally, some children experience a parent who is scary or even dangerous. If the parent shows highly contrasting behavior, which is inconsistent and unpredictable, the child does not know what to expect. They also don’t know when the parent will meet their needs, if at all. A child in this situation is in a difficult position, as the person who is supposed to be meeting their needs is actually harming them. The child may be torn between love and affection, and stress and fear and would be described as having a disorganised attachment style.

Repair and reconnect

While that can all sound dire, there is good news – insecure patterns of attachment are not set in stone. It is important to note that if a child has an insecure attachment, it does not necessarily mean that they will experience poorer outcomes. A child who has a shaky start in their relationships can experience a repair, and an improvement in the bond with their parents. And parenting programmes that teach parents to be more sensitive and responsive can improve outcomes for their children. Some simple changes in how parents/caregivers relate to their babies and children can support the development of more secure patterns of attachment.

There are two major protective factors that may serve to help develop a secure attachment and prevent the development of an insecure attachment. These are increasing maternal sensitivity and increasing social support.

The greater ability a mother has to be sensitive and responsive to her infant, the greater likelihood the infant will develop a secure attachment. Maternal responsiveness and sensitivity refers to the mother’s ability to respond to her infant’s cues and her ability to understand the infant’s experiences and own mental state. The ideas of ‘Serve and Return’ and ‘Pause, Reflect, Engage’ are practical ways parents can increase their ability to be sensitive and responsive to their child’s needs.

Having a good social support network can increase the likelihood that a child will develop a secure attachment. This is because social support contributes so vitally to a parent’s wellbeing, and also provides the child with the possibility of multiple attachment relationships (e.g. with Grandma).

So what about Attachment Parenting?

We’ll close by clarifying the difference between attachment parenting and parenting from a foundation of attachment theory.

William Sears was a paediatrician and his wife, Martha Sears, was a registered nurse. They had eight children, and back in the 80s they wrote a book called Attachment Parenting. In it, they advocate for a collection of seven practices they call the Baby Bs: birth bonding, breastfeeding, baby-wearing, bedding close to the baby, belief in the baby’s cry, balance and boundaries, and beware of baby trainers.

While these practices emphasise responding sensitively to the needs of babies and children, and may all have benefits, none of the practices are proven to be essential to a baby’s secure attachment with their parent. Birth bonding and breastfeeding are great, but you can imagine the shame and guilt a parent who had an emergency C-section or who is unable to breastfeed may feel. In fact, preoccupied or insensitive breastfeeding could actually contribute to an insecure attachment, while warm, sensitive, interactive bottle-feeding could help create a secure attachment. Skin-to-skin contact, physical touch, holding and carrying are good for infants and can even reduce crying. But if the parent is stressed, emotionally distant or fails to read the baby’s cues, the baby is unlikely to benefit from the practice of baby-wearing. Attachment theory has taught us that what matters most is the parent’s attunement and the quality of their interactions with the child.

Attachment theory has taught us that what matters most is the parent’s attunement and the quality of their interactions with the child.

Attachment Parenting, as championed by the Sears and followed by multitudes of loving parents, is a well-intentioned reaction to earlier, harsher parenting advice. The tone of the guidance tends to be baby-centered, supportive and loving and some of the practices are beneficial for reasons other than attachment. However, a secure attachment – in theory and in practice, as discussed in this article – is not the same thing as the philosophy called attachment parenting.

Attachment theory invites us to be the secure base from which our children can explore the world, and the safe haven they can return to. What an honour that is, with profound benefits for our children – for the whole community in fact, and for generations to come!

Bowlby, J. (1951). Maternal care and mental health. World Health Organisation Monograph.

Katherine Tarr

Katherine Tarr

Katherine is a Child and Family Psychologist with experience working in both the early intervention and education settings. She was part of our Programme Development team where she was responsible for researching and developing training programmes to equip facilitators to deliver our courses to a high standard. Prior to training as a psychologist, Katherine was a high school teacher and an outdoor instructor. She has four primary school aged children and in their spare time the family enjoys having adventures in the outdoors.

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