Yes, You Will Probably Pass Your Attachment Style On To Your Kids

Here’s the research behind what that means and what you can do about it

We often hear about the different types of attachment at they relate to romantic and inter-personal relationships, with little mention of how exactly these individual forms of attachment came to be.

Contrary to what some people might believe, we are not necessarily locked in to a particular attachment style based solely on our personalities. In fact, research suggests it has a lot more to do with the style in which we were parented, and the style of attachment exhibited by those who were doing our parenting.

In other words, there’s a large chance you copied the attachment style of your parents, and that they copied the attachment style of theirs — so on and so forth.

The good news is that the cycle can, indeed, be broken, and that becoming aware and educated on the subject is undeniably the first step to success.

So let’s begin…

What is attachment?

In the late 60’s the study of “attachment theory” was officially popularized by psychologist John Bowlby during the pioneering stages of childhood development research.

Initially theories of attachment sought to dissect the relationship between a child and a primary caregiver in order to provide insight to to ways children’s psychological and social development is formed.

“The emotional quality of our earliest attachment experience is perhaps the single most important influence on human development.”— Alan Sroufe and Dan Siegel

The theory follows the thinking that the more attached the caregiver/child relationship, the greater amount of the child’s needs that are met, simply as a result of proximity. To Bowlby, attachment was directly related to responsiveness, dependability, and nurturance, with the role of the primary caregiver (most commonly a parent) is to provide support of the child’s need as well as physical security.(1).

Later, a psychologist named Mary Ainsworth conducted a series of experiments names, “the strange situation,” which created an environment whereby parental/child attachment could be examined and furher categorized. The situation included children aged 12 to 18 months who were left alone by themselves in a room for a short period of time before their guardian returned.

Both the reaction the child gave whilst alone in the room, as well as when the parent returned, was observed by Ainsworth, allowing her to format four different types of attachment as a result. These are referred to and discussed as secure, insecure-ambivalent, insecure-avoidant, or disorganized (2).

Promisingly, her research showed that the majority of the children had what she characterized as, “secure attachment.”

A secure attachment functions in three key ways:

  • Provides a sense of safety and security
  • Regulates emotions, by soothing distress, creating joy, and supporting calm
  • Offers a secure base from which to explore

From the functions listed above, you might be able to guess that a secure attachment is a very healthy attachment.

As it relates to the strange situation, this meant that when the mother left the room the child would briefly exhibit signs of distress, only to naturally calm themselves down after a couple of minutes had passed. Upon the parent’s return, the child would show only signs of joy and relief.

The behaviours Ainsworth observed in the majority of these children were deemed as being representative of a secure attachment. This was because even without the presence of a guardian figure, the child seemed to have formed a sturdy enough understanding of the relationship to comprehend that he/she was not being abandoned.

A child who is securely attached therefore possesses the capacity to self-regulate at a young age and maintain the belief that that, sooner or later, their parent will indeed come back for them.

There are a few obvious reasons why the establishment of secure attachment in children can be so important to their core and continuous wellbeing. For starters, this form of attachment allows for both freedom and responsibility to grow directly alongside the child. The child feels confident in their own ability to tackle new challenges while simultaneously getting the reassurance that they could easily turn to a parent and receive immediate support as and when needed.

The idea here is that a secure, non-anxious attachment during infancy and childhood acts as a secure base from which the child can independently, yet safely begin to explore and expand his/her surroundings. In a romantic relationship, this translates to high intimacy and levels of trust and security, whilst both partners maintain their autonomy and independence (3).

Not only are children with secure attachment more likely to go on to form healthy relationships themselves, but there is also a profuse amount of evidence to suggest that secure children are also more independent, better at coping under stress, more likely to form closer friendships and be perceived as friendlier individuals, have higher self-esteem, greater social competence, exhibit more leadership qualities, and even have a reduced risk of developing dementia or experiencing cognitive decline with age. All in all — some pretty good things (4, 5, 6).

“Insecure-ambivalent” attachment, on the other hand — a type of attachment found in roughly 7–15% of children in the United States — has a profile of consequences for child development that can look slightly different (7).

Ambivalent attachment occurs when a child is unable to rely on their guardian on a regular basis. Thus, it occurred during the strange situation experiment that whenever a parent would exit the room, a child presenting an ambivalent attachment style would become extremely stressed and often entirely unable to be soothed, even following the parent’s subsequent return to the room.

These children seemed to be lacking the key element of innate trust in their attachment to caregiver — the unfortunate but likely result of poor parental availability. This type of attachment can cause for a range of problems to crop up, both throughout early childhood as well as during the later stages of life.

Research indicates that individuals with this type of attachment are not only to display insecure-ambivalent attachment in interpersonal relationships of their own, but the may be increasingly prone to the development of anxiety, agoraphobia, and other mental disorders (8, 9).

Thirdly is a type of attachment known as “avoidant attachment.” This form of attachment can be best characterized as a distinct lack of dependence on a caregiver. An insecure-avoidant attached child will often exhibit no signs that would differentiate a known caregiver from a complete stranger, and will also tend to avoid asking for or seeking help.

This form of attachment is largey due to a neglectful or abusive parent/child relationship where dependence on the guardian has resulted in punishment for the child at one point or another. Later life ramifications for individuals parented with avoidant attachment are not dissimilar to those with insecure-ambivalent attachment, albeit they can be more severe.

Data that examines adult attachment strongly suggests that attachment insecurity is a risk factor for many disorders such as oppositional defiant disorder (ODD), conduct disorder (CD), or PTSD, as well as depression and even psychopathology (10).

Lastly is a broader type of attachment referred to as “disorganized attachment” that most frequently appears to be the result of inconsistency among caregivers. With this attachment, children often exhibit confusion and in some cases display both neediness and resistance towards their guardian.

These findings make sense in the case where the child has had an abrupt change of primary caregiver in his/her life, as the child may dually associate their guardian with a source of safety and refuge as well as the fear of the unknown. In circumstances of adoption, a child over the age of 6 months is said to have a higher risk of developing attachment issues, particularly in this type category (11).

What impact does attachment style have on parenting?

So you may be wondering what happens when these children (whatever attachment style they may have developed) go on to have children of their very own.

Consistantly, research has found that attachment type is easily transmissible between generations and that, more often than not, there exists a “passing down” of attachment type to children — whether that be secure, ambivalent, avoidant or disorganized (12, 13).

Some studies, however, suggest that parenting is a reciprocal process with the parent possessing the ability to directly influence the attachment style of the child — and most interestingly— vice versa, too. To follow this line of thinking, it may come down to the temperament of both parties in determining exactly what type of attachment is formed between the two.

With that said, it’s clear that the style of attachment the parent or guardian experienced during their early childhood has the ability to make the most difference. This is because when a guardian’s capacity to meet their child’s needs is limited by their own personality or insecure attachment, infants with added temperament difficulties are at an increased risk for developing ambivalent or avoidant attachment. It is, therefore, the action and reaction between the parent and child that creates the security, or insecurity of the attachment bond (14).

In conclusion, the importance of secure attachment at an early age cannot be reiterated enough. Both the psychological benefits as well as increased health in romantic relationships illustrate the necessity of a proper caregiver, one that meets the needs of the child and can fully be depended on for support at all times.

Additionally, there is a great deal of evidence that indicates that an individual’s attachment during their own childhood does predispose them to raising their own children in that same manner, with the cycle repeating over years and years to come. This does not, however, mean that there’s nothing you can do about it.

Is it possible to encourage secure attachment of my child, even if I’m not securely attached?

As outlined earlier, a secure attachment functions in three key ways:

  • Provides a sense of safety and security
  • Regulates emotions, by soothing distress, creating joy, and supporting calm
  • Offers a secure base from which to explore

But these outcomes don’t exactly translate to day-to-day parenting strategy, and it can be hard to assess whether or not you’re on the right track when it comes to re-wiring your attachment style as a parent.

That is to say: it can be done! But instead of being down to any one single practice, encouraging a secure attachment style between you and your child is the result of continuous attempts to strengthen communication, connection, and trust.

For parents who identify with insecure or disorganized attachment types, taking conscious steps towards self-care and healthy coping mechanisms for addressing anxiety or added stress may prove most helpful in providing your child with the tools to do the same.

Last but not least, it’s important to understand that secure attachment does not equate with being a perfect parent — there’s just no such thing. In fact, forming secure attachments has far more to do with the on-going quality of parent-child interactions, and the guardian’s willingness to improve responsiveness to their child’s needs, than it ever did with not making mistakes along the way.

Alexandra Walker-Jones — April 2021

Text References:

  1. Bowlby, J. (1969). Attachment and Loss, Vol. 1: Attachment. Attachment and Loss. New York: Basic Books.
  2. Ainsworth MDS, Blehar MC, Waters E, Wall S. Patterns of Attachment: A Psychological Study of the Strange Situation. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum; 1978.
  3. Hazan, C. & Shaver, P. “Attachment as an organizational framework for research on close relationship.” Psychological Inquiry. 5 1–22, 1994.
  4. Walsh, E., Blake, Y., Donati, A., Stoop, R., & von Gunten, A. (2019). Early Secure Attachment as a Protective Factor Against Later Cognitive Decline and Dementia. Frontiers in aging neuroscience, 11, 161.
  5. Moretti, M. M., & Peled, M. (2004). Adolescent-parent attachment: Bonds that support healthy development. Paediatrics & child health, 9(8), 551–555.
  6. DiTommaso, E., Brannen-McNulty, C., Ross, L., & Burgess, M. (2003). Attachment styles, social skills and loneliness in young adults. Personality and individual differences, 35(2), 303–312.
  7. Ainsworth MDS. Attachments and Other Affectional Bonds Across the Life Cycle. In: Attachment Across the Life Cycle. Parkes CM, Stevenson-Hinde J, Marris P, eds. London: Routledge; 1991: 33–51.
  8. Bar-Haim, Y., Dan, O., Eshel, Y., & Sagi-Schwartz, A. (2007). Predicting children’s anxiety from early attachment relationships. Journal of anxiety disorders, 21(8), 1061–1068.
  9. De Ruiter, C., & Van Ijzendoorn, M. H. (1992). Agoraphobia and anxious-ambivalent attachment: An integrative review. Journal of Anxiety Disorders, 6(4), 365–381.
  10. Warren SL, Huston L, Egeland B, Sroufe LA. Child and adolescent anxiety disorders and early attachment. J Am Acad Child Adolesc Psychiatry. 1997 May;36(5):637–44. doi: 10.1097/00004583–199705000–00014. PMID: 9136498.
  11. Ainsworth MDS. Attachments and Other Affectional Bonds Across the Life Cycle. In: Attachment Across the Life Cycle. Parkes CM, Stevenson-Hinde J, Marris P, eds. London: Routledge; 1991: 33–51.
  12. Jang MJ. Intergeneration transmission of attachment: mother’s internal working model of relationships and infant attachment pattern [dissertation] Seoul: Kyung Hee University; 1998. pp. 1–138.
  13. Jung HS. The relationships among maternal attachment, caring behavior and children’s attachment [dissertation] Seoul: Sookmyung Women’s University; 2000. pp. 1–73.
  14. Goossens FA, van IJzendoorn MH. Quality of infants’ attachments to professional caregivers: relation to infant-parent attachment and day-care characteristics. Child Dev. 1990;61:832–837

Writer and published author with an international background in psychology, nutrition, and creative writing. I’m just here to learn ;)

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