Healthy Attachment Between Parent and Child

Copyright Renata Osinska,

How I coach parents to nurture courage in their kids has a lot to do with attachment—which I understand to be the first step in nurturing courage development.   Attachment being defined as psychological connectedness between human beings.   A healthy attachment between parent and child provides for a child’s basic needs like food, water, shelter—our child’s survival being our most basic responsibility.  The infant’s sole purpose is to survive with the help of a secure attachment with someone (ideally a parent) able to provide the kind of security, safety, and strength needed for protection. The secure someone (ideally an adult who is stronger and wiser) also has a complementary attachment behavior system (or internal working model of attachment) that activates in response to the infant/child and seeks to protect, particularly when a threat is present. 

A healthy parent/caregiver-child attachment teaches a child the basics of human relationship and love, the willingness to try new things and develop intellectually, take risks, open their hearts and trust themselves and others, to develop a moral code, and ultimately to have courage in life.  Researchers Popper & Amit (2009) have also found that secure attachment, along with low trait anxiety and openness to experience, is correlated with leadership development. Without secure attachment between a parent/caregiver and child in infancy and early childhood, a child is at risk for severe psychological, cognitive, social, and physiological consequences. 

CAUTION: if you are a reader like me, a bit of a perfectionist and somewhat anxious about doing this whole parenting thing right…DON’T WORRY!  Being a secure attachment for your child just means loving them, connecting with them through satisfying their primary senses (touch, taste, smell, sight, hearing), being reliable (at least most of the time), and not leaving them in a crib for the first six months of their lives to fend for themselves!  Attachment theory and parenting tends to freak people like me out, but I just remember that there is no question I love my kids, am doing my best, and that there’s lots of room for making mistakes, recovering, and moving on together in the direction of love.  Our children truly deserve our best, so they can become their best.  Research shows we are doing a good job: the vast majority of infants and toddlers have secure attachments with their parents, and half of those without a secure attachment relationship at home have a secure attachment with an early childhood teacher/daycare provider. 

While writing this post on a snowbound day with my kids, I asked my 13 year-old son, the product of all my training and real-life practice in attachment theory and attachment parenting, what he remembers of his earliest years.  His response: “Nothing.  Not a thing.  Well…I do remember that day when we had to wait together in the playhouse for a really long time together until that hailstorm stopped.  You stayed with me and didn’t leave.  Yeah, that’s about all I remember.” 

How do I know it’s okay that my son doesn’t remember those countless sleepless nights and hours logged wearing and breastfeeding him—basically responding consistently, lovingly to what felt like his every early childhood need? Well, he’s still alive, for one.  He recognizes that even during hailstorms I’ll be there for him.  He seems to be secure enough in our relationship to tell me the truth!  Most importantly, he’s a confident, happy, caring, independent kid who has a pretty solid record of doing the right thing—even when I’m not looking.  He also seems to be confident that I won’t flip out that he doesn’t remember any of it! 
For a brief overview of attachment theory, one of the most well-researched, evidence-based, and influential theories in developmental psychology READ ON! 

As with most trained family therapists, I learned about John Bowlby’s Attachment Theory.  I reviewed his protégé Mary Ainsworth’s scholarly research and practical applications—particularly her observations about the concept of ‘security’ in relationship and the different types of secure and insecure attachments (secure, anxious-resistant insecure, anxious-avoidant insecure, or disorganized/ disoriented attachment).  I also read the illuminating, devastating, and in some cases, remarkably hopeful research on Romania’s abandoned orphans; research that was the basis for the addition to the then-DSM III of a mental health disorder centering on symptoms associated with a ‘failure to thrive’, called Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD).   
For the purpose of parents wanting a practical understanding of attachment theory to help understand how best to nurture courage in our kids, I’ve taken the liberty to summarize (in my own words in parentheses)attachment therapist/researcher Susan M. Johnson’s review of the ten central tenets of attachment theory.  I’m going to be writing a fair amount about how to ensure healthy attachment with our children—so I think it is a good idea to start with a basic understanding of the core tenets:
  1. Attachment is an Innate Motivating Force (seeking and maintaining close contact with other human beings across our lifespan is an innate drive, primarily to ensure survival).
  1. Secure Dependence Compliments Autonomy (as human beings, we are neither overdependent nor completely independent. The more securely attached we are the more confident and autonomous we become).
  1. Attachment offers a Safe Haven (the presence of loved ones offers comfort and security in our lives, especially in response to a threat–i.e. hunger, loud noises, unfamiliar environment).
  1. Attachment offers a Secure Base (secure attachments provide the base from which we may explore our surroundings and be cognitively open and reflective).
  1. Accessibility and Responsiveness Builds Bonds (as a parent this means being both emotionally and physically present and responsive.  Emotional regulation is also an important concept associated with responsiveness).
  1. Fear and Uncertainty Activate Attachment Needs (the comfort and connection of an attachment figure is especially important when fear and/or threat are present).
  1. The Process of Separation Distress is Predictable (angry protest, clinging, depression and despair result when attachment behaviors fail to evoke comfort and contact with attachment figures).
  1. A Finite Number of Insecure Forms of Engagement Can be Identified (typically three types of pursuer-distancer behaviors result when attachment behaviors fail to produce the necessary comfort and connection sought:  anxious preoccupied clinging, detached avoidance, and seeking closeness combined with fearful avoidance.  The primary question we are asking of our attachment figure here is “Can I depend on you when I need you?”).
  1. Attachment Provides Working Models of Self and Other (attachment strategies generally deal with how to process and cope with emotion.  Secure attachment helps us learn self-love and love of another. It is associated with self-efficacy and a trust in other’s dependability.  Once secure attachment is established, an individual develops cognitive schemas associated with goal-setting, life-affirming beliefs, and an emotional regulatory system that is more responsive than reactive.)
  1. Isolation and Loss are inherently Traumatizing (stress-based habits and behavioral strategies result in response to the unmet needs and fear that trauma evokes.  Bowlby’s (1969) fundamental research started with case studies of the effects of maternal deprivation and separation on child development.  Bowlby (1988) himself, at age four, suffered the early loss of his beloved nanny; and had limited contact with his mother due to a traditional upper class British upbringing involving boarding school for most of his childhood). 
To review, Bowlby’s (1969; 1988) theory shows that secure attachment includes the following characteristics:

Naturally, once I started having my own kids, William and Martha Sears’ attachment parenting approaches appealed to me.  Though I will admit that one particularly sleep-deprived night in our ‘family bed’, exhausted and fed up, I’m pretty sure I threw my copy of the Sears’ attachment parenting book across the room.  Anything worth doing well, isn’t always easy.  Stay tuned for more about attachment parenting in upcoming posts.  Don’t worry…in future posts you’ll see lots about how to become and stay attached (whatever the age/stage of your child) whether you are a mom, dad, or other primary caregiver to a birth, step-, foster, or adopted child.  If you have questions about attachment and/or an interest in parent-coaching, don’t hesitate to post a comment or contact me.

I’ll start with Sears’ seven “Baby Basics” to getting attached in my next posts. 


Ainsworth, M., Blehar, M., Waters, E., & Wall, S. (1978). Patterns of Attachment. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.
Ainsworth, M. & Bowlby, J. (1965). Child Care and the Growth of Love. London: Penguin Books.
Bowlby, J. [1969], (1999). Attachment (2nd ed.), Attachment and Loss (Vol. 1). New York: Basic Books.
Bowlby, J. (1988) A Secure Base: Clinical Applications of Attachment Theory.  London: Routledge.
Goosens, F. & van IJzendoorn. (1990). Quality of infants’ attachments to professional caregivers: Relation to infant-parent attachment and day-care characteristics. Child Development, 61, 832-837.
Johnson, S. (2002). Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy with Trauma Survivors. New York: Guilford Publications, Inc. (pp. 38-43).
Johnson, S. (2003). Introduction to attachment: A therapist’s guide to primary relationships and their renewal. In Johnson, S. & Whiffen, V. (Eds.)., Attachment Processes in Couple and Family Therapy. NY: The Guilford Press. (pp. 5-17).
Popper, M. & Amit, K. (2009). Attachment and leader’s development via experiences. The Leadership Quarterly, 20, 749-763.
Sears, W. & Sears M. (2001). The Attachment Parenting Book: A Commonsense Guide to Understanding and Nurturing Your Baby. NY: Little Brown and Company.

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