C’mere! C’mere! Go ‘way! Go ‘way!

Let’s take a look at what happens when infants may not have the opportunity to attach in healthy ways, due to parental death, neglect, abuse, addiction, or infant illness, isolation, or cognitive disability, for example.  Less tragically, but no less significantly, a constant rotation of caregivers will also fail to support the attachment process in ways that are sustaining and mutually beneficial between caregiver and child.

I want to remind everyone that even in cases of parental abandonment for one reason or another, other loving caregivers can securely fill the primary attachment relationship role and ensure a child’s survival and well-being! 

Attachment is not destiny; our brain and our being are flexible and resilient.  We continually develop throughout our lifespan!

We do not all share the same race, culture, gender, personality type, or family configuration, and we all, to some degree or another, vary in our attachment style.  The important thing is that we learn to attach, even if we are, or our parents were, at times insecure, avoidant, or ambivalent.  We are watching out in our parenting for extreme insecurity in attachment relationships—which is in the minority of cases!  And, in those cases treatment is possible!   

Much of what is now understood about unhealthy attachment styles is based on Mary Ainsworth’s (1978) “Strange Situation” study.  Essentially, Ainsworth’s hypothesis was that infants and children (between 12 and 18 months of age) tend towards exploration in an unfamiliar environment when a primary attachment figure (typically the mother) is present, and slow-down or cease exploration when he/she is absent.  What resulted from her longitudinal studies was support for her hypothesis.  Her studies also showed that individual differences were evident amongst the children depending on the nature of attachment relationship.  In particular, differing behavioral responses in children upon reunion with their mother figure were most telling in terms of the quality of attachment relationship.  According to Fraley’s (2010) summary of Ainsworth’s research:

Children who appear secure in the strange situation, for example, tend to have parents who are responsive to their needs. Children who appear insecure in the strange situation (i.e., anxious-resistant or avoidant) often have parents who are insensitive to their needs, or inconsistent or rejecting in the care they provide. In the years that have followed, a number of researchers have demonstrated links between early parental sensitivity and responsiveness and attachment security (¶ 5).

Ainsworth proposed three types of attachment relationships based on her observations: secure, ambivalent-insecure, and avoidant-insecure.  A fourth attachment style was proposed by Main and Solomon (1986) known today as disorganized-insecure attachment, frequently corresponding with the mental health disorder called Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD).  Here’s a great link for promoting healthy attachment in kids, particularly those diagnosed with RAD: http://www.attach-china.org/activities.html

Schore (2001) explains the process of finding the balance between separation and attachment as follows: 

Infant resilience emerges from an interactive context in which the child and parent transition from positive to negative and back to positive affect, and resilience in the face of stress is an ultimate indicator of attachment capacity and therefore adaptive mental health (p. 21).

The nature of the kind of relationship we form with our children leads to specific behavioral responses on the part of our children, particularly in stressful situations and in intimate relationship.  When we listen to ourselves and our children’s cues for happiness, discomfort, sadness, hunger, loneliness, tiredness, sickness, and fear we reassure ourselves and our children about our capacity for caring, for courage, for emotional regulation, and we once again restore our homeostatic and symbiotic balance after stress.  Stress is, after all, an unavoidable part of life. Our kids are just looking for us to be their constant secure base and safe haven, especially during those stressful moments. 

Keep in mind that the vast majority of us form secure primary attachments early in life.  It is a small minority of us that fall into the following categories of insecure attachment styles that can form based on a poor quality of our primary attachment relationship(s):

(Courtesy of Kendra Cherry, http://psychology.about.com/od/loveandattraction/ss/attachmentstyle.html)

If you are curious what your attachment style is, check out this survey developed by attachment theory specialist, Chris Fraley, PhD, at the University of Illinois:  http://www.web-research-design.net/cgi-bin/crq/crq.pl Be aware that this survey is primarily based on research about adult romantic attachment relationships as an indicator of attachment style.  My advice would be, take it with a grain of salt.  It might be interesting or simply confirm what you already know to be true…why, for example, you may hover as a parent or never want to play the “Feelings” game. 

Keep in mind that you need not be filled with regret if your own early attachment experiences were not positive. Adult romantic and/or otherwise intimate relationship learning contribute significantly to our later ability to attach as parents to our own children.  Where there is life, there is hope!  To be inspired by this message, watch The Human Experience (it is now available on Netflix as an instant download).

Dr. Lisa’s Parenting Tip:

If you are worried about improving your own or your child’s ability to form secure attachment relationships, seek therapeutic support—particularly someone trained in child development, attachment theory, and family systems therapy.  In addition, most states and/or provinces offer early child intervention services (ECI) available in major city centers.  Knowing what we do about the importance of forming secure attachments and early intervention with childhood developmental disorders like autism and Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD), particularly during the first three years of life, it is essential to reach out for support earlier than later!  Remember, one of the most important ways to boost resilience is reaching out for support when you need it. 

A helpful book for any parents of children with RAD is When Love is Not Enough: A guide to parenting children with reactive attachment disorder (rad) by Nancy Thomas or Attachment-Focused Parenting: Effective Strategies to Care for Children by Daniel Hughes.


Ainsworth, M., Blehar, M., Waters, E., & Wall, S. (1978). Patterns of attachment: A

psychological study of the strange situation. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.
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.

Main, M. & Cassidy, J. (1988). Categories of response to reunion with the parent at age

6: predictable from infant attachment classifications and stable over a 1-month
period. Developmental Psychology, 24, 415-426.
Fraley, C. (2010). A brief overview of adult attachment theory and research. Retrieved January 30, 2011, from University of Illinois: http://internal.psychology.illinois.edu/~rcfraley/attachment.htm

Roisman, G. & Chris Fraley, C. (2008). A behavior–genetic study of parenting quality,

infant attachment security, and their covariation in a nationally representative
sample. Developmental Psychology, 44, (3), 831–839 doi: 10.1037/0012-

Rutter, M. & Taylor, E. (2002) Child and adolescent psychiatry. (4th ed.). Oxford:

Blackwell Publishing.

Schore, A. (2001). Effects of a secure attachment relationship on right brain

development, affect regulation, and infant mental health. Infant Mental Health
, 22, (1-2), 7-66.   http://www.allanschore.com/pdf/SchoreIMHJAttachment.pdf

Warren, S., Huston, L., Egeland, B., & Srouge, A. (1997). Child and adolescent anxiety

disorders and early attachment. Journal of the American Academy of Child &
Adolescent Psychiatry, 36, (5), 637-644. doi: 10.1097/00004583-199705000-

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