How parental attachment determines a child's emotional healthWritten by Catherine Wilson
What's inside this article
If you were offered a test that could predict how emotionally healthy your child will become, would you take the test?
Some would argue that such a test already exists. For over three decades, psychologists have been administering a simple test to parents and their toddlers. If the results reveal a healthy parent-child relationship, the child is very likely to show healthy emotional development throughout childhood.
But here’s the kicker: testing reveals that one in every three parent-child relationships is not healthy.
The test itself is a very simple procedure called the Strange Situation, and it involves brief periods of separation between a 12-month-old child and their parent. Based on observations of the child’s behaviour on reunion with their parent, psychologists can assess and categorize the strength of the emotional bond between the parent and their still-very-young child. In essence, the test reveals how securely a child is attached to their parent.
For two out of every three parents, the Strange Situation yields optimal results: their child is securely attached to them. But for a third of parents, the Strange Situation may reveal a troubled relationship with their toddler.
The impact of healthy and unhealthy attachment
That troubled relationship can have a profound impact on the child as the child continues to develop, significantly undermining their self-esteem, their ability to trust others, and their ability to control their emotions. Here’s developmental psychologist Dr. Karyn Purvis, director of Texas Christian University’s Institute of Child Development:
"At 12 months of age, we can predict with high levels of accuracy how pro-social that child will be as a preschooler in kindergarten . . . how school-ready that child will be; based on 12-month attachment to a primary caregiver we can predict whether a kindergartener or a first grader will ask a teacher for help or not . . . how pro-social a child will be on the playground at eight, nine, ten . . . how easily pre-adolescence will go for that child; we can actually predict, at 12 months of age, with far greater than chance reliability, what kind of parent that baby will be."1
What makes these troubled parent-toddler relationships damaging to the child? In the most extreme cases, the parent’s interactions with the child are neglectful or abusive. Much more common, however, is harm caused by inconsistent parenting: at times the parent is warm and attentive to their infant, but at other times inattentive, harsh or punitive; in other cases, the parent is appropriately loving and attentive, but their care may be interrupted by circumstances outside the parent’s control – perhaps due to illness, or struggles with depression or alcoholism.
By just 12 months of age, a child has already built neural connections in the brain that will impact all their future relationships. A child who has not enjoyed a consistent pattern of responsive, loving care misses the gift every child needs for their first birthday – the gift of healthy neural patterns that encode the message, You are safe and loved.
Instead, the insecurely attached child encodes neural patterns that make them feel afraid and vulnerable. Eventually, they’re likely to exhibit one of these damaged relationship styles:
- an avoidant relationship style that keeps others at a distance while work or hobbies – rather than relationships – become sources of personal fulfilment; or
- an insecure relationship style marked by high levels of anxiety and weak social skills; or
- in the most extreme cases, a disorganized relationship style demonstrating an inability to control strong emotions like anger or fear; an inability to stay focused, particularly under stress; an inability to read social cues and interact with others appropriately; and/or a reduced sense of empathy for others.
How your attachment experiences as a child impact your parenting
If your child is well past the toddler stage and you’re certain they were securely attached to you as a youngster, is this research into parent-child attachment relevant to you today? The answer is, yes, tremendously so.
You may have begun well with your child; however, attachment research suggests that every one of us shows some weaknesses in the way we connect with others emotionally.
We developed our own unique ways of connecting with others based on our early experiences, and in particular, from our relationships with our parents. When we step into a parenting role ourselves, any "connection weaknesses" show up in the way we interact with our own child. And in our darkest moments, our parenting can resemble one of the harmful and inconsistent parenting styles discussed earlier.
In short, without the healing touch of God in our lives, not one of us is fit to parent optimally. Here’s how Dr. Purvis explains it:
"Most parents are not aware of their own attachment style. As a matter of fact, we think, That’s past and gone; that’s behind us; but in reality, every one of us speaks some words we heard spoken, do some things to our children that were done to us, every one of us has unconscious parenting strategies that, when we become reflective and insightful, very likely there are some of those strategies that we would choose to release and let go of, so that we can be most effective with our own [children]."
In their book, How We Love Our Kids, Milan and Kay Yerkovich list some traits that are broadly indicative of the types of "connection weaknesses" parents may exhibit, and are at risk for passing on to their child. At the end of this article you’ll find a sample of some of these traits, adapted from the Yerkovich’s much longer list.
When we bring our inherited weaknesses into our relationship with our child, and add on top of that other unresolved emotional baggage from our past (including losses and trauma), we can – quite unconsciously – push our children away from us. For example:
- we fail to communicate in ways our child understands (a common cause of behaviour management issues),
- we have difficulty recognizing our child’s deep emotional needs,
- we react (and overreact) to our child in ways that actively undermine their self-esteem.
That’s why experts in child development like Dr. Daniel Siegel, a clinical professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine and Executive Director of the Mindsight Institute, strongly urge all parents to do some serious self-reflection about their past, and how they interact with those they are closest to:
"The research shows that if you’ve had really difficult times in the past and haven’t taken the time to make sense of what’s happened to you and what’s shaped your development, that’s going to compromise your child’s development. . . . Here’s the real question every parent can ask themselves: Do I love my child enough to take the journey, to look inward at what might be very painful so that I can liberate myself from the past, and allow my child to have the secure attachment that I long to have had? That’s the question each of us, as a parent, needs to ask."2
What you can do
There are tools that help you take that journey. One helpful strategy is to journal, intensively, for at least several weeks, looking for patterns in your relationships. As you journal and seek the Lord’s guidance and wisdom, reflect on your childhood and any traumatic events in your past. As far back as you can remember, what was your relationship like with your mother? With your father? Did anyone ever make you feel rejected, fearful, manipulated or overwhelmed? Did you ever lose someone special through death or separation? What was your most painful experience? What do you think you learned about relationships from your parents?
Next, think about your relationship with your child. Watch for and make note of incidents where your child’s behaviour seems to trigger an intense or "over-the-top" reaction from you. What did your child say or imply at the time? What did you "interpret" their behaviour to mean? Look beyond your anger: did you feel manipulated, rejected, unusually fearful, tense or overwhelmed?
Is it possible your child’s behaviour is bringing your old wounds to the surface? Are you really reacting to your child, or to deep, unresolved hurt? How will you process these hurts and forgive those who have wronged you? In what ways do you mimic your parents – speaking or acting toward your child in the same way that your parents treated you? Are those patterns worthy of repeating?
For help with learning healthier patterns of interacting with your child, How We Love Our Kids suggests many intentional steps you can take. Another superb resource – and this one is available for free – is the Empowered to Connect website at Empoweredtoconnect.org. (Although this site is designed for parents of adopted children and foster parents, it’s a wonderful resource for all parents, as is the DVD Attachment: Why It Matters, available at Empoweredtoconnect.org.)
If your personal history is traumatic and you suspect you may need professional help to get beyond it, remember that you can call Focus on the Family Canada’s professional counsellors free of charge at 1.888.917.2519. They’ll help you determine what your next steps should be.
Breaking the cycle
Just think: by taking a discerning look at your own background, you may be the one to break the stranglehold of a destructive, self-replicating cycle that has plagued your family for generations. That is what our faith is all about. As believers in Christ, we want to be the ones who have the courage to look at the past, then move decisively, in the strength of the Holy Spirit, to make changes that redeem the future. In doing so, we will pass on a tremendous legacy of blessing that will continue on down to our children’s children.
And if we are willing to work at it, the chances that we will establish a closer and healthier connection with our child are very good, according to Dr. Purvis:
"The message of hope for our families is that attachment is plastic: there is great hope that we can help our children heal, and there is even great hope that we can help ourselves heal. We simply have to be committed to it, devoted to it, and be willing to invest what it is going to take."
Exploring your attachment weaknesses
What kind of attachment issues, or "weaknesses," do you tend to exhibit in your emotional connections with others? In their book, How We Love Our Kids, Milan and Kay Yerkovich describe some connection weaknesses, as reflected in different parenting styles. Below are just a few "sample traits," adapted from the Yerkovich’s much more extensive list.
If you strongly identify with one of these parenting styles, this is a topic you should explore further, perhaps with the help of a professional. Most parents, however, will have a healthy parenting style, yet still recognize tendencies toward one of these more extreme styles. Consider this list an indicator of an area that may need a little work.
The avoider parent
- You take pride in the fact that your child doesn’t seem as emotionally "needy" as others their age. You see his or her independence as a strength.
- You’d rather work on a personal project than spend time with your child.
- Your child’s tears make you uncomfortable. You frequently encourage them to "be a big boy/girl and stop crying."
- Today, you don’t have a close relationship with your own parents or siblings.
- You’ve noticed that your child avoids eye contact with you, even in close personal conversations, and seems uncomfortable discussing his or her emotions.
The pleaser parent
- You want to be popular with others, and prefer not to spend long periods alone.
- You are very "tuned in" to family members’ emotions and mood swings and try to "keep the peace."
- You’ve been told you are overprotective of your child.
- You have trouble saying no to your child or to other adults, or offering constructive criticism.
- You work yourself to exhaustion to make the rest of the family happy, but often have little left for your spouse.
- You worry that your child is unusually anxious or fearful.
The vacillator parent
- You thrive on attention, and become angry or sulk when you are ignored.
- You often brood over real or imagined slights. When a friend doesn’t call, you start to worry about your friendship.
- You make it clear when you’re feeling hurt, but it’s only worse when no one seems to care.
- You can only take so much; you reach a point where you suddenly withdraw from your spouse or child, or suddenly end a friendship.
- You often find yourself too preoccupied to be "fully present" in your interactions with your child. Your playful mood can end abruptly.
The controller parent
- As a child, you endured neglect, intimidation and/or physical or sexual abuse.
- You find it hard to have compassion when your child is upset or displays emotional "weakness."
- You frequently lose your temper; controlling your anger is a struggle.
- You expect your spouse and child to do exactly as you say, and become angry when they do not obey.
- You have a strong sense of "the rules that need to be obeyed" or impose few rules on your child at all.
- In times of stress, you’re tempted to escape by turning to alcohol or drugs.
The victim parent
- As a child, you lived with people who struggled with outbursts of anger, violence, addictions or abuse.
- Your spouse mistreats you, and sometimes your child too; your family life goes through cycles of calm periods followed by angry outbursts.
- You are constantly on edge, trying not to upset your spouse.
- You are often depressed or anxious; sometimes you feel so overwhelmed, you’re not really "present" when your child needs you.
- You are intimidated by your older child, or rely on him or her to help you cope.
- All three quotes from Dr. Karyn Purvis, as presented in the DVD Attachment: Why It Matters, published in 2012 by TCU Institute of Child Development.
- Quotes from Dr. Daniel Siegel, a clinical professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine and Executive Director of the Mindsight Institute, presented in the DVD Attachment: Why It Matters, published in 2012 by TCU Institute of Child Development.
Read more about safeguarding attachment:
Catherine Wilson is an associate editor at Focus on the Family Canada.
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