The Psych Central Report

Attachment Relationships

March 2005

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Whether you are a parent, or have been a child, you definitely are involved with attachment. As babies, we all attach to our caregivers, and throughout life, we form new attachment relationships with friends and teachers. Therapy involves another attachment relationship also, not unlike the attachment between a child and caregiver. This article explains what attachment is, and how secure or insecure attachment is formed. Secure attachment is marked by an open communication style, which is also discussed. Open communication is something that can be cultivated in a parent-child relationship, and also something to look for in other relationships, including a therapeutic relationship. Although the information is given as pertaining to a parent-child relationship because attachment begins in infancy, a parallel may be made to other relationships in which one person provides care to another.

Attachment and Development

Attachment is the affectional bond that develops between infants and their caregivers. The attachment system is biologically based and has evolutionary roots. The goal of attachment is protection, which is felt as security. Infants don't have a choice about attaching. They will attach to their caregivers, however, the attachment may be secure or insecure.

Attachment relationships crystallize during the second half of the first year of life. Attachment and exploration need to find a balance, and this forms the "secure base" phenomenon. In order to have the confidence to explore and learn about their environment, children need to feel secure about their attachment to their caregiver - to have a feeling that it is ok to explore, and mom will be there when she is needed. Attachment relationships continue to be important throughout life, and early attachments lay the groundwork for later development.

Attachment Security - Caregiver Factors

All infants develop attachments to their caregivers (who may be parents, babysitters, etc., and teachers and others as the child gets older). Attachments may be secure or insecure. The most important thing that determines the ability to form secure attachments is the sensitivity of the caregiver. Sensitivity involves reading infants' signals correctly and responding appropriately. For example, knowing when the baby is crying because he is hungry, and feeding him, as opposed to misinterpreting the baby's needs and trying to feed him when he isn't hungry, but cold, or just needing comfort. We all make mistakes sometimes in knowing what a child really wants or needs, but what is important is that we get to know the child and learn how to respond appropriately most of the time.

Security of Attachment - Child Factors

There are skills that the baby must have in order to form secure attachments. (1) He has to be able to identify when he is distressed. (2) Send a distress signal - cry, or otherwise communicate that he needs something. (3) Have a caregiver respond appropriately. (4) The child needs to be able to know that a caregiver has responded, and be soothed. Some children are better at these things than others, so some children are easier or harder to form attachment relationships with. It is easier to show sensitive responses to some babies than others, maybe because of the child's disposition, or medical issues. But all babies have the need for attachment, and it is possible to show sensitive care even to difficult babies. Even children with the most severe attachment problem - autism - still have the basic system of attachment, and can be securely attached to their caregivers. Reading their signals may be very difficult, but it still can be done.

Empathic Understanding

Empathic understanding is the parents' capacity to see things from the child's point of view, or to be able to think about what the experience is like for the child. The parents' own history, and cognitive and emotional processes are behind parental sensitivity. This involves the ability to consider the underlying motives behind the child's behavior in a given situation, and to make sense of them. There is always a reason why children act the way they do. It helps to try to think about what that reason might be, or what it is that the child needs and is trying to get by acting in a certain way. With older children, who have developed the ability to reason about their own motives, sometimes you can ask them why they are doing that, as long as you are listening carefully to discover the child's needs, and can accept that the child may really not know. Maybe if you have an idea, you can ask the child if that might be the reason, or what he needs, and help him to understand his own actions. Try to put yourself in the child's shoes. Also, consider how your own experience might be coloring your interpretation of the child's experience. Try to read the child's signals and understand what the child is communicating more than to guess what it is that the child wants.

Emotion Coaching

These are some steps you can use to show empathy, particularly when the child is upset or is acting out:

  • Validation and empathy can solve 90% of problems - the child is just begging you to love him.
  • Label the emotion. "You're angry (or sad, etc.)."
  • Provide empathy. "I'm sorry that ____ (you feel sad, or hurt, or mad …)" You're not accepting blame for what he is upset about, just telling him that you are sorry that he is feeling hurt.
  • Validate his feelings. (It's ok to feel the way that you feel.)
  • Use open-ended questions "What should we do now?" "How can I fix this?"

Open Communication and Attachment

Open communication expresses security. Insecurity is expressed as blocked, distorted, or indirect communication, while security, or open communication, includes sharing emotions, meaning, and plans. When you and your child seem to have different goals, try to come to a middle ground and form a partnership to share and work together to reach a goal that can satisfy both of you. Security involves being able to have confidence that one's feelings will be accepted, including positive and negative feelings, whether they be happy, sad, mad, scared, etc. Some parents often argue with and negate kids' feelings, and tell them that they don't really feel that way, or shouldn't feel that way. It is important for children to be able to share their perception of reality, and not have it be rejected. When children are told that their perception is incorrect, it is hard for them to be able to make sense of the world and their experience.

Signs of open communication include (1) coherence, or the ability to tell stories consistently, in a such a way that the narrative holds together, and with the parent following the child's lead (2) mutual, genuine interest, (3) focus on the child, as opposed to reversing the roles to focus on the adult or ask the child to care for the adult in some way, (4) warmth and positive affect that is sensitive to the child's needs, (5) togetherness, and (6) directness. Directness refers to a parent who asks a question, and accepts the child's answer and then moves on, without questioning the child's answer or continuing to repeat the question.

Strategies for Families

  1. Read with your child every day.
  2. Help your child recognize and learn acceptable ways to express a range of feelings.
  3. Teach your child about your family and culture.
  4. Enjoy your child's company.
  5. Use positive strategies to guide your child's behavior.
  6. Accept your child as a unique person.
  7. Encourage your child to be both independent and cooperative.

Most of this information is adapted from research on attachment theory by David Oppenheim, Ph.D., supplemented with material from Heath Earl, Ph.D., and from The Devereux Early Childhood Assessment Program.

Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2005
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