The importance of attachment cannot be overestimated

Imagine an entire generation of secure attachment

Editor’s pick: How your childhood shaped your adult personality

Parenting is largely undervalued in our society. So much discussion among politicians and policymakers centers on public education, gender equality, and poverty alleviation. These are all important areas, but parent support is glaringly missing from the list.

When I refer to parent support, I mean research-backed parenting education for all parents regardless of income class or at-risk group.

Relatively few parents seek out parenting classes when they’re not court-ordered. Many parents do pick up a parenting book from time to time, or seek out support from Facebook groups, or search for specific parenting questions on the Internet. But there is much to be considered whenever any parent solicits advice in how to raise their child. Most parents don’t feel they have the time do the homework necessary to make sure their references are up-to-date, accurate, and aligned with their family values and personal parenting goals.

Media Analysis Guidelines for Parents

It’s important that we all learn how to read between the lines on any media report about parenting, so we can make informed decisions on how to raise our children. Attachment Parenting International (API) created these guidelines to help parents to be able to better discern appropriate resources amid the clutter of information that bombards us everyday:

What’s fact or fiction in parenting news?

Get the most out of a scientific study

Trusted resources

API supports parents in raising their children in a way that meets all of their needs for healthy development, not only physically but also socioemotionally. Growing up without a close, warm, trusting, and sensitively responsive attachment to the parent can have serious, lifelong consequences for a child. These children grow into adults who then struggle with raising their own children in a way that is warm and loving. In many ways, we could view this as a mental health crisis.

Not only that, but research also demonstrates that certain childhood events can alter our biological stress responses, translating into physical health problems not only in the affected individual but in his or her DNA with the possibility of being passed down the family tree through epigenetics. From this perspective, the lack of consistent parenting education available and promoted to all parents is a public health crisis on many levels.

Attachment Matters

API explores the effects of insecure childhood attachment on adults in-depth in our latest ebook, Attachment Matters. Receive your copy of this ebook with a donation of $25 or more to API.

To get a better feel for the specific effects of parenting that is not in line with research, this API Editor’s Pick highlights the Psych Central post, “Unloved in Childhood: 10 Common Effects on Your Adult Self” by Peg Streep, a parenting book author from New York City, USA. It’s important to note that while this post refers specifically to mothers and daughters, the effects of a son feeling unloved is much the same. These 10 effects include:

  • Insecure attachment
  • Undeveloped emotional intelligence
  • Impaired sense of self
  • Lack of trust
  • Difficulties with boundaries
  • Tendency toward toxic friends and partners
  • Fear of failure
  • Feelings of isolation
  • Extreme sensitivity
  • Inner conflict.

What I particularly like about this post is how it draws attention to the fact that the problem is not so much how well the parent perceives he or she loves the child, but rather, what’s important to that child’s development is the sense of love from the child’s perspective. It’s all about how the child perceives he or she is loved her by the parent. That’s an important distinction.

The author has so much to impart on this subject, so be sure to read the entire post, but here’s a quote I found especially enlightening:

“Because the culture stubbornly believes that all mothers are loving and that mothering is instinctual, the unloved daughter mistakenly believes she’s the only child on the planet to find herself in this predicament. As a result, she feels isolated and afraid, and is likely to continue to self-isolate because of her deep shame. She’s not likely to tell anyone. More than anything, she wants to belong to the tribe — those girls who hug their moms and laugh with them.” ~ Peg Streep, Psych Central

Parents, I urge you to be the parent whose children — no matter their age — finds it easy to laugh with you and who feels completely comfortable in seeking out a hug with you anytime. Don’t be afraid to be warm toward your child, don’t be afraid to offer comfort to your child night and day, don’t be afraid to use positive discipline rather than spanking or timeout, and don’t be afraid to be different from your friends and family. Seek out your free parenting support from a local API Support Group or the API Warmline.

Attachment matters, but how exactly?

Attachment parenting is often — to those unfamiliar with the term — viewed as simply a fad, but in truth, every parent is involved in a form of parenting that is associated with attachment, whether healthy or not.

Read more about how insecure attachment affects us from childhood through adulthood, and how it may be affecting your relationships today, and what to do about that — both for yourself and for your children — in the new ebook, Attachment Matters, available only through Attachment Parenting International (API).

With your donation of $25 or greater, you’ll receive this ebook.

Attachment parenting, as a collective of parenting behaviors, is a research-backed approach to childrearing that promotes a secure attachment between parents and their child.

“Attachment” is the scientific term for the emotional bond in a relationship, born out of Attachment Theory developed by the late psychologist-psychiatrist Dr. John Bowlby. The attachment quality — or the quality of the emotional bond — that forms between parents and children, learned from the relational patterns with caregivers from birth on, correlates with how a child perceives — and ultimately is able to experience — relationships.

While the basis of Attachment Theory is rooted in infants and toddlers, the effects of attachment quality is an important feature of lifelong human development, affecting a child’s relationships within and beyond the immediate family through childhood and through adulthood.

Attachment Quality Affects Child’s Happiness

Attachment quality has profound effects for each child over the lifetime, often much more of an impact than is realized outside scientific and clinical circles. A person with a secure, or healthy, attachment is generally able to respond to stress in healthy ways and establish more meaningful and emotionally close relationships.

A person with an insecure attachment is more susceptible to stress and less healthy relationships, and is more at risk for serious mental health concerns including depression, anxiety, addictions, and eating disorders.

However, the effects of insecure attachments don’t wait until adulthood to show. Every relationship is influenced by a child’s attachment pattern, from the earliest peer interactions to that with school teachers. Secure children tend to earn higher grades, be more cooperative, and are more goal-oriented.

Insecure infants and toddlers are less curious and more inhibited and withdrawn than secure children, who are better able to master their environment and perform related motor actions. Insecure preschoolers have poorer social skills, adjust to school slower, and tend to have problems paying attention, focusing, and learning in school.

Overall, insecure children tend to have low self-esteem. Secure children have high self-esteem, prefer to be challenged in class, and are motivated to learn because they enjoy learning.

While attachment is one of many contributing factors of child and adult well-being, it cannot be overestimated how important attachment quality is to the health of a child’s future relationships, both with peers and with eventual romantic partners.

Parenting Determines Attachment Quality

Parents develop a secure attachment by fulfilling that child’s need for trust, empathy, and affection by providing consistent, loving, and responsive care. By demonstrating healthy and positive relationship skills, the parent provides critical emotional scaffolding for the child to learn essential self-regulatory abilities.

The attachment bond that a person had with his or her primary attachment figure — usually the mother — as a child is that person’s model for how any relationship should work for the rest of that person’s life. For people who developed a secure attachment as a child, adult relationships are relatively easy, loving, and nurturing.

For people who developed an insecure attachment as a child, there may be great difficulty with adult relationships, especially related to trust.

What Kind of Parenting Creates an Insecure Attachment?

Insecure attachment develops when there are inconsistencies in the sensitive responsiveness of a child’s primary attachment model — or no responsiveness at all.

Because humans are social beings, having emotionally close relationships is essential. Without healthy relationships, humans are at a definite risk for social and learning disabilities, mental illness, and unhealthy, risky behaviors used to fill the void left by the unmet needs in the first attachment relationship — that with each child’s primary caregiver.

The success of this first attachment bond is what shapes the neural pathways in each child’s brain, influencing the way that child learns to cope with stress, perceive him-or herself, create expectations of others, and navigate relationships all through not only childhood but as adults.

Children who experience confusing, frightening, or broken emotional communication — verbal and nonverbal — may grow into adults who have difficulty understanding their own emotions and the emotions of others. This creates serious relationship deficits.

Whether secure or insecure, the parent-child attachment quality determines that child’s ability to maintain emotional balance, enjoy being his- or herself, enjoy being with others, and rebound from disappointment, discouragement, and other life stress.

The relationship skills required by both people in a healthy adult relationship include the ability to manage stress, to stay tuned in with emotions, to communicate nonverbally, to be playful in a mutually engaging manner, and to readily forgive without holding grudges. Each of these skills is most easily learned when modeled by a person’s first primary attachment as a child and that attachment quality is secure.

While overtly abusive or neglectful parenting may unsurprisingly influence attachment quality, insecure attachment also develops out of parenting approaches that promote isolation and loneliness.

An insecure attachment produces an adult who has difficulty with maintaining healthy relationships, as indicated by the 3 insecure attachment patterns:

  1. Anxious-Preoccupied — These people hunger for attachment, but because they don’t understand real trust, they are seek a partner who will rescue or “complete” them. They tend to be clingy, desperate, demanding, and possessive.
  2. Dismissive-Avoidant — These people are emotionally distant, self-centered, and insensitive. They seek not only independence but isolation, and in conflicts, they tend to shut down emotionally and easily detach from others.
  3. Fearful-Avoidant — These people are disorganized in their relationships, being afraid of becoming too emotionally close and too distant, at the same time. They are both anxious and emotionally distant. As a result, they are moody and unpredictable, often overwhelmed by their reactions, experiencing frequent emotional storms. While they understand that they need to have emotionally close relationships to have their emotional needs met, they have a strong, underlying fear of getting hurt or being abandoned when they get emotionally close to others, so they struggle with being emotionally intimate. Their relationships tend to be rocky, and there is a greater tendency toward abusive relationships.

Very simply, a child’s primary attachment bond is what determines success in all future relationships — romantic, family, work, friendship, and so on — through childhood and adulthood, unless and until an adult with an insecure attachment quality is able to work with a professional therapist to overcome attachment challenges and learn healthy relationship skills.

*Excerpt published with permission.

Attachment matters

Ideally, all children would be able to experience a secure attachment with every meaningful adult in his life.

Attachment Matters, the latest ebook from Attachment Parenting International (API), was written specifically to help you — the parent — share the importance of Attachment Parenting to other meaningful adults in your child’s life.

Attachment Matters is now available with your donation of $25 or more to API.

Learn more about secure and insecure attachment, read touching personal stories of how Attachment Parenting helped families, and share your copy with a grandparent, mother’s helper, childcare provider, teacher, or another of your child’s caregivers.

Attachment Matters is also appropriate for health care providers, school administrators, mental health therapists, child custody attorneys, adoption agents, and other professionals who work regularly with children and parents.


  • Foreword: An Attachment Crisis
  • Why Attachment Matters
  • Can Insecure Attachment Be Healed?
  • How Secure Attachment Happens
  • Attachment-Promoting Behaviors
  • Attachment Parenting Stories, Real Life
    Why Attachment Matters to Me
    -Attachment Parenting Can Heal Intergenerational Hurts
    -Saved by Attachment Parenting, and Now 8 Kids Later (3 with Autism)
    -A Father Reflects on His Introduction to Attachment Parenting
    -Helping My Young Child Adjust to a Change in Caregivers
    -Protecting Attachment During Divorce
    -The Challenges of Becoming an Attached Father
    -Attachment Parenting Restores Security in Adopted Children
    -The Heart of Attachment Parenting
    -Was Attachment Parenting Worth It?
    -Generation AP

Editor’s Pick: Emotional abuse, a dark form of children’s maltreatment

“Growing up in a household where your emotions are either actively discouraged or punished, or simply ignored takes a toll on you, a developing child. You internalize the message that your feelings, your needs, your views don’t matter. It’s a belief that’s rooted in childhood feelings. That belief/feeling is powerful, and it stays with you throughout your life.” ~ Jonice Webb, PhD, in “Childhood Emotional Neglect: The Enemy of Assertiveness,” Psych Central

Sad ChildIn this week’s Editor’s pick, Attachment Parenting International is shedding light on a form of maltreatment of children that is often kept in the dark: emotional abuse. Unlike physical abuse, there is little awareness concerning emotional abuse — it’s less visible and is rarely covered by the media.

Emotional abuse is often misunderstood, as it’s complex and more difficult to recognize. Although it’s pervasive, and can be as damaging and painful to children as physical and sexual trauma, it’s not considered as troublesome as physical abuse.

Emotional abuse of a child is commonly defined as a pattern of behavior by parents or caregivers that has negative mental impact on the child. It’s also referred to as psychological maltreatment. Some examples of mental abuse are:

  • name-calling
  • verbally insulting
  • shaming or humiliating
  • threatening violence (with or without carrying out threats)
  • ridiculing or criticizing the child’s appearance, abilities or fears
  • failing to express warmth and tenderness to the child
  • neglecting to show interest in the child’s thoughts, feeling or activities.

Emotional needs are intrinsic to our nature as human beings. Attachment Parenting promotes an approach that applies sensitive parental response and practicing nurturing parenting methods that foster strong emotional bonds — also known as secure attachment — between children and their parents. Secure attachment, trust and mutual respect are the building blocks of a strong, healthy emotional foundation that follows children into adulthood.

With increasing awareness and evolved societal norms, many people move away from spanking and other forms of physical abuse. Consequently, however, there is more temptation to shift that punishment attitude toward verbal responses — which may seem innocuous — not realizing that some common responses are actually a form of emotional abuse. Here are a few examples of such comments:

  • “I wish you were more like your brother.”
  • “If you don’t do as I say, I will leave you!”
  • “You’re the reason Mommy is sad.”
  • “Shut up!”
  • “You are a bad boy.”
  • “You think you’re so special, don’t you?”

Verbal abuse is the most common form of emotional maltreatment and results in long-term harm. As noted in this Health Day article, “Yelling at Children (Verbal Abuse),” research shows that verbally abused children are more likely to:

  • become victims of abuse later in life
  • become abusive themselves
  • become depressed and self-destructive later in life
  • develop anxiety.

We are all familiar with adage, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.” But children and adults who have been verbally abused will tell you otherwise: Words are powerful and they do hurt, especially when inflicted upon children by their parents — the leading authority figures in their life and the adults children look to for protection, not only from physical harm but also emotional damage.

There are some who excuse name-calling, shaming or other forms of abuse as effective means to discipline or “toughen up” kids — an outdated idea to make them more resilient and better adapt to the “real world” — when, in fact, the contrary is true: These patterns of behavior by parents produce deep emotional and mental scars that undermine self-esteem and affect the ability to have healthy, trusting relationships.

In this Psych Central article, “Childhood Emotional Neglect: The Enemy of Assertiveness,” Jonice Webb, PhD, uncovers that the reason assertiveness is so much more difficult for some people to learn and practice than others is because “assertiveness is most difficult for those who grew up in households that either actively or passively discouraged emotional expression,” both examples of childhood emotional neglect.

Emotional abuse is painful. It penetrates into the heart and the soul of a child who needs to be loved, cared for, and responded to with sensitivity and compassion by his caregivers — not ignored, not humiliated, and not insulted.

A 2015 study, published in the journal JAMA Psychiatry, found that regardless of the type of maltreatment endured — physical, sexual or emotional — children suffered similar consequences. As reported by Reuters, Dr. William Copeland, a psychiatry researcher at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, USA, stated that: “This study is about righting a longstanding error and prejudice about the differences between these common childhood adversities,” adding: “It suggests that whether we are talking about prevention, screening or treatment, our notions of childhood mistreatment need to be broader and more holistic than they have been. There are no hierarchies when it comes to child maltreatment.”

You can do it: You are strong enough to stop spanking

Editor’s note: April 30 was Spankout Day, an international observance designed to encourage parents to stop spanking. Attachment Parenting International‘s Seventh Principle of Parenting: Practice Positive Discipline advocates against physical punishment and further supports parents to move away from the punishing mindset.

i-love-you-795734-mThere is another way.

You don’t have to spank your kids to discipline them. Or hit. Or smack. Or swat. Or slap. Or give a good whoopin’.

You don’t have to do timeouts. Or threats. Or counting 1-2-3.

You don’t even have to yell.

Yeah, you’ll still get angry with your children. But you don’t have to do the cultural norm to raise your children to be respectful, well-behaved and with good character and moral values.

There is another way.

For parents brand-new to the idea of positive discipline, it may seem really intense at first. You have to learn a whole new way of seeing your child, your child’s intentions, yourself and your childhood — not to mention a whole new way of looking at discipline and, for some parents, child rearing as a whole.

But, wow, is it ever worth it.

It’s like stepping out of the matrix, or stepping into an alternate reality — one of freedom from the status quo, of freedom from anger and fear and the surge of emotion that comes around right before you spank your child.

Eons ago, when I was a new parent and I tried spanking, it at first seemed like the way to go. My child just ran out into the street. I yelled at her to stop, but she didn’t. I felt fear, but also anger at her “defiance.” A quick spank seemed like just what was needed at the moment. After all, I justified that my child needed to learn to listen and obey out of safety. And that spanking did get my child’s attention. She was terrified.

My daughter wasn’t scared of running out into the street, though. She was actually scared of me — her mother.

That’s really stressful for kids and their development. Children are wired to require attachment to their parents for survival. Feeling consistently scared of a parent and being securely attached to that same parent is not possible. That’s how insecure attachment happens: Infants and young children alter the way they behave around their parents in order to maintain some sort of attachment, out of a need for survival, even if that type of attachment isn’t ideal.

Secure attachment is ideal. Secure attachment means that children trust that they can approach their parent with any of their emotions, even anger or sadness or “defiance,” without fear of rejection. In insecure attachment, a child has learned that a parent’s reaction to the child’s emotions, including “defiance,” is scary. The child may react by avoiding the parent in stressful situations, becoming withdrawn or overly anxious, or developing another learned pattern of indirect and emotionally distressing behavior to cope with that fear. Insecure attachment can make for a stressful parent-child relationship over time, with more acting-out, anxiety, withdrawal or other behaviors as the child grows older. But the effect of insecure attachment doesn’t stop there: This way of attaching is how the child will respond in stressful situations in every relationship throughout his life, including marriage, parenting, even on the job.

When parents spank, it “works” because the kids are scared of the parent. That’s not the same thing as respect. But there are many parents who spank and are OK with the idea of their kids being scared of them and reacting to situations out of fear. And there is no law (in the United States) against spanking.

But be careful. Once we start hitting our children, our empathy is removed a bit. We don’t see them the same. It’s way easier to spank the next time, and to spank harder and multiple times. It’s way easier to let that anger in ourselves grow, so that we’re quicker to get angry, quicker to react in anger. It’s way easier to allow that anger, fed by the quick release in spanking our children, to take over our lives.

Spanking is a release of our, the parent’s, anger. Anger needs an outlet. It doesn’t just disappear. It’s either got to find a way out, safely or not, or it will sit in you and fester. It’ll destroy a person. That’s where anger management problems come from, but also sometimes depression or other emotional issues. Mismanaged anger, whether released or stuffed inside, is like cancer of our emotions.

When I did spank, eons ago, I found that anger did take over my life. Outwardly, to others, I was just as happy and outgoing. But when I was with my kids, I found it way easier to spank, way easier to spank harder, way easier to give more than one spanking at a time, way easier to yell, way easier to punish, way more tempting to do other types of physical punishments. And way harder to just enjoy them and accept their uniqueness and to feel empathy toward them and compassion for their strong emotions, including anger or sadness, and to see them in a positive way and to just enjoy being a parent.

So be careful with your anger.

Anger is not a bad emotion. It’s natural. It’s OK that you as a parent gets mad. It’s OK that your kid gets mad. It’s OK that your spouse or boss or friend gets mad. What is not OK is what we might do with our anger.

I stepped out of the matrix. I found my way out. Anyone can do it, too.

You’ll need to learn to control your own anger. You got to live your life the way you want your kids to live theirs. You got to be very careful to avoid hypocrisy, especially in how you handle anger and conflict resolution. Kids live what you model. In everything.

You’ll need to learn how to be an expert at emotion-coaching. You got to learn how to identify and name your emotions. You got to explore the real reasons — think back to your own childhood or life biases — about why you feel angry or fearful or embarrassed or disappointed in any given situation. Check out Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child by John Gottman.

You’ll need to learn how to let your creativity out. Positive discipline is hugely about a secure parent-child relationship, but also hugely about problem-solving. Read all manner of positive discipline books to learn the, literally, hundreds of ways to discipline your child without spanking. My favorites are Attached at the Heart by API Cofounders Barbara Nicholson and Lysa Parker, Judy Arnall’s books Discipline Without Distress and her new Parenting with Patience, and Raising Your Spirited Child by Mary Sheedy Kurcinka.

Here’s something that is critical, for anyone learning a new skill: Find a mentor — someone who has been using positive discipline for years, preferably someone who has older kids whose behavior is that you admire — and lean on that mentor day in and day out for questions, for modeling your parenting approach and for reassurance that your kids don’t need to be spanked to turn out to be great kids. A local API Leader is a great person to give support in this role.

I know from experience that stopping spanking can be hard. It can be challenging to change habits, and it can be difficult to trust in positive discipline when the only experience you have is spanking and punishments. But you can do it. You are strong enough.

Parents need to be the compass point

1021857_mother_and_sonIt’s normal to worry about how our children will turn out in the future. Will they accept the values and ideals that we want to pass on to them? Will they follow the path we hope they will take? Is there a formula or method that will assure us of these things?

There are no guarantees, but there are many things we can do to influence the outcome of our parenting. We could dedicate an entire book to this topic, but in this short space, we can highlight one important factor. This factor needs to be considered carefully, because it used to be taken for granted. It was a given in traditional cultures, but in modern society, it is less available.

This factor is the place of parents in their children’s lives.

I’m using the word “place” instead of authority, because “authority” has become overused and misinterpreted. Parents are told to be more authoritative, while at the same time, our culture is severely undermining parental authority.

Here’s one small example of how this happens: A mother recently told me that she met with her son’s teacher, guidance counselor and school psychologist. She wanted to explain that it was important that her son’s teachers develop a caring relationship with him. When she explained to them what her son needed, their response was, “You’re only the mother.”

In other words, “We are the professionals who know best what students need.”

In the past several years, there has been a groundswell of professionals — psychologists, psychiatrists, consultants and therapists — to take care of children’s “problems.” The attitude that professionals can assess and take care of children better than parents has weakened parents’ confidence in themselves as the answer to their children’s psychological, emotional and spiritual needs.

The attachment village, at one time, was more easily available for parents and children. It was the parents’ place to introduce their children to other adults who supported the family’s values. When the parent could depend on these adults, the child could be securely attached to all the adults in his life.

When a child’s attachments are disconnected from each other, the child can’t orient to both his parents and to other adults who serve as the parents’ support system. This also makes it more likely for the child to attach to other children instead of to adults, and then look to these children for direction.

This has a direct impact on our influence to pass on our values and ideals to our children, when they are young and even more so when they are teenagers. The assumption that teenagers need to separate from their parents in order to find their individuality is false, and well-meaning adults easily assume that teenagers need friends more than their parents.

Parents need to be the compass point for their teenagers no less than for their younger children.

Parents can do three things to reclaim their rightful place in the lives of their children:

  1. Assume responsibility to be your child’s compass point, guide, comforter and safe home base. You may not have all the answers, but it is more important to believe that you are the answer for your child, because no one cares as much as you do.
  2. Provide your child with secure and deep attachment, and continue to protect and nurture this relationship during all the years your child is growing up. This will give him the context he needs to internalize your values while he is developing more maturity and finding his own reasons to believe in these values.
  3. Make room for your child to express his own thoughts, ideas, opinions, questions and feelings. This will give him the room he needs within the relationship to become his own person. Listening to him without judgment will open discussions that give you a window into what he is exposed to and what he thinks about it.

This gives you the influence you need while helping him cross the bridge from childhood to adulthood.