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How attachment style affects your parenting

You’ve probably been aware of it on some level your entire life. How you’ve related to partners in the past or to a spouse, noticing certain patterns in your relationships showing up time and time again. And now that you’re a parent, you may be even more cognizant of how your own relationship attachment style influences how you engage with your children. Some of these experiences may seem familiar to you:

  • An insecure feeling that your partner is going to leave you
  • A dismissive, never-mind-I-don’t-really-need-you attitude
  • Feeling vulnerable—but no way you’re going there
  • Wondering what you have to do to get them to pay attention to you
  • Brushing things off like they don’t really matter (but they do)

All of this is a function of your relationship attachment style.

Relationship attachment style formed in early childhood

Our attachment styles are formed in early childhood, during the first one to two years of life. This idea of attachment style is based on attachment theory which was founded by British psychologist John Bowlby in the 1950s, which suggests that early bonds between babies and caregivers can have a tremendous impact on a person’s life. Most significantly, when a baby develops a secure bond with a dependable caregiver—particularly the mother—the child grows into a more confident, assured adult.

This work was later built and expanded upon and ultimately four attachment styles were named:

  • Secure attachment—When a child feels secure in knowing that their primary caregiver will be there for comfort when needed. A securely attached child shows distress when the caregiver leaves and is joyful when the caregiver returns. This foundation of trust and knowingness breeds a more confident and successful adult who is more comfortable and at ease in life and relationships.
  • Ambivalent-insecure attachment—When a child feels uncertain that a caregiver is available when needed and may become demanding or clingy as a result. When the attention is received, the child turns ambivalent, a behavioral trait that may carry into adult relationships as not speaking up for one’s self or being wishy-washy.
  • Avoidant-insecure attachment—When a child turns to a caregiver for comfort but doesn’t get the empathetic concern or compassion they expected. To bolster themselves against such vulnerability, avoidant children come to rely on themselves rather than their caregivers, becoming independent and less entangled emotionally in relationships, but may also be less fulfilled.
  • Disorganized-insecure attachment—When a child experiences trauma, often as a result of verbal, physical or sexual abuse, or witnessing one parent or caregiver doing something traumatizing to another. In adulthood, it becomes nearly impossible for this person to form intimate, trusting relationships as the underlying trauma and confusion of loving someone who would violate that trust runs so deep.

You can take an attachment style quiz to discover more about your own attachment tendencies.

But attachment styles needn’t be permanent markers on a person’s life. It is possible to move into earned secure attachment, a healthy state of secure attachment based on one’s own introspection, personal development, work with a therapist, and/or relationship with a person who is securely attached. Being able to recognize your own attachment style at any age or stage of life can be useful in relationship dynamics and is particularly helpful in the parenting journey.

Parenting and attachment style

Whatever attachment style you learned with your own parents is a strong determinant of the attachment pattern you will imprint on your children. Even if you have grown into earned secure attachment over time, there are lasting residual effects of whatever attachment style you grew up with—which will show up in your own parenting style.

Ambivalent-insecure attachment becomes anxious-preoccupied parenting

If you had a parent who was unreliable for your own needs, and you often found yourself having to tend to theirs, this carries over into your relationship with your own kids. You may unwittingly seek emotional gratification from your children—a burden too heavy for them to bear (the same one you were given)—and cause them to become clingy and demanding. Adults with this attachment style must mature by finding love and fulfillment in adult relationships and be hypervigilant about responding appropriately to children, giving them time and attention and presence.

Avoidant-insecure attachment becomes avoidant-dismissive parenting

If you grew up with an emotionally distant mom and you developed fierce independence, you may have a tendency to keep your own children at bay at encourage them to fend for themselves more often than not. To be emotionally involved with your children, it’s important to continue looking inward and connecting with your own feelings, growing and developing yourself so you can be available for your kids. It may be new for you to ask them questions like, “How do you feel about that?” or “How does that make you feel?” or “When he did that to you, how did it make you feel?”

Disorganized-insecure attachment style becomes disorganized attachment parenting

Having a parent or caregiver who responded inconsistently to your needs, perhaps soothing your cries sometimes but not responding at others, or responding with calm but then turning angry and impatient, develops a disorganized-insecure attachment style that lingers in adulthood. Parents with this attachment style can help break the cycle—which may have been passed down from generation to generation—by being willing to look at themselves and their own upbringing, develop new skills in therapy, and find support from friends, family and other parents.