A Basic Understanding of Attachment Theory in Children

A Basic Understanding of Attachment Theory in Children

Post Date: Sep 27, 2023
Parent Support

Attachment theory has been around since the 1950s, and it’s still at the forefront of our understanding of relationships today. In children, this theory refers to the relationship between guardian and child. It starts in infancy and informs development throughout a person’s life. The science of psychology looks at different behaviors to describe attachment theory. And as kids grow into adulthood, their attachment style as children may inform their future relationships. Let’s take a look at how attachment theory applies to raising children and what caregivers can do to help kids thrive.

What is attachment?

At its base, attachment is that feeling that makes you want to spend time with someone or what makes you miss someone when they’re gone. It’s a bond between people, and it forms the basis of all our personal relationships.

The ages of attachments

Up until about six months old, babies can recognize their parents or primary caregivers, but they might not be too concerned if someone else cares for them instead. Beginning at about six months old, babies start to learn who their caregivers or parents are, and they might cry or get scared if they’re separated from them. By the time children reach the age of three, they can start to understand that their parents are individuals and might be less distressed when they’re separated from them.

Attachment styles

Attachment theory is made up of several different attachment styles with different causes. Secure and insecure attachments are the two main categories that children fall into.


Generally, caregivers form a secure attachment style with their children through loving care and stability. Nonverbal communication plays a big role. If the child feels safe, comforted, valued, supported, and known, it’s a recipe for secure attachment. Feeling known might seem a little abstract, but that can be as simple as knowing that when they are hungry, their caregiver will feed them, or if they’re upset, they can receive comfort.


Angry or abusive caregivers can lead to insecure attachment in children. But other factors can contribute to an insecure attachment style too.

Disorganized, or fearful-avoidant, attachment often occurs in children who have been abused in childhood. Their caregivers become a source of fear rather than a source of safety. Anxious-ambivalent attachment often stems from inconsistent parenting and can result in low self-esteem, fear of abandonment, clinginess, and fear of rejection. Anxious-avoidant children might become adults who are viewed as confident and independent adults, but they might not do well in emotionally or physically intimate relationships. This type of insecure attachment might stem from caregivers who are distant, strict, or expect their children to be tough above all else.

Reactive attachment disorder

At an extreme, insecure attachment can lead to kids becoming abusive or lacking empathy. This is known as reactive attachment disorder. This happens when a child isn’t able to form healthy bonds with their caregivers, often caused by neglect or abuse, according to Cleveland Clinic.

How this translates into adulthood

A tendency towards one sort of attachment style in childhood isn’t a guarantee of an individual having that attachment as an adult. One study showed that 70% of participating adults had an attachment style that stayed consistent over a four-year period.

But attachment styles aren’t guaranteed to stay the same. A change in circumstances can lead to changes in attachment style, even throughout adulthood. And it’s important to remember that no parent is perfect. But by making an effort to provide a stable, loving household, parents and caregivers can help set their children up for secure relationships throughout their lives.

If you’re looking for support raising the children in your care, CHP offers programs to help. Parents as Teachers and Parent Liaisons give you tools to help nurture your children, and school-based health centers in Bozeman and Belgrade give more services to patients of all ages in these communities. Get in touch for more information.