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  • Writer's pictureTashya De Silva

Understanding childhood attachment & its impact on future relationships

Updated: Jan 18, 2021

It is commonly acknowledged that a child's early childhood experiences with their parents have a profound impact on their relationship skills as an Adult.

The concept was first introduced by John Bowlby, where he defined attachment as a 'lasting psychological connectedness between human beings.' The most important tenet being that children need to develop a relationship with at least one primary caregiver for normal social and emotional development.

Ainsworth (1970) was the first to identify the first three types of attachment styles; Secure, Avoidant and Anxious. The fourth style - Disorganized was identified by Main & Solomon (1990).

The way the primary caregiver reacts to the needs/behaviour of the child is critical and will inform the type of attachment style the child develops, potentially impacting their relationships into adulthood.

Understanding and recognising your behaviour (as primary caregiver) and its influence on your child's behaviour and attachment is perhaps the first steps towards enhancing your relationship:

Secure – autonomous

Uses caregiver as secure base for exploration, is appropriately distressed in caregiver's absence and is comforted on return. Is comfortable around stranger but shows clear preference for caregiver.

Parent - Direct, Consistent, Supportive and Sensitive. Plays more with their children, reacts more quickly to their children's needs and are generally more responsive to their children than the parents of insecurely attached children.

Child - Confident, Reciprocal, Non-reactive and Resilient. They are also more empathetic during later stages of childhood, usually described as less disruptive, less aggressive, and more mature than children with ambivalent or avoidant attachment styles.

Avoidant - Dismissive

Little emotional sharing during play, few emotions during caregiver departure and return. Show low affect when offered affection. Treats caregiver and stranger similar, child may express low attachment and self esteem by acting out.

Parent - Unrealistic expectations. Harsh. Neglectful. parent may be less sensitive/responsive to child's needs, likely to withdraw help during difficult tasks and unavailable during emotional distress.

Child - Withdrawn. Quiet. Anxious. outwardly may seem independent however they have learnt to suppress their emotions and needs, and avoid seeking support or comfort from others.

Anxious – preoccupied

Does not use caregiver as secure base, protest before caregiver leaves, upset when caregiver leaves and slow to warm on return. Seeks contact but resists angrily when achieved.Not easily calmed by stranger.

Parent- inconsistent parenting. Often indifferent. Often Senstive. (e.g. Nurturing and attuned to child's needs at times and unavailable/unresponsiveness at other times)

Child- Impulsive. Unsociable. Aggressive. very clingy to caregiver and anxious given caregiver's availability is never consistent.

Disorganized – unresolved

Lack of attachment expressed through disorganized emotional behaviour (e.g. approaches caregiver upon return with back turned)

Parent- Exaggerated. Unpredictable. Ignites fear. Unconsioucly frightened the child, may be through neglect or abuse, or unresolved trauma or loss in parent's own life.

Child- Scared. Sad. Low Self-Esteem. Angry. Passive. first impulse may be to seek comfort from the parent, but as they get near the parent, they feel fear to be in their proximity, demonstrating their disorganized adaption.

The attachment relationship acts as a prototype for all future social relationships so disrupting it can have severe consequences. As a child grows up, these attachment styles seem to affect them in significant ways including:

  1. How they perceive and deal with closeness and emotional intimacy

  2. Their ability to communicate their emotions and needs, and listen to and understand emotions and needs of their partners,

  3. Modes of responding to conflict and expectations about their parent and the relationship.

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Disclaimer: The following information is not a suitable replacement for therapy or professional help. Mental health is very complex and there are various individual differences due to circumstances, genetics and life experience. All information published has been generalised and done in good faith. However, we will not be liable for any actions taken as a result of this website/post. If you are facing mental health concerns, it is important you reach out to a professional. You may also contact us at for further support.

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