Attachment in young children

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In order to form a good bond, or attachment, interactions between children and their parents are of prime importance. The attachment theory considers a secure attachment as one of the most important factors in the development of a child. The theory speaks of secure and insecure attachments. Securely attached children will find the right balance between exploring their direct surroundings and remaining close to their caregiver. They are not afraid of experimentation, and will have their caregiver to fall back upon when they are anxious or sad. So far over 10.000 articles have been published about attachment. Issues from the debate applicable on younger children are discussed below.


From a very early age, when feeling hungry, uncomfortable or threatened by something, children will instinctively seek the company of their mother or another important caregiver, expecting the parental figure to take away these unpleasant feelings. The availability and competence of the caregiver and his ability to adequately react upon these signals will determine the quality of the attachment. If the caregiver’s reactions to the child’s cues are primarily positive and answer the child’s needs, they will provide the child with a secure base, from which it can explore its surroundings. Securely attached children will trust others, display confidence in their interactions with others, will make friends, and will experience social support (Juffer e.a., 2008). Not only do they have better social skills, they are also better at regulating their emotions than children which have formed an insecure attachment with their caregiver (Jaffari-Bimmel e.a., 2006). Insecurely attached children, who, from an early age, have not had the opportunity to fall back upon a parent or caregiver who answered their needs adequately, display less confidence in their interactions with others, possess fewer social skills, experience more difficulties in regulating their emotions. Furthermore, they have an increased chance of behavioural- and personality problems later in life.

Babies do not necessarily form only one attachment. They can form bonds with several caregivers. Some of these bonds will be stronger than others. When several of the child’s caregivers are available, the child will show a clear preference for one of these caregivers, particularly when it is stressed.

History and research

John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth are considered as the most important pioneers in the field of attachment theory. They posed that children have an innate urge to attach themselves to the most important adults surrounding them, whether they be good or bad caregivers. The interaction between the child and the caregiver (especially the mother) determines whether the resulting attachment will be secure or insecure.

Empirical studies committed by Bowlby (1958,1969,1973,1983,1987,1988) and by Ainsworth (1965,1969,1978,1991,2010) have proven a correlation between the formation of a secure attachment during early childhood and the successful development of social skills and competence later on, and between the formation of an insecure attachment and a lack of warmth during early childhood, and behavioural problems during both early and late childhood and adolescence.

From her (lab)research Mary Ainsworth concluded that securely attached toddlers show anxiety when the parent disappears from view, will seek out their company upon their return, and will continue exploring afterwards. Insecurely attached toddlers do not display this behaviour at all, or only a little, or show an entirely different kind of behaviour. She distinguished four different types of attachments: 1. secure 2. anxious-ambivalent 3. anxious-avoidant 4. disorganised / disorientated.

Secure attachment is helped on by sensitivity, i.e. sensing the child’s needs, and responsiveness, i.e. an adequate reaction in order to answer the child’s needs (Ainsworth et all.) The opposite is insensitive behaviour, in which the parent experiences difficulties in understanding the child’s behaviour, which makes it hard to react adequately. The attachment theory stresses that insensitive behaviour of parents could result in problematic behaviour of the child.

During their research, Sroufe, Egeland, Carlson, Waters and their colleagues (1977,1999,2004,2005) noticed that securely attached young children are enthusiastic and skilful at completing tasks and will ask their parents for assistance if the tasks becomes too difficult for them, whereas insecurely attached children will become frustrated and will start whining. Furthermore, securely attached children displayed behaviour which may be described as flexible, curious and socially competent. Securely attached toddlers also possessed more confidence, showed more sympathy for their peers and were more assertive and more willing to take the lead. The research group found similar results with older children who had formed secure attachments with their caregivers.

The same was to be found true for Dutch toddlers by, among others, IJzendoorn (1988, 1994, 2008). He states that a securely attached child trusts his caregiver will notice his needs and will handle them both directly and adequately. An insecurely attached child does not have this kind of faith in his caregiver. Here, too, the development and quality of the bond depend on the way in which the caregiver interacts with the child, is able to sense its needs and feelings (sensitivity) and is able to answer the child’s needs (responsiveness). Attachment, sensitivity and responsiveness are all interdependent.

Many researchers have pointed out that there is a higher chance of an insecure attachment, when the caregiver did not form a secure attachment with his own parent(s).

Attachments between caregivers and their child are universal, but are also influenced by the culture in which they arise. (IJzendoorn et all., 2007).

And finally: although a secure attachment is an important aspect to the development of a child, it is certainly not the only one!

Advice for parents of young children

In the books and websites included in the list of references below, you will find a great deal of advice.

You will also find advice here, at Babypedia, in the article core parenting skills for parents of small children.

First and foremost: try to understand your child’s feelings and needs to the best of your abilities. Observe the signals your child gives off. Follow up on these signals with the best possible actions, for example by comforting your child when it cries.

Critical ways to promote a secure attachment:

1. Provide your child with a secure base (food, sleep, peace and quiet, surroundings; take the lead when needed)

2. Stimulate your child to go and explore, cheer it on emphatically

3. Meanwhile, keep an eye on it, join in and have a laugh together

4. Protect you child when needed

5. Comfort your child by holding it

6. Show how much you enjoy what he or she is doing

7. Calm your child down when it is upset

References and recommended literature


Choy, J. & Schulze, E. (2009) Kiezen voor kinderen

Bowlby, J., Verbondenheid; Deventer: Van Loghum Slaterus, 1983.

Bowlby, J. et al., Gehechtheid in relaties; Deventer: Van Loghum Slaterus, 1987

Lamb, M.E. (2013) Kind – ouderhechting. In: Hechtingrelaties( pdf.)

Oates, J (red.) (2013) Hechtingrelaties – kwaliteit van zorg voor jonge kinderen – focus op de eerste kinderjaren 1. Pdf.

Polderman, N. (2004) Hechtingsproblemen, niets aan te doen? Hechten met video interactie begeleiding, in: Mobiel 3, juni/juli 2004

Ijzendoorn M.H. van, L.W.C. Tavecchio, F.A. Goossens & M.M. Vergeer (1988). Opvoeden in geborgenheid – Een kritische analyse van Bowlby’s attachmenttheorie

Ijzendoorn M.H. van (1994) Gehechtheid van ouders en kinderen

Ijzendoorn M.H. van (2008) Opvoeding over de grens. Gehechtheid, trauma en veerkracht. Amsterdam, Boom academic.


Ainsworth, M. (1965) Childcare and the growth of love.

Ainsworth, M., & B.A. Wittig (1969): attachment and the exploratory behaviour of one-year-olds in a strange situation

Ainsworth, M., M.C. Blehar, E.Waters & S.Wall (1978) Patterns of attachment: A psychological study of the strange situation (Hillsdale, NJ; Erlbaum)

Ainsworth, M (1991) Attachment and other affectional bonds across the life cicle. In: Parker, J. And others (ED.) Attachment across the life cicle. N.York: Routledge.

Ainsworth,M., S.M. Bell and D.J. Slayton (1991) Infant-mother attachment and social development: “Socialisation as a product of reciprocal responsiveness to signals. In: M.Woodhead et al (eds): Becoming a person. Florence: Routledge.

Ainsworth, M. And D.Salter (2010) security and attachment. In: R. Volpe (Ed.) The secure child:Timeless lessons in parenting and childhood education (pp 43-53) Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Berlin, L., Y.Ziv, L.Amaya-jackson & M.Greenberg (2007) Enhancing early attachments: theory, research, intervention and policy.

Bretherton, I. (1992) The origins of attachment theoryJohn Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth in “Developmental Psychology, number 28, pages 759-775.

Bowlby, J. (1958) The nature of the child’s tie to his mother

Bowlby, J. (1969) Attachment and loss. Vol1: attachment. N.York, Basic Books.

Bowlby, J. (1973) Attachment and loss. Vol 2: separation: anxiety and anger. N.York, Basic Books

Bowlby, J. (1988) A secure base: parent – child attachment and healthy human development. N.York, Routledge classics.

Carlson,E.A., Sroufe. L.A. and B.Egeland (2004) The construction of experience: a longitudinal study of representation and behavior. In: Child Development, 75 (1)

Jaffari-Bimmel, N., F. Juffer, M.H. Van Ijzendoorn, M.J. Bakermans-

Kranenburg and A. Mooijaart (2006). Social development from infancy to adolescence. Longitudinal and concurrent factors in an adoption sample; in: Developmental Psychology, year 42, number 6.

Juffer,F., M.J. Bakermans- Kranenburg & M.H. IJzendoorn (2008). Promoting positive parenting: an attachment based intervention

Karen, R. (1994) Becoming attached: First relationships and how they shape our capacity to love. N.York: N.Y. University Press

Marrone, M., (1998) Attachment and interaction

Oates, J., C.Lewis ans M. E. Lamb (2005) Parenting and attachment; in: Ding S. And K. Littleton, (eds) Children’s personal and social development, Oxford, Blackwell.

Sroufe, and E. Waters (1977) Attachment as an organizational construct. Minessota University.

Sroufe, L. A., Carlson, E., Levy, A., & Egeland, B. (1999). Implications of attachment theory for developmental psychopathology.In: Development and Psychopathology, 11, 1-13.

Sroufe, L. A., Egeland, B., Carlson, E., & Collins, W. A. (2005). Placing early attachment experiences in developmental context. In: K. E. Grossmann, K. Grossmann, & E. Waters (Eds.), The power of longitudinal attachment research: From infancy and childhood to adulthood. (pp. 48-70) New York: Guilford Publications.

Thompson, R. A., Cassidy, J. And P. R. Shaver (eds.) (2008) Handbook of attachment: Theory, research and clinical application. N.York, Guilford.

White, B.L. (1990) The first three years of life. N.York: Prentice-Hall

Wolff, M.S. de en M.H. van Ijzendoorn (1997). Sensivity and attachment. A meta-analysis on parental antecedents of infant attachment; in: Child Development, year 68, number 4, pages 571-591.

van IJzendoorn M.H., Bakermans-Kraneburg, M.J. and Sagi-Schwartz, A. (2007) ‘Attachment across diverse sociocultural contexts: the limits of universality’ in Rubin, K. (ed.) Parental Beliefs, Parenting and Child Development in Cross-Cultural Perspective, London, Psychology Press.

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The first version of this article was written by Michael Jeroen Kanis. This article was translated from Dutch into English by Anna Visser.


Parenting, sensitivity, attachment, attachment theory, attachment behaviour

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