Social Mobility Memos

Getting attached: Parental attachment and child development

Edward Rodrigue and Richard V. Reeves

Attachment theory is founded on the idea that an infant’s early relationship with their caregiver is crucial for social and emotional development. It is an old theory, born during the 1950s. But it can bring fresh light on issues of opportunity and equality today, as a three-decade longitudinal study of low-income children from Alan Sroufe, Byron Egeland, Elizabeth Carlson, and W. A. Collins, all University of Minnesota psychologists, demonstrates.

Early dependency equals later independence

Small infants are heavily dependent on caregivers, who must respond to their needs. But counter-intuitively, the infants who have a reliable caregiver are also most likely to become self-efficacious later.

Infants (aged 9 to 18 months) with responsive parents learn how their own behavior can impact their environment. This “call and response” process builds the infant’s sense of self-efficacy— one reason parents should pick up the sippy cup, especially for the hundredth time! But this virtuous learning cycle breaks down if the caregiver fails to respond adequately.

Three kinds of infant attachment

The theory categorizes child attachment, using observations of a staged set of parent-child-experimenter interactions, into three types:

  • Secure attachment: When the caregiver (mom, in this study) is present, the infant explores the room and interacts with the experimenter, occasionally returning to the caregiver for support. When the caregiver leaves, the child becomes sad and hesitates to interact with the experimenter, but upon their return, is visibly excited.
  • Anxious/resistant attachment: Regardless of the caregiver’s presence, the infant shows fear of the experimenter and novel situations—these infants cry more and explore the room less. They become upset when the caregiver leaves, and while they approach upon return often resist physical contact, as a form of “punishment”.
  • Anxious/avoidant attachment: No preference is shown between a caregiver and a stranger— infants play normally in the presence of the experimenter and show no sign of distress or interest when their caregiver leaves and returns. The experimenter and the caregiver can comfort the infant equally well.  

The implications of insecure attachment

The Minnesota study found that attachment makes a difference later in life. Without knowing students’ attachment history, preschool teachers judged those who had secure attachments to have higher self-esteem, to be more self-reliant, to be better at managing impulses, and to recover more easily from upsetting events. When teachers were asked which students, among those with serious struggles in class, nonetheless had “a core of inner self-worth, an indication that… maybe they could get better,” they picked students that had secure attachments as infants.

In contrast, children with anxious/resistant attachments:

  • tended to hover near teachers
  • became easily frustrated
  • were more likely to be seen as “dependent” by blinded observers
  • were less competent and patient with puzzles and other cognitive challenges

Children with anxious/avoidant attachments:

  • tended to be apathetic towards other children
  • failed to ask for adult help when stressed
  • were “often self-isolating”

Both groups had higher rates of anxiety and depression as teenagers.  These results are only correlational in nature, leaving open a range of possible causal explanations. But even with controls for later parenting behavior, maternal IQ and other characteristics, early attachment is significantly related to later success: a case where dependence builds independence.