Healthy Attachments are Crucial to Outcomes for Children

Attachment is the outcome or result of the way a child is cared for early in life, and is connected to a child’s development, and their well-being as an adult. 

John Bowlby (1907-1990), a British psychoanalyst, developed the theory of attachment when studying the distress infants experience when separated from parents. Bowlby noticed that separated infants would go to great lengths to prevent separation from a parent, or to regain contact. Children who feel secure in their parent’s love and care feel better about themselves, and approach the world with more confidence. 

“A parent, however, is not only the child’s first teacher, but also their first caregiver. Mothers and fathers influence their children’s development, not only through the resources they invest in their children and the linguistic and cognitive stimulation they offer, but also through the attachment or bond they forge with their children.” (The Conversation, March 2014)

Theories about attachment state that healthy, positive social and emotional development in a child depend on sensitive and responsive care giving. The first 3 years of a child’s life are crucial in developing healthy attachment. The care and nurturing that a parent gives a child creates a foundation that a child will use to learn, grow and eventually take into their own adult lives; in a positive or negative way. Attachment also shapes a child’s relationships with others in their lives – family, peers, teachers, etc


A healthy or secure attachment happens when a parent is available most of the time to meet the needs of the child, and is responsive to those needs. Attachment happens in everyday life – picking a baby up when he cries, reading a bedtime story, playtime and providing a child with affection and positive feedback, are all common ways secure attachments are formed. To develop a secure attachment it is crucial that the care and nurturing is consistent. 

In a secure attachment, the child is assured that the parent will meet their needs. A secure attachment also involves the child’s ability to reach the parent if they need comfort or help. Another component is that if the child expresses a negative emotion they are safe to do so, with that parent.

The elements of healthy attachments between parent and child include a child who feels safe with the parent, engaging in close (physical) contact, sharing discoveries or experiences, forming emotional connections and consistent (predictable) contact.

Children who have a secure attachment are better able to socialize with others, have a more stable mood and behavior, and are more likely to explore and engage in the world around them.



There are also insecure or unhealthy attachments. Insecure attachments happen when children are abused, ignored, rejected or neglected by parents. Parents who are insensitive or highly critical to children may also create an insecure attachment.

There are two main types of insecure attachment:

Avoidant: This happens when a parent minimizes, ignores or rejects a child. In turn, a child will minimize or ignore their own needs, and avoid a parent when that parent seems upset or distressed.

Disorganized: This happens when a parent does not provide consistent care for a child. A parent seems overwhelmed or expect the child to take care of adult responsibilities (that the parent avoids). As a result, the child will exaggerate or amp up their behavior and emotions to get the parent to notice them. The child will be unable to handle their own distress or feelings.

Children who have insecure attachments often experience anxiety or fear, and often suffer from a variety of emotional and behavioral problems. Insecure attachment create a greater risk of significant delays in speech and language, physical growth, and social and emotional development. The effects are devastating on children, and often create lifelong consequences.


The strongest predictor for a child who has an unhealthy attachment is having a parent who lacks a secure attachment, themselves. However, a secure attachment with one parent can offset the damage of an insecure attachment with the other parent. 

I would also argue that parental alienation and Domestic Violence by Proxy (when an abusive parent uses a child as a means to control, intimidate or hurt the other parent) creates an unhealthy attachment. Not only is that child affected by the dysfunctional behavior of their primary parent (who is also engaging in abusive, alienating behavior) but the child is also deeply affected by the loss of the “targeted parent”, and is being brainwashed to hate or reject that parent.  Signs of unhealthy attachment will be visible in children who experience alienation.

Another problem occurs when the attachment is disrupted – meaning a child is estranged with a parent or if there is inconsistent contact. In some cases, a parent is responsible for lack of contact with a child. In other cases, the estrangement may be due to parental alienation, court orders reducing or limiting parental contact, changing court orders, parental kidnapping, or domestic violence/family safety issuesl.

In these situations, it is difficult to improve the relationship if your contact with the child is restricted or non-existent, or similarly, if the child is rejecting the parent.

How to understand this? According to Dr. Craig Childress, “Your child loves you with all their heart.  You are the world to them.  They are lost.  They are living in a psychologically dangerous world of ever-changing truth and reality.  They must do what it takes to survive in the dangerous psychological world of living with the narcissistic/(borderline) parent.

Dr Craig Childress, Psy. D, has introduced a model of parental alienation, based on attachment theory called “pathogenic parenting”. The Childress model relies on accepted, standard, scientific psychological principles and constructs; it connects the dots between the family functioning, the personality disorder (of a parent engaging in pathogenic parenting), and attachment. In the Childress theory, what is commonly known as parental alienation is an “attachment trauma” that is passed down from one generation to the next, and severely impacts the child.

Dr. Childress’s work is really insightful, and I have found to be helpful. He also includes recommendations on his site on how to identify pathogenic parenting, insights for targeted parents, and advice for psychologists and family courts.

You can read more on his blog: Dr. Craig Childress Blog




*Developmental Delays


*Difficulty expressing thoughts, feelings and emotion

*Difficulty interpreting what they need

*Difficulty making decisions

* Fear

*Internalizing (Anxiety, Sadness, Guilt, Blame, Shame)

*Poor health



*Attention Seeking Behaviors. Risky behaviors that endanger self or others.

* Avoidance (withdrawing from a parent, rejecting a parent)

*Developmental Delays

* Dismissive (suppressing thoughts and feelings, ability to repress or deny a bond with another person, may seem cold or unemotional), Dismissive in relationships with others

* Externalizing Problems (Aggression, Defiance, Hyperactivity, Rebellion)

* “Fear without a solution”, meaning a child becomes anxious or upset when an abusive caregiver enters, and for a short time, displays bizarre or unusual behavior. Fear without a solution is predictive of abuse and/or maltreatment.

(For example: My child was in supervised visitation with abusive father. Father enters room with a cup of hot cocoa for the child. The child becomes visibly anxious, hyperactive, loud, then dumps out the hot cocoa and spills it all over the table and herself. When I picked my child up, thankfully she was not burned but there was cocoa on her clothing, on her arms and chest, and in her hair).

*Increase in youth crime, delinquency (often related to externalizing problems)

*Low Self Esteem

*Poor language development



*Difficulty communicating with others

*Difficulty expressing thoughts, feelings and emotion

*Difficulty making decisions

*Difficulty trusting others, making friends

* Dismissive (suppressing thoughts and feelings, ability to repress or deny a bond with another person, may seem cold or unemotional), Dismissive in relationships with others

*Educational troubles or struggles in school



*Lack in social skills



*Positive community involvement – Spiritual support, Attending community events (celebrations, classes, library events, cultural celebrations, etc), Volunteering, Community Garden, Mentoring etc

*Court orders encourage frequent contact between children and parents (unless parent is found to be unfit or abusive).

*Courts stop awarding custody to abusive or unfit parents

*Family therapy or individual counseling

*Increase involvement early childhood education or parenting support programs

*Involve positive adults in the care of your child – family members, friends, spiritual support, play groups, clubs or sports etc

*Reaching out for support or help, when needed

*Take time everyday to spend with your child – playing, reading, enjoying special activities, sharing meals etc.

*If estranged from your child, there may be ways to maintain a connection but keep in contact with the ways available to you (if possible) – text, Skype, e-mail, phone, letters, visits etc

*Don’t vent, express frustrations or take adult issues out on your children

*Do not speak negatively about the other parent in front of your child, or use the child as a messenger

There are many programs that do assist needy or at-risk families, some government funded others are charitable or private organizations. To get a list of resources, you may consider calling United Way 211. United Way 211


This is a difficult subject, and I do not claim to have all the answers… but let’s continue the discussion. Please post your thoughts, comments below or leave additional links. Thank you!

— Emily Court, 2015


Ludwig F, Lowensten, P.h.D., Southern England Psychological Services, 2008: Attachment Theory and Parental Alienation

Sutton Trust research by Sophie Moullin, Jane Waldfogel, and Elizabeth Washborook, March 2014: Baby Bonds: Parenting, Attachment and a Secure Base for Children

The Conversation, March 2014: Bonding with your child matters for their life chances

R. Chris Fraley, University of Illinois: A Brief Overview of Adult Attachment Theory and Research


About Emily Court

It takes "Just Us" To Fight Injustice in Family Court. I blog to raise awareness about problems existing in the family court system, and use my own story as a personal example of how the systemic failures in family court, and the Guardian ad Litem Program, affect families, in an effort to encourage needed reform. Written by a survivor of domestic violence and homelessness working to create a better life for her children, in a stable home free of violence. In her efforts to rebuild her life, she has not only encountered harassment and intimidation from her alleged abuser but faced systematic failures in family court that have empowered her alleged abuser and put her children at risk. She has spent over a decade trapped in family court until her children finally aged out of the system. Through writing and blogging, FCI is working to raise awareness about domestic violence, and the urgent need for family court reform. She is currently working on a memoir titled "'Til Prayers Are Answered".
This entry was posted in Abuse Allegations & Documentation, Child Abuse, Parental Alienation/DV by Proxy, Parenting Tips and Articles and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Healthy Attachments are Crucial to Outcomes for Children

  1. Pingback: Behavior that does not promote access to children can be classified as parental alienation. | Children's Rights

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