Attachment and child development

Last updated: 26 Apr 2021
Introduction

What is attachment theory and why is it important?

Attachment is a clinical term used to describe "a lasting psychological connectedness between human beings” (Bowlby, 1997)1. In particular, attachment theory highlights the importance of a child’s emotional bond with their primary caregivers. Disruption to or loss of this bond can affect a child emotionally and psychologically into adulthood, and have an impact on their future relationships.

Only specially trained and qualified professionals should assess a child’s attachment style. However, it’s important for all adults working with children to understand what attachment is and know how to help parents and carers become attuned to their child’s needs. You might do this by working with them directly, or by signposting families to other appropriate services. In the long term, this can help improve wellbeing and provide positive outcomes for both the child and their caregivers.

Understanding attachment in the early years

Children can form attachments with more than one caregiver, but the bond with the people who have provided close care from early infancy is the most important and enduring (Bowlby, 1997)2.

It’s important that parents and carers are attuned and responsive to their baby’s needs and are able to provide appropriate care. This includes recognising if their baby is hungry, feeling unwell or in need of closeness and affection (Howe, 2011)3.

Forming an attachment is something that develops over time for a child, but parents and carers can start to form an emotional bond with their child before they are born. Sometimes a parent or carer may have difficulty forming this bond, for example if they are experiencing mental health issues or don’t have an effective support network.

On this page, you’ll find information on:

  • why attachment is important
  • how children develop attachment
  • attachment issues, insecure and secure attachment and behaviours to look out for
  • how trauma can affect attachment
  • how you can support parents and carers to develop a bond with their child.

Need specific information?

Our information specialists are here to help if you have any questions about specific safeguarding topics and can provide you with research, guidance and best practice. You can email us at learning@nspcc.org.uk or call us on 0116 234 7246.

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References

Bowlby, John (1997) Attachment and loss. Volume 1: attachment. London: Pimlico.
Bowlby, John (1997) Attachment and loss. Volume 1: attachment. London: Pimlico.
Howe, David (2011) Attachment across the lifecourse: a brief introduction. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
Stages of attachment

Stages of attachment

The first two years of a child’s life are the most critical for forming attachments (Prior and Glaser, 2006)1.

During this period, children develop an ‘internal working model’ that shapes the way they view relationships and operate socially. This can affect their sense of trust in others, self-worth and their confidence interacting with others (Bowlby, 1997)2.

When are attachments formed?

Attachments are formed in different ways during the phases of a child’s development.

Antenatal (before birth)

During the antenatal period, parents and carers can form a bond with their child. Any bonds formed before birth can have a positive impact on the relationship between babies and their caregivers once the child is born (Condon and Corkindale, 1997)3.

Birth until 6 weeks

This is sometimes referred to as the pre-attachment phase because the baby doesn’t appear to show an attachment to any specific caregiver. However, parents and carers who provide a nurturing environment and are responsive to their babies needs can lay the foundation for secure attachments to form (Bowlby, 1997)4.

6-8 months until 18 months-2 years

During this period a child begins to show a strong attachment to their primary caregivers. Babies start to develop separation anxiety during this phase and can become upset when their caregiver leaves, even for short periods (Bowlby, 1997)5.

18 months – 2 years onwards

At this point children are likely to become less dependent on their primary caregiver, particularly if they feel secure and confident the caregiver will return and be responsive in times of need (Bowlby, 1997)6.

References

Prior, V. and Glaser, D. (2006) Understanding attachment and attachment disorders: theory, evidence and practice. London: Jessica Kingsley.
Bowlby, John (1997) Attachment and loss. Volume 1: attachment. London: Pimlico.
Condon, J. T. and Corkindale, C. (1997) The correlates of antenatal attachment in pregnant women. British Journal of Medical Psychology. Cambridge University Press, 70 (4): 359-372.
Bowlby, John (1997) Attachment and loss. Volume 1: attachment. London: Pimlico.
Bowlby, John (1997) Attachment and loss. Volume 1: attachment. London: Pimlico.
Bowlby, John (1997) Attachment and loss. Volume 1: attachment. London: Pimlico.
Types of attachment

Types of attachment

A child’s need for attachment is part of the process of seeking safety and security from their caregiver.

What does secure attachment look like?

In secure caregiver-child relationships, the caregiver is usually sensitive and tuned in to the child’s needs. They are able to provide care that is predictably loving, responsive and consistent.

Young children who have formed a secure attachment to their caregiver may display the following patterns of behaviour during times of stress or exploration:

  • proximity maintenance – wanting to be near their primary caregiver
  • safe haven - returning to their primary caregiver for comfort and safety if they feel afraid or threatened
  • secure base – treating their primary caregiver as a base of security from which they can explore the surrounding environment. The child feels safe in the knowledge that they can return to their secure base when needed
  • separation distress - experiencing anxiety in the absence of their primary caregiver. They are upset when their caregiver leaves, but happy to see them and easily comforted when they return

(Ainsworth et al, 2015)1.

Benefits of secure attachment

When caregivers react sensitively to ease their child’s distress and help them regulate their emotions, it has a positive impact on the child’s neurological, physiological and psychosocial development (Howe, 2011)2.

Children with secure attachments are more likely to develop emotional intelligence, good social skills and robust mental health (Howe, 2011)3.

Effects of insecure attachment

Not receiving comfort and security in the early years can have a negative effect on children’s neurological, psychological, emotional and physical development and functioning (Newman, 2015)4.

Babies and young children who have attachment issues may be more likely to develop behavioural problems such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or conduct disorder (Fearon et al, 2010)5.

Children who have attachment issues can have difficulty forming healthy relationships when they grow up. This may be because their experiences have taught them to believe that other people are unreliable or untrustworthy (Bowlby, 1997)6.

Adults with attachment issues are at a higher risk of entering into volatile relationships and having poor parenting skills, behavioural difficulties and mental health problems (Howe, 2011)7.

> Find out more about how trauma affects child brain development

Further reading

Take a look at our reading list on child attachment.

> View the reading list on the NSPCC Library catalogue

References

Ainsworth, M. D. et al (2015) Patterns of attachment: a psychological study of the strange situation. New York: Psychology Press.
Howe, David (2011) Attachment across the lifecourse: a brief introduction. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
Howe, David (2011) Attachment across the lifecourse: a brief introduction. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
Newman, l. (2015) Attachment and early brain development: neuroprotective interventions in infant–caregiver therapy. Translational developmental psychiatry, 3 (1).
Fearon R. P. et al (2010) The significance of insecure attachment and disorganization in the development of children's externalizing behavior: a meta-analytic study. Child Development, 8 (2): 435-56.
Bowlby, John (1997) Attachment and loss. Volume 1: attachment. London: Pimlico.
Howe, David (2011) Attachment across the lifecourse: a brief introduction. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
Attachment issues

Attachment issues

Factors affecting attachment

Some circumstances can make it more challenging for a child and their caregivers to form a pattern of secure attachment. These may include:

  • abuse, maltreatment and trauma experienced by the parent or child
  • parental mental health difficulties
  • parental substance misuse
  • the child having multiple care placements
  • parents being separated from their baby just after birth, for example if the baby is receiving neonatal care
  • stress such as having a low income, being a single parent, or being a young parent
  • bereavement or loss of another caregiver that a child had an attachment with

(Bowlby, 1989)1.

Signs that a child may have attachment issues

Children’s behaviour can be influenced by a wide range of circumstances and emotions. 

Indicators that a baby or toddler might not have a secure attachment with their caregiver will emerge as a pattern of behaviour over time, particularly during moments of stress or exploration. This pattern might include:

  • being fearful or avoidant of a parent or carer
  • becoming extremely distressed when their carer leaves them, even for a short amount of time
  • rejecting their caregiver’s efforts to calm, soothe, and connect with them
  • not seeming to notice or care when their caregiver leaves the room or when they return
  • being passive or non-responsive to their carer
  • seeming to be depressed or angry
  • not being interested in playing with toys or exploring their environment

(Howe, 2011)2.

As children with attachment issues get older, these behaviour patterns might evolve. As well as being evident during times of stress, some behaviours may start to become obvious at other times. These may include the child:

  • finding it difficult to ask for help
  • struggling to form positive relationships with adults and peers
  • struggling to concentrate
  • struggling to calm themselves down
  • both demanding and rejecting attention or support at the same time
  • becoming quickly or disproportionately angry or upset, at times with no clear triggers
  • appearing withdrawn or disengaged from activities
  • daydreaming, being hyperactive or constantly fidgeting or moving

(Mentally Healthy Schools, 2020)3.

If you think a child may have attachment issues, you should refer them to a suitably trained health and social care professional for a full assessment. You should follow your organisation’s procedures to make a health and social care referral, or contact your local authority children’s social care services.

References

Bowlby, John (1989) The making and breaking of affectional bonds. London: Routledge.
Howe, David (2011) Attachment across the lifecourse: a brief introduction. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
Mentally Healthy Schools (2020) Attachment and child development. [Accessed 09/11/2020].
Trauma and attachment

Trauma and attachment

The signs of attachment issues can be similar to indicators that a child is experiencing other challenges, such as:

This means it’s important to consider everything that’s going on in a child’s life and make sure they and their family are provided with appropriate support.

Think about all your previous experiences with the child and their caregivers, to help you build a clear picture of their relationships and recognise any concerning patterns of behaviour.

The impact of trauma and attachment

Children who have experienced abuse, neglect and trauma might develop coping strategies that can make it more complicated to recognise attachment issues.

For example, one sign of secure attachment is that children see their caregiver as a secure base to explore from. But children who have experienced neglect, for example, might display independent behaviour in order to protect themselves from the emotional pain of not having their needs met (Marvin et al, 2002)1.

It is also possible for a child to develop an attachment to someone who is maltreating them (Blizard & Bluhm, 1994)2.

As well as affecting attachment, experiencing trauma can have an impact on a child’s brain development. Children might need extra support to help strengthen the architecture of their brain.

> Find out more about how trauma affects child brain development

What to do if you’re worried that a child is experiencing or at risk of abuse or neglect

If a child is in immediate danger, call the police on 999.

If you’re worried about a child but they are not in immediate danger, you should share your concerns.

  • Follow your organisation’s child protection procedures without delay. These should provide clear guidelines on the steps you need to take if a child discloses abuse. They will state who in your organisation has responsibility for safeguarding or child protection and who you should report your concerns to.
  • Contact your local child protection services. Their contact details can be found on the website for the local authority the child lives in.
  • Contact the police. They will assess the situation and take the appropriate action to protect the child.
  • Contact the NSPCC Helpline on 0808 800 5000 or by emailing help@nspcc.org.uk. Our trained professionals will talk through your concerns with you, give you expert advice and take action to protect the child as appropriate. This may include making a referral to the local authority.

> Find out more about recognising and responding to abuse

References

Marvin et al (2002) The Circle of Security project: Attachment-based intervention with caregiver–pre-school child dyads. Attachment & human development. pp 107-124.
Blizard, R. A. and A.M Bluhm (1994) Attachment to the abuser: integrating object-relations and trauma theories in treatment of abuse survivors. Psychotherapy, 31(3): 383-390.
Supporting children and families

Supporting children and families

Building positive relationships

It’s important for anyone who works with children and families to support parents and carers in building positive relationships with their child. Having positive interaction and play with caregivers can help a child’s brain to develop healthily.

> See our early years resources which you can share with parents and caregivers

Video feedback programmes can also be used by specially trained social care professionals to help caregivers improve their interactions with their child. This involves caregivers being filmed when they are interacting with their child and then watching the recording with a trained practitioner, who gives them feedback and helps them build on their strengths.

Support for parents and carers

If parents are struggling with their own issues, it may make it harder for them to bond with their child and provide consistant and responsive care. They may have:

  • experienced abuse of trauma themselves
  • drug and/or alcohol dependencies
  • mental health issues.

> Find out more about parental mental health

> Learn more about parental substance misuse

Services for children and families

The NSPCC has many services that children and families can be referred to, from supporting parents and carers in taking care of their children to preventing sexual abuse and overcoming abuse.

Our services might be suitable for children and families you are working with:

  • Baby Steps is a perinatal education programme (for before birth and just after pregnancy) that helps new parents who are likely to need extra help, transition to parenthood and supports them in caring for their baby
  • Pregnancy in Mind helps parents who are at risk of or experiencing mild to moderate anxiety and depression during pregnancy. The service helps build parents’ capacity to provide sensitive, responsive care to their babies and keep these skills developed postnatally and as their children develop
  • Building Blocks is a creative, home-based programme for caregivers of children under 7-years-old who may need extra support in gaining the skills and knowledge they need to care for their child.

Browse for more services

Further reading

Take a look at our reading list about child attachment interventions, support and treatment.

> View the list on the NSPCC Library catalogue

Supporting children’s mental health

Children with attachment issues may have problems expressing or controlling their emotions and forming positive relationships, which might affect their mental health.

It’s important to make sure children and young people have access to mental health support.

> Find out more about child mental health

> See the NSPCC’s advice for parents and carers on how to support their child’s mental health

Childline

If a child or young person needs confidential help and advice you can always direct them to Childline. Calls to 0800 1111 are free and children can also contact Childline online. Children under the age of 12 can be directed to the Childline Kids website.

We also have a series of posters and wallet cards you can download for free or you can buy printed versions via our online shop. These can be displayed in your setting to encourage children to contact Childline if they need to talk.

If a child has experienced abuse, they may need therapeutic support to get back on track.

> Find out more about our services for children who have experienced abuse