Happy Learners - Attachment Difficulties

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Attachment Difficulties

What is attachment?

Attachment is a child's bond with an adult, usually their parent, that enables the child to feel safe, secure and relaxed. From the security of this attachment the child feels confident to explore the world knowing that they can trust their parent to meet their needs and rescue them from danger.

Attachment Theory - a brief history

It is a theory that was put forward by John Bowlby after many years of work with children with emotional and behavioural difficulties. He had noticed that many of his patients had been separated from their mothers when very young and wondered whether this was significant. Support for his ideas came from a colleague's work on children in hospital who at the time were separated from their mothers. A film documenting the distress this caused to young children was released in 1948 by James and Joyce Robinson. The film entitled 'A two year old goes to hospital' ultimately led to changes in hospital practice. Work by Harlow in 1958 with monkeys removed from their mothers also revealed the long term impact that separation had on the monkey's ability to regulate their emotions and how well they got on with their peers. Earlier work by Konrad Lorentz in the 1930's had also shown a critical period when newly hatched goslings will form attachments with their parent, or anything resembling a parent including humans, in a process he described as imprinting. Bowlby brought these ideas together to form a theory: that humans also have a critical period in their infancy when they need to form attachments; and that when there are difficulties in forming a secure attachment there can be significant consequences for the child.

Attachment Styles

There are four types of attachment styles: secure, avoidant, ambivalent and disorganised. Between a third and a half of all children do not have a secure attachment and this can have life long consequences.

Attachment Style

Secure Attachment

Parent Behaviour

The parent is consistently responsive and attuned to their child’s needs.

As their child grows they help them explore and navigate their environment by giving them consistent directions and boundaries.

Risk taking is managed rather than removed.

Love is unconditional and the parent consistently encourages and gives positive feedback on their child’s everyday triumphs no matter how small.

Child Behaviour

The child has trust in their parent to look after them, keep them safe and help regulate their emotions.

Young children are quickly distressed if their parent leaves and will be quickly soothed when they return.

As they grow they become confident in exploring their environment within reach of their parent. They share their parents trust of others and take risks knowing there is a safety net.

Secure children tend to have greater creativity, better inter-personal skills and are more able to regulate their own emotions.

Attachment Style

Avoidant Attachment

Parent Behaviour

The parent consistently shows little or no response to their distressed child. They discourage crying and encourage independence.

The parent may give strict boundaries and overly protect from risk. Parents may be described as pre-occupied and lacking self-reflection.

Parents who have avoidant attachment themselve may have relationship difficulties.

Child Behaviour

The child will tend to avoid and ignore others, looking only after themselves with little sharing.  Won’t ask for help. Lacks trust in others, fears rejection so pushes other away.  Can be very task orientated.

The child learns to block out emotional feelings particularly those that reveal any neediness, dependency or hurt. They have less developed interpersonal skills.

Children in an avoidant relationship avoid their caregiver and at times show a preference to strangers.

Attachment Style

Ambivalent Resistant Attachment

Parent Behaviour

The parent is unpredictable, inconsistent between appropriate and neglectful responses.

Parent may be less sensitive to their child’s needs.

Interaction with their child is often about meeting the parent's needs rather than the child’s.

The parent may have their own unresolved issues affecting their emotional and mental well-being.

Child Behaviour

The child must watch their parent carefully to predict how they are likely to react. They can be hesitant in decision making and lack confidence with new experiences.

The child often needs to draw attention to themselves in order to get their needs me and can’t bare to be ignored. Seeks contact but resists angrily or ambivalently when it is achieved.

The child can struggle to regulate their own emotions.

Attachment Style

Disorganised Attachment

Parent Behaviour

The parent is inconsistent with the child, and wavers between frightening and comforting him.

The parent may be intrusive at times and then at other times withdrawal from the child.

They parent may be highly negative.

Their may be also other risk factors associated with the family unit including: lone parents, poverty, drug and alcohol misuse, domestic violence, disadvantaged neighbourhoods and Police involvement.

Child Behaviour

The child tends to suffer from high stress levels and struggles to regulate their emotions.

The child is hypervigilant.

They can demonstrate helplessness or hostility to challenging situations such as learning tasks.

They may be hyperactive and have attention difficulties similar to ADHD.

They avoid change and becoming increasingly controlling.

They have very little trust in others.

They may attempt to be a caregiver to their parent.


Geddes, H (2006) Attachment in the classroom. London: Worth Publishing
Mcleod, S (2009) Attachment Theory. Available at www.simplypsychology.org/attachment.html (Accessed 28.06.14)
Music, G (2011) Nurturing Natures - Attachment and Children's Emotional, Sociocultural and Brain Development. Hove: Psychology Press