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Attachment Theory and Parenting Styles

Updated on June 10, 2012

Attachment is simply the relationship or strong emotional bond that develops between an infant and his or her primary caregiver. There is more than one theory of attachment, psychoanalysis, learning theory, ethological theory and cognitive developmental theory all have something to say about attachment. This article will focus on the cognitive-developmental approach to attachment theory.

First in order for the infant to develop attachment there are two prerequisites. First he or she must be able to differentiate between the primary caregiver and a stranger. Second the child must realize that people still exist, even when he or she cannot see them.

Mary Ainsworth developed the Strange Situation as a way to assess the quality and nature of the attachment relationship. In the Strange Situation the primary caregiver twice leaves the baby alone or with a stranger and twice returns to be reunited with the infant. Based on observational data Ainsworth came up with three different styles of attachment. A fourth was added later by other researchers.

Secure Attachment

This is the ideal relationship between primary caregiver and infant. The infant demonstrates a willingness to explore a new environment while the primary caregiver is around. He or she is upset when left alone or with a stranger but greets the primary caregiver happily upon his or her return and actively seeks comfort from them.

Insecure-Avoidant Attachment

When the primary caregiver left the first time these infants were not upset and avoided her upon return. After the primary caregiver left the second time the infant was visibly upset but still avoided the caregiver upon return.

Insecure-Resistant Attachment

These infants became extremely upset when left by the primary caregiver. When she returned the infant alternately sought contact and then actively pushed her away.

Insecure-Disorganized Attachment

This was classified by later researchers as infants who seemed sort of dazed by being reunited with their primary caregiver. They froze mid-movement or engaged in repetitive behaviours.

Newer methods of assessing attachment styles have been developed over the years but we still talk about these four types of attachment, so it's worthwhile to look at the original research. Although most studies have examined the infants relationship to the primary caregiver studies have been done to highlight the importance of a child being securely attached to both parents. Each parent has been found to make unique contributions to a child's development and it is therefore important for the child to feel securely attached to both parents.

Parenting Styles

Different parenting styles have been associated with the different types of attachment and all have different consequences for the child's development.


When the child is an infant this style of parenting is marked by a parent who is responsive to the child's needs, consistently available when the child genuinely needs her and displays interactive synchronicity. Interactive synchronicity describes how a primary caregiver respects the infants signals to interact (or not) and responds appropriately. By responding consistently the caregiver teaches the infant that the world is a trustworthy place and the caregiver will always return. Later on this parenting style is associated with parents who are warm, set reasonable standards, explain the reasons behind the rules, expect age-appropriate behaviour, provide consistent discipline and remain responsive to the child's needs. This style of parenting is associated with securely attached children.


Although similar in name this is a completely different style of parenting. Initially the parent is unresponsive and rejecting. Parent's ignore the baby's signals or interact with them in an angry or irritable way. it is also characterized by rarely having close bodily contact. Later on parents remain harsh, unresponsive and rigid. Parents use harsh punishment, don't bother to explain the reasons behind the rules, and expect complete obedience. This parenting style is associated with Insecure-Avoidant Attachment.


Initially the parent is inconsistent in responding to the needs of the infant. Sometimes the parent is available and sometimes they aren't. Interactions are awkward and offer little affection. Later on this parent appears to have a reasonably affectionate relationship with the child. However, they are too lenient, provide inconsistent discipline, and encourage their children to act on their impulses. This type of parent will also withdraw their affection as a type of punishment. This style of parenting is associated with Insecure-Resistant Attachment.


This style of parenting has been linked to maternal depression. It has also been linked to parents who neglect or physically abuse their children. Parents are indifferent or actively neglect their children. Parents focus on their own needs to the exclusion of the child's needs. These parents often don't know where their kids are or who they are with. This style of parenting is associated with Insecure-Disorganized Attachment.


Secure/ Authoritative

Children exhibit positive social, emotional and cognitive development. For example they were better at solving problems, displayed more empathy for others, got better grades and showed more self-esteem, self-competence and self-confidence than children who were insecurely attached. They also developed closer friendships.

Insecure-Avoidant/ Authoritarian

This style has been linked to low self-esteem, conflicted, irritable children who are vulnerable to stressors. They tend to be fearful, moody, unhappy, aimless, deceitful and alternate between aggressive behaviours and sulky withdrawal. They are generally disliked by their peers.

Insecure-Resistant/ Permissive

These children exhibit low self-control and self-reliance. They appear immature for their age, anxious and show little initiative. They can be aggressive, domineering and uncontrollable. They vacillate quickly between anger and cheerfulness. Finally they are impulsive and non-compliant.

Insecure-Disorganized/ Uninvolved

These children are socially incompetent, irresponsible and immature. They are moody, aggressive and non-compliant. They suffer from low self-esteem. Later as teenagers this type of child is associated with skipping school, delinquency and arrests and precocious sexuality.

Attachment and parenting style have lasting consequences for our children. studies have shown that we tend to parent in the way that we were parented. So styles good or bay, have a tendency to be passed down through generations.

Source Material:

Hetherington, E., & Parke, R. D. (Eds.). (1999). Child Psychology: A Contemporary Viewpoint (5thth ed.). McGraw-Hill.


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