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Why early attachment matters for childhood and beyond

Submitted by Rita Brhel on 15 December 2021

The type of emotional attachment established during the first four or five years usually lasts a lifetime. The pattern of early attachment significantly influences the quality of love relationship an individual will have as a teenager, adult, and even as a parent with his or her own children. Let's summarize what research has concluded about the effects of secure and insecure attachment:

  • Children who experienced a secure attachment at 1 year are better able to explore on their own than are insecure infants (Waters, Whippman & Sroufe, 1979). Secure toddlers are more independent than are their insecure peers, and as a result, more curious and interested in exploring the world around them. Secure infants and toddlers develop a sense of agency; that is, the sense that "I am a person" and "I can do." 
  • Insecure infants and toddlers are far less curious and are far more inhibited and withdrawn (Kagan, 1981; Suess, Grossman & Sroufe, 1992). As a result, secure children are better able than are insecure children to master the environment using their senses. 
  • They are also better able to perform related motor actions than are insecure infants and toddlers (Matas, Arend & Sroufe, 1978).
  • Numerous studies have concluded a positive relationship exists between the development of secure attachment in the early years of life and later social competence (e.g., Coleman, 2003; Lieberman, Doyle & Markiewicz, 1999). 
  • Preschool children who are secure demonstrate better social skills and school adjustment than do their insecure peers (Sroufe, Carlson & Schulman, 1993). 
  • Elementary schoolchildren who are secure are significantly more accepted by their peers and have more friendships and are less lonely than are less secure children (Kerns, Klepac & Cole, 1996). The attachment security a child feels throughout his or her early years has been associated with that youngster's later ability to pay attention, focus, and learn in school. 
  • Children with secure attachment histories earn higher grades and are more goal-oriented and cooperative than are students with insecure attachment histories (Crittenden, 1992; Jacobsen & Hofmann, 1997).
  • Insecure children are more likely to struggle academically than are secure children (Wong, Wiest & Cusick, 2002). 
  • Secure children successfully bond with their teacher, view their teacher favorably, have the confidence to succeed, and use the teacher as a secure base from which to engage in academic tasks and challenges (O'Connor & McCartney, 2006). Children who have experienced secure bonding later have high self-esteem and are confident in their ability to excel academically. These children prefer to be challenged in class and are more motivated to learn for the sake of learning than are their insecure counterparts. 

According to Attachment Theory (Ainsworth, 1978; Bowlby, 1969), the most essential task of the first years of life is the creation of a child's secure bond to the mother. Many studies have demonstrated this by examining the interactions of mother and child and by contrasting the long-term behavioral outcomes of securely and insecurely attached children. More recently, research has shown that the type of attachment formed during infancy affects right brain development (Schore, 2002). In fact, this biologic foundation can last a lifetime.

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This is the final of 3-part series by Peter Ernest Haiman, PhD, parenting consultant based in the U.S., retired early childhood associate professor, and Head Start program trainer. In Part 1, we learned what parenting behaviors promote secure attachment in a child. In Part 2, we learned what parenting behaviors may lead to insecure attachment in a child.

Find research citations here.

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