Attachment-Based Parenting involves using principles of attachment science and theory to guide parenting. The science of attachment is a little complicated, but applying it to parenting is a snap if you know a few basic things about attachment.
One easy way to start learning about attachment-based parenting is to take a look at the pins on Mark’s Attachment-Based Parenting Pinterest page (requires a free Pinterest account).
What is attachment?
Attachment involves a need, a relationship, and the effect of the interplay between the need and the relationship. It involves a child’s need to be protected from danger, and the relationship with a caregiver who can provide protection from danger (and also comfort), the how the need and relationship interact to mold the child’s neural development.
The need is a fundamental need to survive, but more specifically, the need is to obtain protection from danger and receive comfort, especially after exposure to danger. Some people say attachment also involves a parent supporting a child’s need to explore and play.
Danger is a critical aspect of attachment, and its definition is broad. Danger includes physical harm, and also psychological, emotional, and relationship harm. Parental rejection is an important attachment danger to a child. Danger and rejection are subjectively perceived, so what might be a danger to one person, may not be to another person. True, intimate face-to-face gazing might feel dangerous to one child, while a lack of facial gazing might feel dangerous to another. In infancy, danger tends to be mostly physical, and can include both deprivation by a caregiver, i.e.not being fed, kept warm/cool and dry, not being physically close to or touching a parent, a lack of emotional soothing (especially after the infant is upset), and infliction of physical abuse by a caregiver. By school age, danger can include emotional neglect, deceptive/dishonest parenting, parental conflict, parental bullying, name calling by a parent, and even moving (relocation). By adolescence, it can include interpersonal rejection, and early onset of menstruation for girls.
The most common dangers are inconsistent, harsh, dismissive, inattentive, rigid and/or hostile parenting. Any of these can lead to mild to intense attachment problems for children. Being a safe parent involves a balanced parenting style that provides consistency with appropriate exceptions, and a warm and nurturing approach which acknowledges the little persons feelings, beliefs, and needs.
Relationship is the child’s relationship with 1-4 caregivers, or “attachment figures”, who uniquely meet the child’s need. More than one attachment figure is better, but usually 1-2 parents are the primary attachment figures. Often, only one parent fills the role of primary attachment figure, and the other parent is a secondary attachment figure (and may be a primary parent for a child’s other needs such as play or learning), but it may be possible for both parents to be primary attachment figures.
Grandparents and siblings can be very important attachment figures, usually on a third level of attachment relationships. Teachers, peers, counselors, coaches, etc, generally do not fill the technical role of “attachment figure”, although they can impact attachment-related brain development, and in some cases (usually with very poor or absent parents) they can be influential figures to some degree. It is difficult, but possible, for step-parents to fill the uniquely special role of attachment figure, and to do so effectively requires more than just being present and involved; it requires enhanced and thoughtful parenting skills. Filling this role may be more common for step-parents when the second parent is not an involved parent, and may depend on the age of the child at the start of the relationship.
Effects are the impacts on the child of how the attachment figure meets the child’s attachment needs. There are many effects of attachment and they include an impact on brain growth, which includes the size and shape of the brain and the development of the brain’s various sub-systems, like the ability to manage emotions and fear. Effects include the development of thinking patterns and behavioral patterns, especially for how people (little or big) respond to danger. The effects can have life long impact on a person’s brain functioning. If the parent meets the attachment needs in an attachment-enhancing way, then there is a positive impact on the effects of attachment.
Attachment-based parenting seeks to promote attachment-enhancing parenting skills to increase the frequency of positive impacts. Perfect parenting is not required to promote optimal attachment.
According to researchers, optimal parenting involves:
- Gentle touch and eye contact
- Being appropriately protective (but not over-protective)
- Sensitively attuned to their child’s communication cues
- Responding to the cues which involves a parent being fully present and compassionate with their child, and able to set and hold appropriate boundaries.
- Shared pleasure, play and fun
In the family law context, attachment has many potential applications beyond parenting, which your attorney can explain.
More information at the Conflict Science Institute
For more detailed information attachment applied in legal cases and conflict situations see the Conflict Model.
For more information about Danger see the DMM Danger List
Other internet resources
PeaceDiscipline.com (for nonviolent and positive discipline techniques.)
AttachmentParenting.org (Site for Attachment Parenting International.)
FamilyRelationsInstitute.org (For information about the Dynamic Maturational Model of Attachment and Adaptation.)
Attachment-based parenting books
Whole Brain Child, by Daniel Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson (WBC, Highly recommended. 12 simple strategies, based on attachment and neuroscience. Has several other companion books.)
Peace Discipline, by Karen Quail. Free materials at https://www.peacediscipline.com/. Excellent, research and attachment based, specific techniques for specific situations.
Mind in The Making, by Ellen Galinsky (More complex that WBC, but a richer set of suggestions.)
Integrative Parenting, by Debra Wesselmann, Cathy Schweitzer, and Stefanie Armstrong (May be best with a therapist, parenting coach, or other professional team member involved.)
Raising Parents: Attachment, representation and treatment, (2015, 2nd ed), Patricia M. Crittenden, Routledge (Please note, this book is more technically oriented and designed for professionals or very dedicated parents.)
Here is a more complete list of attachment-based parenting books.
Click to see more parenting resources.
By Mark Baumann, © 2016-2022