Children’s attachment to their parents affects how they get attached to others later in life

This post is also available in Dutch.

It is healthy for children to be attached to their parents. The Bowlby Attachment Theory tells us that, without this attachment,children have a hard time relating to everyone else.

Parent-child bonding.
Image courtesy of Morguefile (CC0 1.0).

It’s very hard to think of ourselves without thinking about the way we relate to others. We, humans, are social by nature, and who we are is strongly influenced by the way we interact with our community. This characteristic is the basis of the Attachment Theory developed by Sir John Bowlby. This theory states that this social behavior is due to the natural tendency for humans to bond and to be attached to the people they care about: the one(s) they love, admire, or are friends with. And this search for attachment to others starts, according to Bowlby’s Attachment Theory, with the way we relate to our parents. No doubt that parents play the main role in a child’s life. Parents (should) naturally embrace that role and care about it. Unfortunately, parent-child relationships can go wrong, and this can have an impact on the child’s future.

Bad parent-child relationships and how they influence attachment

There is a huge grey area when it comes to good and bad parenting. However, there are extreme cases that classify as a bad parent-child relationship, such as negligence or any sort of abuse. These are clear cases in which children feel abandoned and cannot rely on their own parents. Bowlby’s Attachment Theory says that children living under these conditions will later have serious issues (or even an incapability of) attaching to others. Attachment issues might appear in childhood or adolescence and, once present, they can remain throughout their whole lives.As John Bowlby states, the attachment theory is valid “from the cradle to the grave”. It’s true that we become more independent as adults, but, deep down, we are still children looking for the affection and care of the ones around us. This means that people with attachment issues will have difficulties in maintaining a healthy social life and, in extreme cases, they may become chronically anxious or depressed.

Children with problematic relationships with their parents may develop attachment issues for the rest of their lives.
Image courtesy of Morguefile (CC0 1.0).

Attachment issues can also manifest in less extreme cases. And no, that doesn’t mean you are a bad parent.

Symptoms of depression or anxiety related to attachment issues can be manifested by children because of less extreme but still complicated situations. Sudden changes in the routine that the child is not able to understand can sometimes be enough to trigger this reaction. A good example of that is the arrival of a brother or sister. This situation will change the whole dynamic of the household, meaning that the child will get less attention than before. If the child cannot understand why the parents (logically) are not paying as much attention to them as before, they will not react well. This is a clear case where the circumstances can lead to attachment issues, and the parents should not be blamed. Parents should try to identify if their child may not be reacting well to such a situation or other changes in routine and report that to their pediatricians.

This blog was written by João, edited by Marisha and Monica

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