Attachment Theory

What is attachment theory and why is it important for children of divorced parents.

Attachment theory, developed by British psychologist John Bowlby, is a psychological framework that examines the bonds formed between children and their primary caregivers, typically their parents, but also sentimental objects, like gifts. These early attachments have profound implications for a child’s emotional and psychological development.

Attachment theory is relevant to children of divorced parents and those in foster care as it sheds light on how these significant life transitions can impact attachment patterns and emotional well-being. I learned about the significance of attachments when I went through training to become a foster parent. This was years after my divorce and it certainly would have helped had I learned about this prior to getting divorced. Keep all of these facts in mind if you are trying to raise your children in a single family home.

Attachment Theory in the Context of Divorced Parents:

  1. Insecure Attachments: The divorce of parents can lead to disruptions in a child’s attachment relationships. If the divorce results in inconsistent caregiving, a child may develop an insecure attachment, characterized by anxiety and uncertainty in relationships. This insecurity can affect their relationships with both parents.
  2. Role of Co-Parenting: Effective co-parenting in a divorced family can mitigate the negative effects on a child’s attachment. When both parents continue to provide love, support, and stability, children are more likely to maintain secure attachments.
  3. Parental Conflict: High levels of conflict between divorced parents can lead to attachment insecurity in children. Witnessing ongoing disputes between parents can create fear, stress, and emotional turmoil for the child, potentially leading to an anxious or avoidant attachment style.
  4. Adjustment Period: After a divorce, children may experience an adjustment period where their attachment to one or both parents may be strained. Over time, with consistent and nurturing caregiving, these attachments can stabilize.
  5. Attachment to New Partners: As divorced parents may enter new relationships or remarry, children may form attachments to step-parents and step-siblings. These new attachments can be complex and impact the child’s overall attachment network. In one of my previous blogs, I suggested that parents not date. This is one of the reasons divorced parents should abstain from dating. There is no timeline. However, I have witnessed many situations when the child or children will actually tell their parents that it’s ok to start dating.
  6. Sentimental Objects: Pay close attention to anything a child might cling to or hold dear. We can picture a young child holding on to their favorite stuffed animal. It could something a important as a bicycle to something as small as a picture.
  7. Friends & Extended family: Make sure you know what relatives your children trust and are drawn to and the same can be said for their friends. Friends and family can provide an invaluable support mechanism for your child or children. As a warning, don’t even think about cutting them off from any friend or relative from your spouses side. As I write this, my son is 24. He has a group of friends that he has known since the 3rd grade, which also includes their parents. They were all very supportive during the divorce and it is not an exaggeration to say it was a life saver.

If you find this subject either interesting or critical or both to your situation, I have provided a list of psychologists that have written about this subject. Perhaps one of these theories applies to a unique situation you might be experiencing.

  1. Mary Ainsworth:

Ainsworth is perhaps best known for her work on attachment patterns in infants. She developed the “Strange Situation” procedure, a research method that assesses the security of attachment by observing how infants respond to separations and reunions with their primary caregivers. Ainsworth identified three primary attachment styles: secure, anxious-ambivalent (or insecure-resistant), and anxious-avoidant (or insecure-avoidant).

  1. Mary Main:

Mary Main extended attachment theory by introducing the concept of “disorganized attachment.” She argued that some children may exhibit a disorganized pattern of behavior in the Strange Situation, indicating that they lack a consistent and organized strategy for dealing with attachment figures.

  1. Harry Harlow:

Harlow’s famous experiments with rhesus monkeys explored the importance of contact comfort and the caregiver’s role in attachment formation. His work emphasized the emotional and psychological significance of attachment bonds.

  1. Alan Sroufe:

Sroufe’s longitudinal research on attachment showed that the quality of early attachment relationships had far-reaching implications for a child’s emotional and social development. His work underscored the enduring impact of attachment on later relationships and psychological well-being.

  1. Erik Erikson:

While primarily known for his psychosocial stages of development, Erikson’s work also acknowledged the importance of attachment in the early stages of life. He argued that successful resolution of the first psychosocial stage, “trust vs. mistrust,” depended on the quality of the caregiver-infant attachment.

  1. Robert Karen:

Karen’s work emphasized the lifelong influence of attachment on human relationships. He explored how early attachment patterns could affect adult romantic relationships, emphasizing that attachment issues were not confined to childhood but continued to influence individuals throughout their lives.

  1. Diane Baumrind:

Baumrind’s research on parenting styles contributed to the understanding of how different parenting approaches could impact attachment relationships. Her work identified authoritative parenting as a style that was most conducive to the development of secure attachments.

  1. Mary D. Salter Ainsworth:

Mary Ainsworth’s work was also influential in understanding the role of the caregiver’s sensitivity and responsiveness in the formation of secure attachments. Her “sensitivity hypothesis” emphasized the caregiver’s capacity to respond appropriately to the child’s needs.

  1. John H. Bowlby:

As the originator of attachment theory, John Bowlby proposed that attachment was a fundamental human need and that it served as a secure base for exploration and emotional regulation. He emphasized the role of internal working models, which are cognitive representations of attachment figures and relationships, in shaping later relationships.

Attachment theory underscores the importance of providing children with consistent, loving, and supportive caregiving to promote secure attachments. Recognizing and addressing the potential disruptions in attachment relationships resulting from divorce is essential for ensuring the emotional well-being and healthy development of children in these situations.

Additionally, professional guidance and support may be necessary to help children and parents navigate the complexities of attachment within these unique family dynamics. Please understand this topic as you navigate your way through raising your child or children as a single parent.