Parents’ Attachment Style and the Adopted Child

As most adoptive parents are aware, a secure attachment is key to a child’s healthy development. Attachment is defined as a child’s bond to a caregiver based on the caregiver’s sensitivity and attunement to the child. The healthiest and strongest attachments are formed within the context of family: for children, the parent-child (especially mother-child) relationship, and for adults, the husband-wife relationship. Without proper attachments being formed in the early stages of life through proper parental attunement, a child in almost all cases will experience negative emotional repercussions, including a lack of self-regulation and deep insecurity.[1] For these children, the issues are not just the difficult behavior now, but the problems they will take into adulthood. Adults with insecure attachments often have marital and other relationship problems and difficulty attaching to their own children. These offspring are then affected, and a negative cycle is perpetuated. In fact, 72% of 21-year-olds retain the same attachment style they developed as newborns.[2]

Because of the profound impact that the parents’ attachment style has on a child’s emotional well-being, we as adoptive parents need to understand our own attachment style if we are to help our children, especially those with difficult histories. First, if married, we need to look at how we understand and interact with our spouse.[3] A strong marriage can help enhance our personal ability to attach, enhancing our attachment to our children. Studies show that an increase in marital discord, as well as insecurity, can lead to less competent parenting.  In addition, more marital detachment produces higher levels of detachment in the parent-child relationship.[4] A healthy marriage appears to be the strongest predictor of proper attachment between parents and their children.[5]

 Because your personal attachment style can have great consequences for your marriage partner and children, you may want to become more familiar with your own attachment style. Fortunately, we are not destined to have the same attachment style that we developed as children; we can overcome a less-than-secure attachment style by recognizing the attachment style we now have and taking steps to become a secure adult.

A tool to measure attachment style in adulthood is the Adult-Attachment Inventory (AAI). Adults are asked to describe their childhoods, and it is in the telling of their stories that attachment styles are assessed. The categories of attachment include:

  1. Autonomous/free, which describes adults who can tell in detail their parents’ attributes. They are described as free, because they are not preoccupied with negative thoughts from their childhood. As parents, these securely attached adults are present andcan help their own children form secure attachments. Only 15% of the adult population is very firmly and securely attached, while 50-60% of the population is fairly securely attached.[6]
  2. Dismissing adults are those who as children would have been described as avoidant because they avoided the parent or at least did not pursue the parent. Usually as children they were not given the attention they needed when they made demands on a caregiver. As adults they are likely to be dismissive of attachment within relationships. Dr. Karyn Purvis believes there is a disproportionate number of caring adoptive and foster parents and social work professionals who fall into this category.[7] These are often good-willed people who provide excellent physical care to their children but are not emotionally present as they are often preoccupied with their own issues. Also, they often approach a situation needing to meet their own needs instead of the needs of their children. For example, when a child asks to know more about the biological parents, the adoptive mom may be more interested in taking care of her own needs than the child’s. These dismissing adults make up about 20% of the low-risk population of adoptive parents, but in families in which there are troubled adoptions, they make up 42% of the parents.[8]
  3. Entangled adults have unresolved issues because their parents were only available some of the time and created a push-pull relationship. As ambivalently attached children, they were likely to have been afraid of strange situations, so they did not feel free to venture much; yet they did not find much comfort from their parents. These are the adults who often take on more of a parental role for their own parents. As parents they are not emotionally available for their own children, and their children do not know what to expect from them, because they send mixed signals. As with dismissing adults, entangled adults also make up about 20% of the low-risk population of adoptive parents, but in families in which there are troubled adoptions, they make up 42% of the parents. This means that in troubled adoptions, about 84% of the parents are either dismissing or entangled and not securely attached.[9]
  4. Disorganized/Unresolved adults are those who have experienced trauma as children but usually cannot describe the abuse from caretakers. As parents they have difficulty in maintaining clear levels of attachment with their children.[10] In general, about 1-2% of the adult population is disorganize/unresolved in their attachment style. Usually they do not become adoptive parents as they are typically screened out of the homestudy process due to other lifestyle problems.[11]

Our level of attachment is not a permanent state. Karyn Purvis states that adults can move into an earned secure attachment.[12] Within marriage, if the husband and wife are aware of their own attachment style as well as the other’s, each can help the other enhance their attachment. If a spouse did not receive the type of care that leads to secure attachment as a child, support from the other spouse can help the spouse become earned secure, and this can also improve the overall marital relationship. Researchers determined that a spouse’s encouragement for exploration, which includes personal growth, produces the most positive outcomes in the other spouse. Furthermore, knowing that a partner is available encourages this growth.[13] (Certainly a less than secure attachment style because of unresolved issues can mean that old wounds from childhood can resurface in any relationship. But these wounds can be exposed by our children—especially children who have behavioral and emotional issues that “press our buttons.”)

Dr. Purvis recommends that parents be sure to heal from old wounds through talking to a trusted friend, counselor, or clergy and, of course, one’s spouse. She suggests that a child who needs to heal from past wounds cannot move beyond the adoptive parents’ level of secure attachment.[14]

So how do you know if you are securely attached? In general, those who are healed from childhood wounds are able to talk succinctly, truthfully, and clearly about what has happened in their childhoods and can show forgiveness and may even have a bit of a sense of humor about certain parts of their past. Forgiveness, even when reconciliation may not be possible (e.g., an older child or adult who was abused as a young child and will not be in contact with the offending parent or caregiver) can impart powerful healing.[15]

The good news is that a difficult child can be the impetus that makes you aware that you need to get on your own path toward healing. If you are willing to look at your own attachment style and areas where you may fall short, congratulate yourself. Also, be kind and easy on yourself as you take steps for further wholeness. Karyn Purvis states that the journey can take six months to about two years for you, as an adult, to become an earned secure person.[16] Just as our children can heal, so can we.

A great resource for looking at adult attachment and looking at some serious questions to ask yourself can be found at EmpoweredtoConnect.org and is the in the booklet “Adoption from the Inside Out” at http://empoweredtoconnect.org/wp-content/uploads/Resource-Packet.pdf.

For a quick little quick quiz on attachment style go the website of the AttachedTheBook.com at http://www.attachedthebook.com/compatibility-quiz/. Its validity cannot be confirmed, but it may provide some insight into your and your spouse’s style of attachment.


[1] Newton, R. P. (2008). The Attachment Connection: Parenting a Secure & Confidential Child Using the Science of Attachment Theory. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger.

[2] TCU Institute of Child Development . (Producer). (n.d.). Attachment Dance [DVD]. Available from TCU.

[3] Byng-Hall, J. (1999). Family and Couple Therapy: Toward Great Security. In J. Cassidy & P. R. Shaver (Eds.), Handbook of Attachment: Theory, Research, and Clinical Applications (pp. 625-645). New York: The Guilford Press.

[4] Paley, B., Cox, M. J., Kanoy, K. W., Harter, K. S., Burchinal, M., & Margand, N. A. (2005). Adult attachment and marital interaction as predictors of whole family interactions during the transition to parenthood. Journal of Family Psychology, 19 (3), 420-429. doi: 10.1037/0893-3200.19.3.420

[5] TCU Institute of Child Development . (Producer). (n.d.). Attachment Dance [DVD]. Available from TCU.

[6] TCU Institute of Child Development . (Producer). (n.d.). Attachment Dance [DVD]. Available from TCU.

[7]

TCU Institute of Child Development . (Producer). (n.d.). Attachment Dance [DVD]. Available from TCU.

[9] TCU Institute of Child Development . (Producer). (n.d.). Attachment Dance [DVD]. Available from TCU.

[10] Byng-Hall, J. (1999). Family and Couple Therapy: Toward Great Security. In J. Cassidy & P. R. Shaver (Eds.), Handbook of Attachment: Theory, Research, and Clinical Applications (pp. 625-645). New York: The Guilford Press.

[11] TCU Institute of Child Development . (Producer). (n.d.). Attachment Dance [DVD]. Available from TCU.

[12] TCU Institute of Child Development . (Producer). (n.d.). Attachment Dance [DVD]. Available from TCU.

[13] Feeney, B. C., & Thrush, R. L. (2010). Relationship influences on exploration in adulthood: the characteristics and function of a secure base. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 98 (3), 57-76. doi: 10.1037/a0016961

[14] Purvis, K, Cross, D. R., & Sunshine, W. L. (2007). The Connected Child. New York: McGraw Hill.

[15] Paleari, F. G., Regalia, C., & Fincharn, F. (2005). Marital quality, forgiveness, empathy, and rumination: a longitudinal analysis. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 31, 368. doi: 10.1177/0146167204271597

[16] TCU Institute of Child Development . (Producer). (n.d.). Attachment Dance [DVD]. Available from TCU.



2 Responses to “Parents’ Attachment Style and the Adopted Child”

  1. Laurene Mcalevy says:

    hello there and thank you for your info – I’ve definitely picked up something new from right here. I did however expertise a few technical issues using this site, as I experienced to reload the site a lot of times previous to I could get it to load correctly. I had been wondering if your web host is OK? Not that I’m complaining, but sluggish loading instances times will very frequently affect your placement in google and can damage your high-quality score if ads and marketing with Adwords. Well I’m adding this RSS to my email and could look out for a lot more of your respective intriguing content. Make sure you update this again soon..

  2. Hank says:

    I’m looking for a wiledy circulated picture showing the Witt Westbrook catch in the December 7, 2010 Quarterfinal game between SHS & Aledo. I’d like to use it in my upcoming Arcadia Publishing Images of America volume, Stephenville Yellow Jacket Football. Below, I’ve pasted in the caption I intend to use to explain the picture:The 2010 team met Aledo in the Quarterfinals at Baylor’s Floyd Casey Stadium. Leading 10-6 late in the 3rd quarter, the nearest official ruled the Witt Westbrook catch shown below out-of-bounds. At the final gun, the Jackets trailed by 8 thus denied the opportunity to advance to the 4A D-2 Semifinal. The Stephenville-Aledo rivalry remains alive and well. It will be the substance of hard-fought contests for many years to come. (Below, CREDIT)If you have rights to the picture, I’d be grateful if you could contact me so we could discuss permission to publish.Thanks, Rick Sherrod