The quality of parent-child relationships is linked to a theoretical construct called attachment. A child’s attachment influences his or her social-emotional development throughout life. Examining parenting strategies that support healthy development and strong parent-child relationships can help family service providers support parents in reflecting on their own parenting strengths and parenting struggles.
Guest Post by
Rachel Talamantez, MA, LMFT
Infant-Family Early Childhood Mental Health Specialist
Reflective Practice Mentor
Director, Developmental Behavioral Health – FIRST 5 Santa Clara County
Attachment theory looks at the degree to which the child uses a caregiver as a secure base from which to launch exploration of the world and, when necessary, as a source of safety and comfort. Attachment types look at the pattern of interaction the child uses when under stress and whether the pattern is organized or disorganized. Attachment patterns are classified into four types: three organized types and one disorganized type.
- Secure (organized)
- Insecure avoidant (organized)
- Insecure resistant (organized)
- Insecure disorganized (disorganized)
For more on attachment, I recommend this excellent short review by Diane Benoit (2004) Infant-parent attachment: Definition, types, antecedents, measurements and outcome. Paediatric Child Health, 9(8), 541-545. Dr. Benoit explains, “The quality of attachment that an infant develops with a specific caregiver is largely determined by the caregiver’s response to the infant when the infant’s attachment system is ‘activated’ (eg., when the infant’s feelings of safety and security are threatened, such as when he/she is ill, physically hurt or emotionally upset; particularly, frightened)” (Benoit, 2004, p. 542). An earlier post discussed how the high prevalence of insecure attachment (~40%) necessitates widescale prevention efforts.
While a secure pattern is obviously optimal, it is important to understand that anxious or avoidant patterns do not always correlate with mental health issues/problems.
However the fourth type, insecure disorganized attachment, shows the highest level of correlation to mental health and relational issues. Benoit states, “disorganized attachment in infancy and early childhood is recognized as a powerful predictor for serious psychopathology and maladjustment in children” (p. 543).
Typically attachment patterns are widely discussed with regards to parental factors and an emphasis on parental sensitivity to cues, ability to respond to a child’s distress and capacity to foster development. However, infants are also part of the equation. Infant/child temperament, clarity of cues and responsiveness to caregiving also contribute to the quality of the parent-child relationship. I caution individuals against utilizing attachment patterns as diagnostic with regard to “good/bad” parenting or “child mental health diagnosis”. Instead, I suggest utilizing attachment patterns to help understand parent-child patterns and to support intervention/treatment options that support healthy social-emotional-relational development. It is important to always remember that the concept of “attachment” involves a bidirectional relationship between parent and child.
In addition, I encourage those interested in attachment to explore the work of Dr. Ed Tronick on "Rupture and Repair". Here is a link to a short video.
Dr. Tronick reminds us that there is an important process that happens in relational development when a parent is not always "perfectly attuned" to their child. If the parent-child can recognize this "rupture" and "repair" the interaction, the infant learns that mom/dad might not always get it right, but they will and "we" will be ok!
How Assessing Parenting Promotes Attachment
An observational parenting assessment, like KIPS, can prove very useful in infant-early childhood programs. I find assessing parenting to be an important tool in understanding and supporting parents in their responsiveness and sensitivity to their child's cues. While KIPS is not a measure of attachment, it is a measure of parenting qualities that support parent-child relationships, which support the development of secure attachment. Use of video, as is done in the parenting assessment, can often be utilized as a therapeutic tool, supporting the parent in accessing their own reflective capacities to identify their strengths and needs in engaging with their own child. Also, assessing parenting often helps providers understand and build on the positive behaviors a parent displays, which often brings balance to the "problems" a child/parent might be getting help for. In treatment/intervention services, assessing parenting certainly provides a framework to work from in identifying relational goals, and therefore ways to support a parent in being more responsive to their child.
Assess What Matters to Children
Download our paper on Nine Ways Parenting Assessment Can Make a Difference in Your Program.
Learn How Parenting Assessment:
1. Documents evidence of parenting outcomes
2. Tailors services to individual parenting strengths and needs
3. Monitors progress and guides service planning
4. Reinforces parenting progress and confidence
5. Serves as a parenting check-up as children develop
6. Shifts staff focus from child to parent-child interactions
7. Offers a common language for staff , families and programs
8. Builds reflective practice during supervision
9. Informs continuous quality improvement for staff and programs