Mary Fitzgibbons, Ph.D.

There is a saying that no two siblings have the same parents. How can children being raised in the same household by the same parents frequently respond in very different ways? One child may be extremely compliant from early stages and the sibling closest to him is angry and hostile. There are many factors that contribute to these differences; one of them is based on a theory called Attachment Theory. Its function is to provide an understanding of how enduring family bonds develop between children and their parents. It addresses the impact that these relationships have on the emotional, cognitive and even physical development of the child.

Let’s look at an example of this. John and Stacey were three years apart, Stacey being the older of the two. When Stacey was born, her parents, Marcia and Steve, and extended family were functioning well. Marcia cared for and nurtured Stacey as well as most mothers. Her father was also involved with raising Stacey. Stacey was a happy baby and seemed to be following all developmental markers. Marcia’s parents were very involved with their granddaughter. They visited often and watched her when her parents would go out. However, when Marcia was expecting John, both her parents were killed in a car accident. Marcia had been extremely close to her parents. She became very depressed after the accident. John was born two months later. Marcia was unable to respond to John the way she did with Stacey. Steve would attempt to give John the caring that may have been lacking with Marcia but he was extremely busy at work and often didn’t get home until both children were asleep. Marcia’s depression lasted for two years.

Now as adults, Stacey and John have experienced life very differently. Stacey did well in school, had many friends and married a young man with whom she was very compatible. Their marriage seems to be thriving. John has had greater difficulties with growing up as well as his present life. He seemed to be more isolated from friends as well as adults. In school, he worked below his abilities. Teachers complained that he was very angry. Steve and Marcia experienced the same behavior no matter how hard they tried to relate to John. John later married and divorced twice because of the same issues.

While John and Stacey had the same parents, their emotional experiences were very different.   Many therapists would partially attribute these differences to the early situation concerning Marcia’s parents’ death and subsequent depression. We could attribute it to principles of Attachment Theory. Primary to this theory is the relationship between the child and his/her parent, especially mother. She is referred to as the primary attachment figure. The attachment response starts at birth. At three months, the infant is targeting attachment behaviors to significant caregivers. By six months, infants show a clear attachment to significant caregivers especially by showing distress and anxiety when separated from their preferred caregiver. Between 12 and 24 months and by 36 months, the intensity has diminished enough that the child is able to be separated from parents a few hours daily.

The importance of this theory is that issues involving attachment can and do have lifetime repercussions on us. John Bowlby, an English psychiatrist in the 1930s, treated many emotionally disturbed children. His experience led him to consider the importance of the relationship between mother and child. He described these relationships in terms of secure and insecure attachment. He theorized that it would shape one’s personality and the quality of later relationships in distinctive ways. There is also an inter-generational factor in attachment styles. If the care that the parents received when they were children was sensitive and well balanced and provided them with a secure attachment style, they are more likely to provide similar parenting for their own children. If the care the parents received was insensitive and unbalanced which resulted in their own insecure attachment, they were most likely to provide similar parenting (insecure) to their children.

When we talk about secure attachment, we refer to a situation where the primary caregiver is attuned to the baby’s communication. The adult provides consistent and predictable care which meets the needs of the infant. Besides attuning to the child, the healthy caregiver also is able to mirror for the infant the value that the adult sees in the infant. The child experiences the goodness that the adult sees in him. Infants have a biological drive to seek proximity to a caring and protective adult. The goal of the drive is to feel safe, secure and protected. The infant senses that the caregiver’s behavior is predictable and available. This creates, within a child, a sense that he can be confident in the world and is able to openly voice his needs. When this occurs, the child is not overwhelmed by anxiety or dangers. Faith in the attachment figures is a source of security. The infant learns to trust and to wait for needs to be satisfied which eventually leads to learning how to manage anxiety and tolerate brief separation. The child then can develop a sense of agency which means that the child learns that he or she can impact the environment. Insecurely attached children are in greater distress during periods of stress. They either do not tolerate separation from parents well or they may be more emotionally isolated. These behaviors are carried into relationships in adulthood.

The question arises as to what can be done when the attachment figures are not “good enough” to give the child the emotional foundation that the child needs. Sir Richard Bowlby, John Bowlby’s son, discussed the possibility of secondary attachment figures. He stated that children can develop enduring secondary attachment bonds to affectionate and responsive people such as grandparents, aunts, neighbors, child care workers and preschool teachers. His belief is that three or more secondary attachment figures in a child’s life can promote self-esteem in children. These children not only have higher self-esteem, they are more resilient than children who lack these secondary bonds. He views this as a psychological protective factor that can help reduce the possibilities of mental health problems. Mary Ainsworth, whose work has been notable in this field, tells us that a child could have an insecure attachment to his primary attachment figure but have a secure attachment to a secondary attachment figure.

Fathers also play a unique role in attachment research. It has been found that the early relationship with the mother is predictive of how the child views the world and is able to trust in others. However, the early relationship with the father is predictive of self esteem, in other words, how the child sees himself as being good or lovable. The role of the father is critical regardless of whether he is a primary or secondary attachment figure.

Two situations in which infants or children may experience positive results from secondary attachment figures are child care providers and grandparents. In today’s society, the majority of children not being consistently raised by parents fall within either of these two groups. In childcare facilities, the danger is that children put in daycare at early ages may not have a consistent caregiver who can provide a secondary attachment function for the infant. In the daycare situation, it’s critical that the caregivers for an infant be consistent and that they are trained and supported to meet the physical and emotional demands of the infant or toddler in their care. If the daycare worker who is the secondary attachment figure is consistent and caring, it does not seem to pose a significant long-term risk factor for the child.

Grandparents often take the role of a secondary attachment figure due to the numbers of women who return to the work force after their child is born. There are many studies that tell us that grandparents who have grandchildren in high risk situations such as poverty or a stressful family environment can make a significant difference in helping shape a child’s sense of normalcy in relationships. To develop a strong grandparent-grandchild relationship it is crucial that:


  • The child feels a sense of emotional closeness to her grandparent.
  • The child has regular contact with her grandparent.
  • The child views her grandparent as a source of social support.


This bond can model a healthy relationship which will lessen the negative effects of poor parenting from the primary caregiver. Grandparents have the ability to provide needed physical care and emotional connections with their grandchildren that can insure healthy development.

In our original example of Stacey and John, it is evident from Attachment Theory why Stacey did well in life. Unfortunately, it is also evident why John’s experiences in life were much less successful. Most parents are not aware of the significance of early nurturing, or the lack of, and its impact on future development. If a child or an adult has not benefited from a healthy primary or secondary attachment figures, the situation can be helped. Changing from insecure to secure attachment can be accomplished with the help of an experienced therapist. The process may be slow, but with a skillful therapist and consistency in treatment, children and adults can become securely attached and lead emotionally healthier lives.



Dr. Mary Fitzgibbons is a licensed psychologist and has been the Director of West County Psychological Associates since 1986. Dr. Fitzgibbons created Comprehensive School Services, which provides consulting services and counseling to administrators, staff, students and parents. She has worked extensively with many public and private school systems in regard to dysfunctional families and at-risk children.

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