Although the relationship between attachment security and parenting style is more rule of thumb than exact science, there is a connection between the two. As one might expect, secure adult attachment is associated with authoritative parenting in which clear boundaries are set for children in ways that take account of their age-related needs and abilities. It is also linked with flexibility and adaptability, attentiveness to their emotional needs and a give-and-take in relationships that is founded on values of positivity and mutual respect. As we have seen, avoidant attachment in childhood is linked with parental models that are more rejecting, neglectful, overwhelming, sometimes pressuring to achieve or occasionally denigrating. This would show up as avoidant attachment in the parent. Overt expressions of affection are discouraged and self-reliance is over-valued. These models may translate into controlling or neglectful parenting styles in adulthood.
Avoidants tend to be less responsive to partner needs and less concerned with the negative effect their lack of supportive communication has on their partners. How much does this lack of overt caring extend to their care for children? If you are married with children, you may have observed moments of caring interaction with them, but not as often as perhaps might be appropriate; and studies have shown that unaware avoidants can be a somewhat negligent, emotionally distant parents:
Edelstein et al. (2004) videotaped children’s and parents’ behaviour when each of the children received an inoculation at an immunisation clinic, and found that more avoidant parents (assessed with a self-report scale) were less responsive to their children, particularly if the children became highly distressed; that is, when the children were most upset and most in need of parental support, avoidant parents failed to provide effective care.
The dynamics that make the avoidant-anxious partnership unsatisfying are repeated with children who try to get more attention from an avoidant parent. A child either learns not to expect emotional support (thus growing more avoidant themselves) or falls into the trap of requesting more and being brutally rebuffed by a parent who sees their needs as weaknesses to be despised:
As expected, avoidant individuals exhibited a neglectful, nonresponsive style of caregiving: They scored relatively low on proximity maintenance and sensitivity, reflecting their tendency to maintain distance from a needy partner (restricting accessibility, physical contact, and sensitivity), and tended to adopt a controlling, uncooperative stance resembling their domineering behaviour in other kinds of social interactions
Over time, children with an avoidant parent will look to their other parent for support. If the other parent is a sensitive caregiver, the child will model future attachment styles on that parent; but if the other parent is, for example, also avoidantly inclined and neglects their emotional needs, or anxiously attached and insensitive to holding forth and overwhelming the child, then he or she will more likely end up with some variety of insecure attachment type. If an avoidant unable to provide healthy emotional support to their partner, there is higher likelihood an unaware, unsupported partner could enmesh the child. Between the Scylla of the coldhearted dismissive and the Charybdis of the clingy, dominating parent, the child will not have a healthy model to work with. (Likewise, an overly dominating parent can push their partner further into avoidance - hence one of the best things you can do as a parent is for each to make sure your partner feels safe and emotionally supported).
Avoidant parents find that mental representations of the self as strong and independent are easily upset by the emotional and proximity-seeking demands of their baby. The defensive response of the avoidant is to back off from or control the source of emotional need and dependence. The baby's distress and dependency needs evoke feelings of anxiety, which triggers attachment behaviour - in the avoidant's case, deactivating the attachment system, shutting down and withdrawing emotional availability. This causes parents to 'switch off' and cut themselves off from their own uncomfortable emotional experiences, making it difficult for them to recognise and tune into their children's needs and emotions. The caregiving style is essentially one of rejection of the child's attachment behaviour and emotional dependency. The baby experiences this as punishment for displaying attachment behaviour, and learns to deactivate their own attachment system as the best strategy to keeping the caregiver available.
For strong avoidants, when there is little joy felt in the business of being a mum or dad the parenting style is authoritarian and parenting unrewarding. However, milder forms of avoidant personality can lead to a different caregiving style. The lack of confidence with the emotional demands of being a parent create a self-imposed pressure to be super-competent at the practical side of being a caregiver, with a need to 'know the theory' and have the right equipment, the best educational toys etc. Shelves are typically full of books on 'how to bring up baby', 'how to be a good mum' etc. There might be a preference for baby reading books that advocate strict routines, forgetting that crying is the only way babies can communicate urgent needs.
Experience with an Avoidant Father
"My father is passive abusive. His emotional abuse is very covert. Mostly he just doesn’t care, doesn’t listen when I talk to him, and doesn’t know much about me or my life because he doesn’t ask or care to know. To the general public my father is regarded as this ‘nice’ guy and he is never violent, never mean and never hurtful with his words, but the truth is that his relationship style is dismissive and disinterested all of which is very hurtful. I spent many years in childhood and in adulthood ‘begging’ (in all kinds of ways) my emotionally abusive father to notice me. The fact that he didn’t was and is very hurtful.There is a very loud message that is delivered to me when I am disregarded. The message is that I don’t matter, that I am not important, that I am not worth listening to and that I don’t have anything to contribute to his life. Love is an action and love doesn’t damage self-esteem. Love doesn’t define a ‘loved one’ as insignificant. After years of trying to tell my passive abusive father that his constant cutting me off whenever I tried to tell him about me, and that his lack of interest in my life was a problem for me ~ and due to the fact that there wasn’t any change on his part, I gave up; I finally realized that he wasn’t going to change."
The Impact of Partnerships
"The best thing you can do as a father is make sure they see how much you love their mother"
The impact of adult attachment on children is not just via the direct route of parenting styles. Important amongst these is the adult couple. The way partners work together as parents has a profound influence on children. Evidence of the positive effects of collaborative co-parenting first emerged from studies of the impact of divorce on children, and was then found to apply just as strongly for intact families. A number of surveys have recently shown how sensitive children are to their parents getting on well (and how insensitive their parents can be about this). A recent study showed 70% of children and 30% of parents agreeing to the statement ‘parents getting on well is one of the most important factors in raising happy children’.
Adults whose childhood experiences have left them feeling secure in relation to attachment are more likely than others to forge secure partnerships. Sometimes a secure adult partnership helps parents to overcome the effects of insecure attachment in their childhood. When parents are getting on, they are not only more likely to be competent in their individual roles as parents but also to offer a cooperative adult relationship model to their children that can be deeply reassuring and containing. This applies not only when parents are living together but also when they have separated from each other yet can work well together for their children. Then their children are protected from any conflict between the adults spilling over into how they behave as parents, and from the fear that they are somehow responsible for their parents arguing or distancing. There is some evidence to suggest that the attachment security of fathers may be more important than that of mothers in providing protection against conflict between the parents adversely affecting the attachment security of children
Gerard and Toni struggled to work together as parents. Gerard had been brought up to believe that children should be seen and not heard. He repeated his father’s mantra that to spare the rod was to spoil the child. Toni, in contrast, thought that children should be given free range to express their feelings and roam where they wanted to. As their children got older she found it increasingly difficult to say ‘no’ to them, even when she was unhappy about their behaviour. Yet she didn’t want to become like her mother and threaten them with ‘wait ‘til your father gets home’. So she opted out of disciplining them, and then felt helpless when they would say to their father ‘Mum lets us do this, why won’t you? ’ Needless to say, this caused arguments between Gerard and Toni.
Half the population has insecure attachment - it's certainly not a reason to avoid children: understanding ourselves just helps us be cognisant of how we show up effectively for them. Remember that while insecure styles are often passed down families in cycles, the best predictor of a child’s security of attachment is not what happened to their parents as children, but simply rather how their parents made sense of those childhood experiences - if the parents were aware of and responded to their own attachment patterns.
So if you are the avoidant and wondering about having children, or perhaps already have them, the most important thing you can do is to work to become aware of your attachment style and triggers so that you start to feel more comfortable with showing love and support, as well as learning to rely on a partner and to accept them relying on you. A strong team partnership is at the core of successful parenting. Any problems can be solved with awareness and good communication.
If you are a couple and you have had or intend to have children, they key is just to both be aware of your natural styles, to learn the techniques of secure parenting and to work together as a team to make sure you still provide a secure attachment framework for your child. (N.B. The solutions section of this site is focused on building strong relationships; solutions do not extend into establishing secure parenting, but there are lots of great resources for parents online.)
If your partner is avoidant, it is especially important that you provide a good model of caregiving: there when needed, and only when needed; calm, cheerful, responsive, but not hovering. Consider carefully (if it’s not too late) how you might encourage your avoidant to handle your children’s needs with more attention and care; and if you are considering bringing up children in the critical years from birth to age 2, whether it might be wise to wait until either your partner has learned to be more supportive or you have found a better partner. Because a steady parent’s love and attention is so important to the emotional health of children, if you find you can’t be the steady one to give your children a good model because you yourself are off-balance from your avoidant partner’s lack of support, do what you have to do to make the environment better. It’s not just your current suffering that you should worry about—your children may suffer a lifetime of attachment dysfunction as well.
Establish whether your feelings about having children come out of fear or truth: