What is Attachment theory? 

Attachment theory is the name of a theory that explains how a child’s first relationships are integral to their overall growth and how they experience the world around them. It was originally written in the work of John Bowlby (1958). He was a psychiatric doctor at Child Guidance Clinic in London where he was treating many children struggling with emotional instability.  His theories would go on to be expanded on by others and further explored as time went on. His premise was that a child’s ability to attach emotionally to others is based on how they are attached emotionally to their mothers. 

The attachment styles are secure, avoidant, and resistant. Simple psychology (Mcleod, 2024)

Why do Attachment Styles Matter in Adoption?

Where this becomes important in adoption is when a child’s very first relationships are strained through separation. In cases of foster care, that relationship may be even further strained through economic hardship, abuse, neglect, trauma, or when children don’t learn that when they are upset someone will help them. They become anxious then, when people start paying more attention to them which they have grown unused to. In other situations, a child may end up in an abusive home, but they have a strong early attachments to their parents, so they are confused by the new rejection or anger their parent is showing them now. 

When a child is adopted, their history may be a mystery. If attachment is not repaired, it can lead to difficulties in forming safe relationships all throughout life.  

Anecdotally, I know several adults who went through varying degrees of hardship as children. These individuals had at least one safe person from early in life that they could depend on. They seemed to end up doing ok. Others struggle to make rational choices when it comes to dating, making friends, and keeping jobs. 

People with insecure attachments are worried that they will lose the relationships around them and tend to try and break those relationships as a defense mechanism. This is not universally true, but there is evidence that early attachments will have a major impact on how relationships are formed. 

To that end, children who are adopted later in life may have difficulty forming attachments. If this is severe, a child can be diagnosed with an attachment disorder.

Avoidant Attachment

“Avoidant attachment is an attachment style a child develops when their parent or main caretaker doesn’t show care or responsiveness past providing essentials like food and shelter. The child disregards their own struggles and needs in order to maintain peace and keep their caregiver close by. They still struggle and feel anxiety or sadness, but do so alone, and deny the importance of those feelings.” (Mcleod, 2024)

These kids will avoid physical touch, eye contact, and asking for help. They often have disordered eating.

This can be caused by caregivers who only provided basic needs but weren’t affectionate or major life changes (divorce, family member death etc.)  


Fearful attachment can show up as a fear of forming close relationships. It can be caused by a variety of factors both genetic and environmental. It can be a result of an unsafe caregiver, but the child still goes to them for comfort. It’s not always because of abuse or neglect, but it can be a result of either. 


Anxious attachment can develop when a caregiver doesn’t provide consistent and predictable responses to the child’s distress. However, once the child is with the caregiver they appear clingy and don’t want to be separated again.


Secure attachment is the ideal. It’s the result of consistent, loving caregiving where the child feels worthwhile of love and care. The caregiver shows appropriate responses when the child has a want or need and offers comfort and affection. 

Learn More about Attachment Styles from The Karyn Purvis Institute of Child Development

It is an unfortunate and unfair truth that sometimes a baby will not be able to attach to a caregiver because their needs were not met very early in life. Sometimes, parents have mental health or physical disabilities that make them unable to provide excellent care, but they are not bad parents. It can be easy to learn about children’s struggles with attachment and place the blame on the shoulders of a mom or dad who didn’t do the right thing. The fact of the matter is if a parent has their own insecure, fearful, or anxious attachment, they may be unable to respond to their child in a healthier way without knowing they are doing anything wrong. 

Attachment disorders are rare in the general population, but common in the adoption community. Typically, children adopted from foster care or from orphanages have been afforded very little besides the bare minimum of care. The way to help them feel security in their relationship to you is a combination of therapy, consistency, and patience. While love can’t fix everything the way we wish it could often, love, patience, therapy, and support can go a long way in helping children find healing from hard places. 


Brennan, D. (2023, April 7). Avoidant Attachment: What You Should Know. WebMD. Retrieved March 5, 2024, from https://www.webmd.com/parenting/what-is-avoidant-attachment

Mcleod, S. (2024, January 17). Attachment Theory In Psychology Explained. Simply Psychology. Retrieved March 5, 2024, from https://www.simplypsychology.org/attachment.html#Stages-of-Attachment

Purvis, K. (2018, June 21). TBRI® Animate: Attachment. YouTube. Retrieved March 5, 2024, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nIhATiiM-Pw

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