Mother’s role in child’s attachment style

Among psychologists and the general public, there has been a commonly held belief that a mother’s parenting style plays a central role in her child’s attachment style. In reality, maternal caregiving or maternal sensitivity is only one small factor in the development of a child’s later attachment style (Fraley, Roisman, Booth-LaForce, Owen, & Holland, 2013). Unfortunately, most attachment research over the past thirty years has focused solely on the relationship between early child-parent relationships and those child’s later attachment styles (Land, Rochlen, & Vaughn, 2011; Zayas, Mischel, Shoda, & Aber, 2011), yet newer research suggests other factors, such as social competence and friendship, that play just as important of a role in the development of adult attachment styles (Faley et al., 2013). 

Zayas et al. (2011) studied maternal caregiving at 18 months of age by watching mother-child interactions and then later administered an adult attachment measure to the 18 month olds once they turned 22 years old. They found that sensitive maternal caregiving, not controlling caregiving, predicted less avoidance to friends and partners and less anxiety to partners (Zayas et al. 2011). Being as this study had a very limited number of participants, the results have large room for error. A second study, by Land et al. (2011), had a slightly different methodology but found similar results. Land et al. (2011) took a sample of 266 male undergraduate students and had them fill out multiple questionnaires, of importance were the Parental Bonding Instrument (PBI), which measured perceived care and overprotection of parents, and the Experiences in Close Relationships Questionnaire (ECRQ), which measured avoidance and anxiety. The researchers found that only maternal bonding care was significantly associated with adult attachment avoidance, “indicating that higher levels of perceived maternal care were related to lower levels of avoidance” (Land et al., 2011). While this second study had a large sample of males unlike the small, mostly female first study, it was not a longitudinal approach that took into account actual maternal care. 

Both of the previous studies provide evidence for the effect of maternal care on adult attachment, but there is more to attachment than this relationship. Fraley et al. (2013) take adult attachment to the next level by using a longitudinal approach and examining more than just maternal care. Using data from 707 participants on maternal sensitivity, maternal depression, father absence, social competence, and friendship quality, gathered from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) Study of Early Child Care and Youth Development (SECCYD), researchers analyzed the effect each of these factors had on attachment styles. Results showed that individual differences in attachment style were correlated with early maternal sensitivity, changes in maternal sensitivity, father absence, early and changing social competence, and best friendship quality. Avoidance was predicted by changes in sensitivity, social competence, and friendship quality, whereas anxiety was predicted by changes in social competence and maternal depression. 

Although new factors in adult attachment were successfully identified in this last study, they still only account for “29% of the variation in global avoidance, for example” (Fraley et al., 2013). There are still many unknown factors, such as potential genes, that play a role in adult attachment that research in this field is nowhere near complete. To think maternal care is the only or most important factor in attachment is to gets the facts wrong. The truth about attachment is that it is still a developing and expanding field with the potential for a multitude of answers.



Fraley, R. C., Roisman, G. I., Booth-LaForce, C., Owen, M. T., Holland, A. S. (2013). Interpersonal and genetic origins of adult attachment styles: A longitudinal study from infancy to early adulthood. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 104(5), 817-838. doi: 10.1037/a0031435

Land, L. N., Rochlen, A. B., & Vaughn, B. K. (2011). Correlates of adult attachment avoidance: Men’s avoidance of intimacy in romantic relationships. Psychology of Men & Masculinity, 12, 64-76. doi: 10.1037/a0019928

Zayas, V., Mischel, W., Shoda, Y., Aber, J. L. (2011). Roots of adult attachment: Maternal caregiving at 18 months predicts adult peer and partner attachment. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 2(3), 289-297. doi: 10.1177/1948550610389822

1,861 comments on “The Truth About Attachment