Focus on attachment in parenting policy is misplaced

Let’s ignore the policymakers, kid. Wilson X, CC BY-NC-SA

A recent report from the Sutton Trust is the latest in a line of recommendations for family policy to focus on promoting secure attachment between parents and their children.

What puzzles me is why the Sutton Trust, politicians and organisations seeking to influence government policy on children and families are so interested in academic research on attachment. I’m sure these efforts are well-intentioned, but they stem from a misunderstanding of the scientific evidence.

Attachment is a very specific measure of the quality of the parent–child relationship. To know a child’s attachment security, you have to conduct a formal observational assessment, which can’t be done until the child is at least 12 months old.

The “gold standard” measure of attachment is the “strange situation procedure”, which classifies toddlers into one of four attachment categories. These are decided on the basis of how they respond when reunited with the parent after a brief separation.

Securely attached toddlers respond positively to the parent, insecure-avoidant toddlers tend to ignore the parent, and insecure-resistant toddlers get very distressed by the separation, but can’t be comforted by the parent. Finally, toddlers in the insecure-disorganised group show odd, contradictory behaviour when reunited, and may appear afraid of the parent.

Not abnormal

Let’s first correct some basic errors in the Sutton Trust report that were also repeated in an associated article on The Conversation. One would at least expect the figures on the percentages of children falling into the four attachment categories to be reported accurately, but they were not.

The correct figures for middle-class families are 15% insecure-avoidant, 9% insecure-resistant and 15% insecure-disorganised. The take-home message here should be that insecure attachment isn’t abnormal – it’s not even unusual.

It’s also not the case that inconsistent and unpredictable parenting relates to insecure-disorganised attachment. As yet, we don’t fully understand the pathways leading to this type of attachment. In fact, parent–child interaction isn’t a particularly good predictor of attachment.

What about the claim that early secure attachment is a positive influence on children’s development, whereas early insecure attachment puts children at risk of poor cognitive development and educational attainment?

Experimental studies involving attachment have been conducted ever since the strange situation procedure was developed over 40 years ago, so we can draw on a large body of evidence.

The best evidence comes from a meta-analysis, which pools data from multiple studies, showing that insecure attachment, and specifically insecure-disorganised attachment, are associated with an increased risk of behaviours such as conduct problems and hyperactivity.

However, the effects are not strong and the pattern of findings is different for boys and girls. In girls, early disorganised attachment was found to be associated with fewer of these behaviours.

So that’s the strongest evidence. What about the rest? Other research has shown that the effects of attachment on children’s later cognitive development and other types of behaviour problems such as social withdrawal and anxiety are negligible or small. Studies on attachment and children’s educational attainment are as rare as hen’s teeth, so it’s dangerous to draw conclusions when there is so little evidence.

The report’s claims about early insecure attachment predicting delinquency in adolescence and poorer job status in adulthood are simply alarmist. These claims are based on findings that measured attachment in adolescence or [adulthood]( They tell us nothing about whether secure attachment to parents in early childhood predicts these long-term outcomes.

The report assumes that attachment is stable over time, but this doesn’t fit with the evidence. In fact, fewer than half of children stay in the same attachment category over periods as short as six months.

Why complicate things?

But highlighting all of these misinterpretations isn’t really my point. My real worry is that non-experts think that parenting and attachment are the same thing, and believe that any benefit of improved parenting on children’s outcome must be because the improved parenting made the child securely attached.

Why complicate things in this way? They’re calling for interventions to improve the quality of parenting, so why don’t they focus on the considerable body of evidence that has assessed the quality of parent–child interaction and its role in predicting children’s later development?

Although the Sutton Trust report covers various parenting intervention programmes in its final section, they are merely listed and described. The only comparisons are in terms of financial cost.

Nowhere in the report is there a careful appraisal of which interventions have had their effects appropriately replicated, and whether we yet have sufficiently good data to warrant making any policy recommendations. This is the kind of in-depth analysis that’s needed.

Improving the lives of vulnerable families and children is of the utmost importance, so let’s not over-complicate things by delving into the highly complex academic findings on attachment security. Policy makers are busy people who need evidence-based advice on what sorts of interventions work. Unfortunately, the Sutton Trust report fails to deliver.