A big problem for our future – 40% of children lack secure attachment


40 percent

Many infants who live in a stressed single-parent home face attachment issues. The single parent, which could be a mom or a dad, might be in a state of shock and barely surviving. They take the child to childcare, work a full day, pick up the child, and stumble home. Hoping the childcare is giving adequate care, they may feed the child and put them to bed as they struggle to keep up with life.

Parents in crisis can barely function sometimes, let alone connect emotionally. It’s not that they are bad parents, but they are struggling parents. Even if the parent is present with the infant but not talking and cuddling the infant, the baby will struggle attaching. This great video “Still Face Experiment” shows clearly how a baby will react when a mom refuses to engage with the baby.

If children don’t form emotional bonds and connect with primary caregivers as infants, they more than likely will face behavior issues such as aggressiveness and defiance as children and hyperactivity as teens and adults.

Because children who have attachment issues have behavior issues,

  • Many might have limited educational benefits as they might be suspended from school.
  • Some are sent to alternative schools.
  • Many will end up dropping out of school.
  • Some may grow up without a conscience, intent on doing harm to anyone who gets in their way.

There are different levels of attachment. When provided with an alternate caregiver such as a grandparent, childcare staff, or caring babysitters, these children will be able to bond and move forward with only minimal attachment issues.

If they are severely unattached, they will not be able to trust others. Because they learn not to trust others, they turn inward and only trust themselves. These are the children who will lie, steal, hurt animals, and hurt other people.

Reasons for attachment issues

  • Neglect
  • Abuse – emotional, physical, sexual
  • Sudden separation from primary caretaker
  • Frequent move and or placements
  • Inconsistent or inadequate childcare

Commonly displayed behaviors by children with attachment issues

  • Lack of eye contact (older children may be looking at your eyebrow or nose and not actually be making eye contact)
  • Inability to give affection or receive affection
  • No impulse control
  • Indiscriminate affection with strangers
  • Superficially charming or engaging with adults
  • Sneaky or covert with actions such as taking things that don’t belong to them
  • Abnormal eating patterns (hoarding food, gorging, craving sweets, etc.)
  • Learning lags and other disorders such as ADHD, ODD, etc.
  • Poor relationships with peers and family members
  • Persistent nonsense questions and incessant chatter
  • Lack of cause and effect thinking
  • Destructive to self and others
  • Preoccupied with blood, gore, fires, or other destructive measures

Ways to help

  1. There are many ways those of us in church nurseries and children’s classes can help these children.
  • If they are in your nursery, swaddle them as often as you can and sing and rock them or sway with them as much as you can.
  • When you swaddle them, cross their arms over each other so that their little hands are touching the other arm. Or put their arms down to their side so that their hands are touching their legs.
  • They need human touch. Wear collarless shirts so you can snuggle the child right in the crook of your neck. They need skin on skin so to speak.
  1. As they get older keep in mind typical discipline won’t work with these kids.
  • You can’t feel sorry for them, but you can empathize with them.
  • They need to be held accountable and every misdeed needs to be addressed.
  • Do not use punitive measures but notice immediately what they did and comment or use a signal such as shaking your head “no” or shrug your shoulders with an look of “Oops, you blew it.”
  • Reward systems will not work for these kids; in other words, NO stickers or stars.
  • Offer a lot of positive choices.
  • Don’t judge them because they know when you are judging them.
  • Don’t praise them because they will set out to prove you wrong.
  • Notice and describe what they are doing. Many times they won’t make eye contact–don’t let that throw you. Go ahead and talk to them while you are also looking away at something across the room.
  • Many won’t let you hold them or hug them. However, just standing close to them helps.
  • Don’t ask them any question you know the answer to. For instance if they steal something, don’t ask, “Did you take that?” Instead say in a matter-of-fact voice, “Put it back.” Don’t give them the benefit of the doubt.
  1. While it might seem counterintuitive compared to the above, there are some things to keep in mind.
  • Expect them to be respectful.
  • Expect them to be responsible.
  • Accept nothing less and possibly even more in the area of respect and being responsible. In other words don’t put in their minds any self-fulfilled prophecies.
  • Hold the child accountable.
  • Be clear and concise with directions.
  • Don’t use any ambiguous terms such as, “soon,” “maybe,” “after while,” etc.
  • Don’t allow yourself to be “sucked” into any arguments even if that means walking away.

There is so much to say on how to minister to kids with attachment issues. The main thing is we must help them attach to us. If they are severely unattached, try to get them to attach to something if it is a ball, doll, or blanket. One time I had a toddler who attached to a soccer ball. For me that was a sign she was capable of attaching to something.

Pray, pray, and pray some more. Ask the Holy Spirit to guide you and fill you with a special love and concern for these children.


This article is updated and adapted from an article originally published on the Kids & Divorce blog on Oct. 23, 2014.

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5 thoughts on “A big problem for our future – 40% of children lack secure attachment

  1. This is a terrific article Linda. I’d LOVE to see a follow up that discusses the issues that adults, who did not attach well, have!

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