A Parent's Guide to Understanding the 4 Attachment Styles

{The 4 attachment styles are helping in understanding the dynamics of infant-parent bonding}

Thanks to my last post, we now understand the origins of attachment theory--what the researchers were interested in and why. Now, let's move on to understanding the theory itself. 
Psychologist Mary Ainsworth first began studying and testing her theory of attachment in Uganda in the mid-1950s. She intensely observed mothers and infants in their homes in Uganda several hours a day for up to nine months. Upon returning to the U.S., she continued a similar type of study in Baltimore with a sample of American mothers and infants. 
Related reading: The Thoughtful Parent's Guide to Attachment Theory
Ultimately she devised a study method called the Strange Situation which enabled researchers to determine what kind of attachment an infant had with his/her parent. Here's a video clip of how the Strange Situation works:

The 4 Attachment Styles

Basically, the Strange Situation involves a series of short separations and reunions between the infant (usually around 12 months old) and his/her parent or primary caregiver (usually the mother). How the child responds to the parent when she returns is key to understanding the attachment style. Ainsworth ultimately developed four attachment categories based on the Strange Situation: 


Most children (about 60%) play happily when in the same room with their mother. They typically spend some time close to their mother and some time exploring their surroundings. They use their mother as a "secure base" from which to explore their new environment. Upon separation, these children are typically somewhat distressed but are easily calmed and comforted by their mother when she returns. 
attachment styles


Some children do not use their mother as a secure base to such a degree and instead, try to stay close to her even before the separation. When separated these children are extremely upset. Upon reunion with their mother, they seem to react with some ambivalence--they may cry to be picked up but then seem to push the mother away or not be easily soothed. 
Want to understand more classic child development facts? Download this FREE cheat sheet and learn to separate fact from myth: 5 Common Child Development Myths


Some children show a pattern of avoidance with their mother. They do not engage in play with their mother while she is in the room and when she leaves they show little distress. Upon reunion with their mother, these children do not try to readily seek her out.


This category was developed several years later. These children are often very distressed by separations from their mothers but display disorganized behavior upon her return such as approaching but then backing away. They may show behaviors like frozen expressions or rocking. Most often these patterns are seen among children whose mothers have mental health problems or have experienced extreme trauma.   

It is important to note that most children exhibit a secure attachment with their caregiver. Research has shown that children who show signs of insecure attachment (i.e., avoidant, ambivalent, etc.) most often have parents who were unresponsive or inconsistent in their responses to the child (i.e., sometimes responsive but not always) so he/she doesn't know how to react. 

It's also important to note that you cannot really identify the type of attachment your child has just by your interaction with them. These categories were designed to be evaluated in a lab setting with researchers who have extensive training in attachment theory. I know it's tempting to assume our children have a certain attachment pattern, but I would really leave the categorizing up to the researchers.
Related reading: What Being a Stay-at-Home Mom Taught Me About Child Development {that a Ph.D. didn't}

What About Attachment Parenting?

I also want to point out that attachment theory is different from attachment parenting. In developing attachment theory, psychologists Bowlby and Ainsworth did not set out any specific parenting techniques per se. Ainsworth wrote that the main factors that influence attachment are: sensitivity-insensitivity, acceptance-rejection, cooperation-interference, and accessibility-ignoring.   

Related Reading: How Breaking the Attachment Parenting "Rules" Taught Me One of the Best Lessons

Attachment parenting is a term coined in recent years (not by Ainsworth) to describe a combination of certain parenting techniques and principles. Proponents of attachment parenting often encourage practices such as natural birth, co-sleeping, and babywearing. While the original attachment theorists (Ainsworth and Bowlby) focused on sensitive, responsive parenting they never referenced many of the terms used in attachment parenting circles. In other words, a parent can form a secure attachment with their child in other ways that solely focusing on "attachment parenting" techniques.

Related reading: What Every Parent Should Know About Attachment Theory

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The Art and Science of Raising a Sensitive Boy (Without Crushing his Spirit)

{Raising a sensitive boy in our culture that does not value boys' emotions can be challenging. However, with careful observation and care, your sensitive boy can learn to flourish}

When I first decided to be a stay-at-home mom, I had all those lovely images in my head of how the days would go. My baby boy would nap peacefully in his crib while I worked around the house, completing tasks and making delicious meals for our family.

Soon after our son was born, I found a very different picture emerging. I was exhausted. My adorable son whom I loved so dearly would not sleep for more than 10 minutes at a time in his crib. He cried A LOT. He would commonly nurse for 2-hour stretches both day and night. I barely had time to eat a sandwich, not to mention make a full hot meal.

Most importantly, I noticed that he was very “jumpy.” I had seen other babies nap peacefully in loud restaurants or crowded rooms, but not my son. He awakened easily, he jumped every time the air conditioner clicked on (which was a lot in Texas). The only way he would sleep for more than 10 minutes was to bounce on an exercise ball while he was strapped to my chest in a baby carrier.

I thought for sure I was doing something wrong or there was something wrong with him. I Googled everything I could, I read parenting books. Nothing really answered my questions completely except…time and observation.

What I soon figured out was that I was raising a sensitive boy. Through my training in child development, I had learned about temperament. Over time, I started to learn that this sensitive nature was part of his temperament. As he grew, I began to understand more how this sensitive boy interacted with the world. He was extremely observant, certain noises or textures bothered him, and he became overstimulated easily. As time went on, we learned he was an extremely picky eater and was sensitive to changes in routine (like a missed nap or late bedtime).

Related reading: Difficult Temperament ≠ A Child Destined for Problems: Good Parenting is Key

 Research on Highly Sensitive Children

If you can relate to this description of my son, then you might be raising a sensitive boy as well. Luckily, we now have more research available on highly sensitive children, their needs and how we can guide them.

What researchers have found is that highly sensitive children are characterized by 4 main qualities:

  • Depth of processing—understand the world at a deep level; slow to analyze situations because they consider all the possibilities; use advanced vocabulary for their age
  • Easily overstimulated—due to depth of processing they become overstimulated easily as they try to process a lot of new information
  • Emotionally reactive (usually highly empathetic)—notice the emotions of others, cries easily
  • Awareness of subtle stimuli—observant to small changes in their environment, nervous system may become overwhelmed easily

It’s good to point out here that highly sensitive children do not generally have a processing disorder or any other issue that could be considered a “diagnosis” (although you can always speak to your physician about concerns). High sensitivity, as described above, is just a temperamental tendency. Some kids might show more of one of these qualities than others but these are the general types of tendencies that researchers have seen. 

Want to learn more about temperament and how it influences your child's behavior? Start with my e-book (newly expanded!): Understanding Your Child's Temperament

The Art and Science of Raising a Sensitive Boy (Without Crushing his Spirit)
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Why Not to “Toughen Him Up”

All temperamental tendencies come with their own challenges and opportunities and a highly sensitive temperament is no different. However, highly sensitive boys, in particular, may experience challenges due to our cultural understanding of gender roles. Traditional gender roles would have us believe that men (and boys) don’t experience emotions like sadness or empathy. Society tells boys to be strong and powerful which is often code for “angry” or “aggressive.” Boys who cry easily, who are attuned to others’ emotions, or overstimulated easily are unfortunately often misunderstood in our culture.

Many observers (or family members) of sensitive boys will often chide their parent to “toughen him up.” After understanding the research on highly sensitive children, I think it’s clear to see why “toughening him up” is neither a prudent or possible choice. Temperamental tendencies, like sensitivity, are generally thought to be wired into one’s personality from birth. Just as you cannot force an introvert to be more extroverted by pushing them into a room full of strangers, it’s unlikely parents will be able to “toughen up” a sensitive boy by expecting him to stuff down his emotions.

The Art and Science of Raising a Sensitive Boy (Without Crushing his Spirit)

Secondly, trying to “toughen up” a sensitive boy will only rob him of the positive qualities that this temperament brings. Highly sensitive boys see the world at a deeper level, they notice things others miss, they are often very creative and perhaps most importantly, they tend to be very empathetic. In a world dominated by conflict and strife, we need more boys growing up into men who know how to step into another person’s shoes and really understand their perspective. 

Related reading: Surprisingly Helpful Calming Activities for Super-active Kids

Parenting a Sensitive Boy

We parents of sensitive boys, therefore, want to foster all the great qualities this temperament brings. However, we also want to help him face the challenges he may experience by being raised in a culture that doesn’t really value sensitivity. How do we walk that fine line between respecting his temperament, while also preparing him for the world he will face? Honestly, it can be challenging at times, but here are a few lessons I have learned through raising my sensitive boy:

Don’t punish feelings 

Sensitive boys have BIG emotions. When he is mad, he’s really mad. When he’s sad, he’s really sad. These emotions can often be difficult for parents to accept. As parents, we don’t like to see our kids suffer. We want to find a quick way to make these big emotions stop. However, it’s crucial to remember that our job is to guide him through the emotions, not necessarily to get stuck in those emotions with him. 

My favorite quote about this is from parenting author L.R. Knost, 

"When little people are overwhelmed by big emotions, it's our job to share our calm, not join their chaos."

Ultimately we cannot control our kids’ emotions through punishment or consequences. We can provide a context of meaning for the emotions, we can listen, we can offer guidance, but we cannot magically make the emotions disappear. Encouraging sensitive kids to stifle their emotional reactions will usually only backfire. 

Related reading: Emotional Intelligence: How to Develop the "Soft Skills" Your Child Will Need for Success in Life

Help him find his boundaries

Sensitive boys tend to get overstimulated easily, but being young, they often do not recognize this about themselves. My son is a perfect example of this. He is sensitive but he’s also very social. He comes alive when he plays with friends, he’s super active and loves sports. This can be an interesting combination of traits, in that he will run himself until he’s totally empty—both physically and emotionally. It’s taken us a while to learn this about him. We often wondered why he was so prone to meltdowns after school or after a busy day. This combination of a need for social interaction but a tendency to get overstimulated is really the cause.

The Art and Science of Raising a Sensitive Boy (Without Crushing his Spirit)

Over the past few months, we’ve been working with him on learning to set boundaries for himself so he doesn’t get to the point of meltdown so often. Helping sensitive boys learn boundaries is a crucial skill. While my son is fairly extroverted and needs social interaction, other sensitive boys might be more introverted and need more quiet time to function well. Similarly, some sensitive boys might use their empathetic skills so well that they are constantly giving to others, both emotionally and physically. In all these situations, these sensitive souls need to learn how to set boundaries for themselves so they don’t become overwhelmed or exhausted.

When they are young, we parents often have to step in and set these boundaries for our kids. As they mature, however, you can work with them to help them understand why they need to take time for quiet, for rest and for emotional recovery. Guiding sensitive boys to understand their own temperament can be both helpful and empowering.

Find his superpowers 

Helping sensitive boys see the strength in their temperament is also very empowering. Sensitive boys can easily become the victim of bullies if their emotional nature is seen as weakness. It’s crucial for us to help boys understand how sensitivity and empathy are a source of strength.

One way we can do this is by turning his sensitivity traits on their head. For example, his sensitivity to textures and sounds might make some settings challenging (e.g., loud play areas, loud movies), however, they may also make him excellent in creative endeavors like movie-making, painting or music. Similarly, his attention to detail can sometimes lead to perfectionism, but if channeled in a positive way, it could mean he would be a skilled craftsman, athlete or writer. 

Remember that sensitive baby who cried all the time? He’s now a super-active 9-year-old who loves baseball. He still has his sensitive-kid challenges, but he’s learning to cope better. His sensitive nature makes him a wonderful playmate to his toddler cousin (and usually his little brother), a good friend and an acute observer of the world. 

Guess what? The other day he voluntarily took a break from playing after saying to his friend, “I’ve had a rough day, I need some down time.” Learning boundary-setting is working!

All children have certain temperamental tendencies that make them unique. The uniqueness of sensitive boys is often more evident in our culture where gender stereotypes often devalue these characteristics in boys. As parents raising sensitive boys, let’s make it our goal to nurture our boys into men that don’t have to put aside their sensitivity. Instead, these boys will show the world how sensitivity is a true source of strength.

Need more help parenting a sensitive child? This FREE workshop has helped me (and thousands of other parents) understand the meaning of our children's behaviors. Sign up HERE and start receiving videos in your inbox today.

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Research-Backed Benefits of Being an "Older" Mom

{The medical community may tell us that "older" moms are just full of risks, but psychology is showing us that there are real benefits to being more mature in motherhood}

I still remember it vividly--sitting in the doctor's office, pregnant with my second son and being offered all the "extra" testing. I was surprised at all these new genetic tests that were not offered with my first pregnancy. When I asked the doctor about all these new tests, she reminded me politely that, "since you are over 35" these other tests are available because you are at greater risk for complications.

Sheesh! That's not exactly what I wanted to hear. I did not feel any different from when I had my first son at 32, but according to the medical community, I was in a whole other category of "older moms" now. In the medical realm, moms of a certain age may feel they are past their prime for parenthood.

Research-Backed Benefits of Being an "Older" Mom

When we look beyond the medical sciences, however, we find quite a different story. Studies coming out of the fields of psychology, child development and others are now showing numerous benefits of “mature” motherhood, for both moms and children.

Better Brain Power

Although pregnancy at any age may make our brains feel a bit foggy, it turns out that having babies later in life may actually preserve brain power. One recent study found that women who had their last child after the age of 35 showed better verbal memory in their postmenopausal years. Researchers believe this has to do with the rush of progesterone associated with pregnancy and childbirth. This hormone is thought to stall some of the mental declines that normally come with aging.

Related reading: What Being a Stay-at-Home Mom Taught Me about Child Development (that a Ph.D. didn't)

You Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff

It may not feel like you have much patience as you struggle with your toddler’s car seat for the thousandth time, but research backs up the idea that older parents tend to be more patient. A recent study from developmental psychology showed that older moms tended to use less physical and verbal punishment compared to their younger counterparts. Interestingly (and perhaps related), kids of older moms (at least in the 7-11 age range) had fewer behavioral problems as well. So take heart moms, you may not be able to run as fast as your toddler, but at least you have the wisdom to know not to sweat the small stuff.

Research-Backed Benefits of Being an "Older" Mom
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Similarly, with age comes maturity and this can be a real benefit when it comes to dealing with the ups and downs of parenthood. Having more life experience, both the good and the bad, can help you cope with parenting struggles. Many moms having kids in their late 30s might have already experienced many life-altering events like the loss of their own parents, divorce or major career changes. While not pleasant, all these experiences build resilience and coping skills--all which become crucial to handling parenthood’s challenges.

Not everything you hear about child development is true. Separate fact from myth with this FREE cheat sheet: 5 Common Child Development Myths...Debunked.

Established Career 

The old adage that you should wait to have kids until you establish your career actually does have some real data to back it up. Moms who have kids after 31 do show higher lifetime earnings compared to moms having kids in their 20s.

Although we know money isn’t everything, some moms report that having kids after their career was more established helped them feel more confident in asking for time off for kids’ events and family time. Recently Senator Tammy Duckworth, who became the first sitting senator to give birth (at age 50), told reporters about this increased confidence, “And I'm in a better place in my career. I'm in a good place where I have more authority, and I can look at my team and say, you know what? This is parent-teacher conference day. I'm going to it. I couldn't have said that as a young platoon leader in the Army to my boss.”

The Kids are Alright

It’s not just moms who reap the benefits of mature parenthood. Kids are likely to see several advantages to having older moms. At least one study has shown that children of older mothers tend to get better grades and are more likely to attend a university. This finding, of course, is due in large part to the fact that older moms tend to be more highly educated themselves.

Related reading: To Moms on the First Day of Kindergarten: Don't Worry, You're Still Needed

It’s a sad thought, but many moms who have kids later in life worry if they will be around to see their kids get married or hold their grandkids. Turns out, moms may not have to lose sleep over this concern as much as we thought. New research is showing that women who had their last child after the age of 33 are twice as likely to live to the age of 95 compared to women having their last child in their 20s. So mature moms take heart, there’s a good chance that you will live long enough to hear those words we all long to hear from our kids, “Mom, you were right!”

The trend toward older motherhood isn’t changing anytime soon. Balancing the demands of education, career and family often makes the path to motherhood less straightforward than in generations past. Regardless if you become a mother at 25 or 35, each mom follows her unique path to motherhood in a way that shapes her life and the lives of her children.

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To Moms on the First Day of Kindergarten: Don't Worry, You're Still Needed

{The first day of kindergarten may make you feel like you are not needed anymore. Moms take heart, your kindergartners still need you so much}

This school year is THE year for me--my youngest is going off to kindergarten. As a stay-at-home mom, this feels like graduation day. I'm sure work-outside-the-home moms feel the same, however. The bittersweet feeling of this transition is acute.

The last 5 years have been filled with so much parenting intensity. There's been joy, exhaustion, struggle, love, self-doubt and all the roller coaster of emotions that go with the early years of parenting. We've survived sleep deprivation, tried to keep our patience during many a toddler tantrum (which still rear their head once in a while), managing the ups and downs of potty training and now we have a 5-year-old who hardly resembles that little baby we brought home years ago.

First day of kindergarten

Our 5-year-olds are now eager learners, excited by the world around them. They are now able to (mostly) hold a conversation with us for longer than a minute, even if it is about their favorite insect or fictional character. With our help and guidance, they have made amazing developmental leaps and are now ready to take on the new adventures that kindergarten will bring.

They Still Need Us

As a mom in this stage of life, it's easy to feel like our kids don't really need us anymore. Sure, they are still young, but they are so independent in many ways. There's no more changing diapers, hourly feeding (well, unless raiding the pantry counts), rocking, and soothing. However, after sending my 9-year-old off to school a few years ago, I have a little more perspective into what this transition really means for parenting. As you might have guessed, these kids of ours, even with their "big-kid" mentality, still really need us.

They need us to model kindness

With school and more interaction with friends, our kindergartners will inevitably encounter some experience of unkindness. Many of our kids have probably encountered a bit of this already. Kids tease, they "unfriend," and they may even push or shove. This is normal, but it is difficult for us when we realize that the safe bubble we've tried to create for our kids is no longer realistic. They will get their feelings hurt.

What we do know from research, however, is that kids are wired for kindness at some level. In lab experiments, babies as young as 9 months gravitate toward the kind puppet or character. For this kindness instinct to really take hold in older kids, however, it has to be modeled...a lot. Schools who implement kindness programs such as Paths tend to maintain a kind atmosphere even into the middle school years (yes, it's possible!).

To Moms on the First Day of Kindergarten: Don't Worry, You're Still Needed

Modeling at home is crucial too, of course. Our daily interactions with our kids, but also with store clerks, waitresses and yes, even other drivers, all illustrate to our youngest observers what it looks like to be kind in a sometimes harsh world.

They need us to help them find their passions

With kindergarten, comes a whole new world of learning for our kids. Many kids gravitate toward certain topics right away--dinosaurs, trains, cowboys, mermaids. This intense interest in one topic is perfectly normal and actually kind of awesome for kids' developing brains.

While kids don't have to find their lifelong passion in kindergarten, I have found it helpful and fun (for them and us) to offer them opportunities that might spark their interests. School does a lot of this for us by exposing them to many different topics and skills. However, some kids may not find their interest in school. My youngest child, while he loved preschool, didn't find anything that totally peaked his interest. I took it upon myself to find books, videos, etc. that might be something he could really get into. So far, it's been comic books! He loves "reading" them and trying to write his own. You never can tell where a simple interest can take kids' learning.

Related reading: 5 Parenting Lessons Research Taught Us This Year

They need us to help them figure out emotions

Little kids (and even not so little ones) have big emotions. Although our kindergartners may be mostly past the tantrum days, those big emotions sometimes still overtake them. Long days of learning and less quiet time often mean meltdowns come days end.

Many schools are getting on the bandwagon with social-emotional learning, but it often falls on us moms to help our kids cope when big emotions try to take over. Kids often hold their emotional selves together well at school and the teachers may report they are so well-behaved under their watch. Once at home with us, they often break down and let out all the emotional tension that has piled up during the day. We should consider this a good sign! As hard as it is to be the "emotional trash can" for our kids, it means they feel safe and comfortable with us to let their guard down.

Related reading: Toys and Gift for Emotional Development

This struggle has been real for me and my now 9-year-old. Even as a third-grader last year, he often came home an emotional mess after the ups and downs of a busy day. We can become the "emotion coaches" for our kids to help them figure out these emotions, label them and understand that no emotions are "bad." It's also important to realize, however, that we don't have to get our kids "back to happy" too soon and that making them happy all the time may not even be part of our job. We can listen, we can guide, but we usually can't force the emotions we want them to have.

Ultimately, modeling self-regulation is really the best gift we can give them. We don't have to join their emotional turmoil but we can be there to support them as they work through it.

L.R. Knost quote

They need us to help them find meaning in their struggles (but not fix the struggles)

This relates a lot to the issue I just discussed but in a more tangible way. Upon entering school, kids encounter a lot of challenges they haven't experienced before--kids that don't "play nice," teachers they may not enjoy, school work that is hard, etc. These are real challenges and our kids need real guidance. However, in many cases, we cannot "fix" the problem. It's tempting as a parent to try to fix it all--change teachers, separate classmates, call the principal...the list could go on forever.

Meaning in parenting

In some cases, this type of intervention might be needed, but in many cases, we just need to be patient. Many times, kids work their differences with classmates, they learn to love that teacher after all or the little extra explanation you give on that math problem makes the concept "click" in their brain. Patience often pays big dividends in their maturity, growth and in ours.

Many times, our kids don't really need us to fix the problem, they just need us to listen and provide a context of meaning for their struggle. They just need a hand to hold as they face the challenge themselves.

Related reading: Parents Say They Want Happy Kids. Why This is not My Parenting Goal

My son got in trouble at school last year. Let's be honest, this is not one of those parenting moments you love. He had to go see the principal because he hit another boy over a football game at recess. I'll admit it--it was not one of my proudest parenting moments. However, once he faced the consequences of his actions and talked it out, he and that other boy became good friends later in the year. In fact, he played with him much of the summer! Growth and maturity take patience.

They need us to help them make sense of ALL the information they hear and see

How many times have your kids come home from school with a tale from a friend that you know is not true? Or maybe it's a story of something a classmate saw online that you know is fake. As my oldest son has gotten older, this, unfortunately, has happened more frequently. Last year, it was classmates watching videos of ouija boards and convincing others that they were real. Other times, it was classmates watching the news and not getting the story quite straight. My third-grader was convinced once last year that North Korea was going to bomb the U.S. at any moment.

All this is to say--our kids will hear all sorts of things at school and much of it, we will probably not like. It's our job to help them make sense of what is real, what is exaggerated and what they really need to be shielded from. In our age of digital technology, this has become one of our biggest and most important parenting tasks. As kindergartners, this may not be so much of an issue (I hope), but as they grow, this issue becomes more daunting. Numerous times I've had to sit down and explain to my 9-year-old about how his friends may not be seeing the whole story or that everything they see online may be not true or appropriate. Hard lessons for a little brain to comprehend, but nonetheless important.

School buses on first day of kindergarten

Kindergarten moms, I will be with you in spirit as you drop off your little ones. Enjoy the moments and be ready for a whole new parenting job. Best wishes for the first day of kindergarten!

Related Resources:

The Night Before Kindergarten

Little Loving Hands

Give Your Child the World

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