How To Identify A Healthy (Or Unhealthy) Attachment Style

Updated March 12, 2024by Regain Editorial Team

Your attachment style is part of your background, and it can have important implications for your future relationships. Being aware of your background attachment may help you identify patterns in your interactions with others, both positive and negative. To determine whether your attachment style is beneficial for you, it could be helpful to learn more about attachment theory. 

What is attachment theory?

Attachment styles matter

Attachment theory is a theory in developmental psychology that addresses bonds formed in childhood. This theory may outline the ways humans create emotional attachments early in life, generally with a parent or other caregiver. With a healthy form of attachment, children learn stability and feel a sense of security that allows them to feel comfortable reaching out to others, stretching their boundaries, and exploring. If you have a healthy attachment background, you might feel more comfortable taking risks because you have a stable foundation that you can fall back on when necessary.

On the other hand, unhealthy forms of attachment result from a sense of not being able to rely on a parent or caregiver during the early years. This can lead to problems down the line. If you have an unhealthy attachment background, it might mean you are fearful of taking risks. This fear can stunt the level of growth that you experience in childhood and beyond. 

Your background attachment

To identify what kind of attachment parenting you experienced in childhood, it could be helpful to engage in some self-reflection. You may want to think about your relationships with your parents or former caregivers, for instance. Ask yourself if you form connections with others easily or if  you still struggle to form healthy attachments. If you had a healthy attachment with your family and you formed strong bonds during your early years, then chances are you're doing okay on your own, but that's not always the case. Some people, even when they have a healthy attachment to their caregiver, have difficulty forming relationships and accomplishing tasks in their everyday life.


Children who struggle in their childhood, including children of neglectful or abusive parents, for example may continue to struggle later in life. Still, not all parents who fail to create a healthy attachment with their child are purposefully abusive or neglectful. Some may be uncertain of how to model a healthy attachment because they never had one modeled for them. In these instances, it may be necessary to seek out professional help for everyone involved.

What does healthy attachment mean?

In Western cultures, we place a great deal of emphasis on having a strong relationship with an attentive parent or caregiver, but other cultures may not place that same level of influence or emphasis on that particular relationship. Still, in other cultures, and even in our own, it may be possible for children to grow up healthy and well-adjusted without having that level of closeness or impact from the parent-child relationship.

There is still a great deal that we don't know about the situation, and attachment theory is just that—a theory. Some children seem to have a measure of resilience that allows them to thrive in difficult situations where other children might struggle. 

What things can parents and caregivers do to improve attachment?

Parenting children with poor attachment backgrounds can be challenging. Nevertheless, there are specific things that parents and caregivers can do to improve attachment. Specifically, affected children may need extra doses of nurturing, consistency, patience, and therapeutic treatment.

Attachment issues may begin before the age of five years old. Neglect and abuse are often to blame for the inability of  young children to form strong attachments. They may have missed out on the special moments that many children enjoy with their parents, including being held, rocked, cuddled, sung to, and smiled at.

Children with attachment issues still need those types of interactions, and arguably, it's never too late to experience them. However, consider that children who were neglected and abused may associate touch with pain, punishment, or sexual abuse. In such cases, parents and caregivers may need to tune in to the child and adapt their responses accordingly. You can expect that it might take longer for children to respond to nurturing touch because their brains have less plasticity than they do at birth.

When a poorly attached child misbehaves, you may want to try to understand why the event happened before addressing the behavior. For example, if a child hoards food, their intent may not be intentionally mischievous. It could be an instinct resulting from being deprived of food in early childhood. Punishment for this type of incident won't help the child become more attached, and it could increase insecurities and the need to hoard food.

One of the negative effects of poor early attachment is that it alters a child's development. Abused and neglected children may be delayed both socially and emotionally. Their physical age may be on target, but their life experience could be equivalent to that of an adult. Age can become a subjective issue.

Most experts agree that it’s best for parents and caregivers to parent children with poor attachment based on their emotional age, not their biological age. When faced with fear or stress, a 10-year-old child can quickly revert to an earlier age and have a challenging melt-down. When you tell such a child to act their age, traumatic experiences may prevent them from being able to respond as you wish. What you believe to be a "won't" might be a "can't". If the child acts like a two-year-old, consider parenting them as you would a two-year-old. That could mean speaking to them in a soothing voice, holding them, rocking them, and singing quietly. Consider refraining from scolding or arguing.

Attachment styles matter

Poorly attached children may have had a lot of chaos and inconsistency in their early caretaking. For this reason, it may be vital for parents and caregivers to be consistent and predictable. Children with insecure attachments may not adapt as well as children with strong attachments during times of transitions, surprises, or disruptions. Holiday events and birthdays with extended family and friends can be particularly stressful and overwhelming for poorly attached children. 

Parenting children with attachment issues may require significant patience on the caregiver's part. Progress may happen slowly, but with consistent caregiving, progress can occur. Slow progress, combined with caring for highly dysregulated children, can be exhausting and demoralizing. It can be crucial for parents caring for poorly attached children to practice regular self-care, so they don't burn out. It could be nearly impossible to provide the level of care that children with attachment issues need when parents are emotionally and physically depleted, angry, resentful, or overwhelmed. These parents and caregivers may need to take every opportunity for rest, respite, and support.

Getting therapeutic help

In Western culture, children may struggle when they don't form secure attachments with their caregivers in childhood. If you think your background attachment may have been unstable or you’re the parent of a poorly attached child, help is available.  A mental health professional such as a licensed therapist or counselor can help you process any negative emotions you may experience while reflecting on your childhood or parenting your own child. They may also be able to assist you in learning ways to form strong attachments with the people you care about, including friends, family, and romantic partners. 

If you are currently struggling to form a positive attachment with your child, consider that it is not too late to do something about it. You can make changes to the way that you parent, and your child can benefit as a result. You may be surprised how much you can change your relationship and just how you can improve your child's life (and your own) with the right help.

Individuals facing attachment issues may face certain barriers to traditional therapy. For example, it’s not uncommon for insecurely attached people to also experience social anxiety, which could make it difficult to see a therapist in person. Online counseling may be a better alternative under such circumstances. This type of remote therapy can make people feel more at ease since they can attend sessions from the comfort of their home. Internet-based therapy can also be more convenient since appointments are available day or night. 

Scholarly research in the field of mental health supports the use of online therapy in treating a variety of mental health challenges and conditions. A comprehensive review of relevant studies in the field determined that individuals who seek therapy online versus in person experience similar results. The meta-analysis followed various populations and included nearly 10,000 individuals. 


Whatever your background attachment style, it is possible to make positive mental health gains with the support of a compassionate and skilled therapist like those at Regain. Changing engrained patterns like those formed in early childhood can be challenging, but you don’t have to do it alone. Reach out today and start making real progress. 

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