How Secure Attachment Relationships Reduce the Effects of Stress in Children

I’ve spent 40 years studying childhood attachments and how they affect the way children process stress and emotions. Here at CEHD’s Institute of Child Development, our research shows just how important secure attachments are to nurturing the ability to process childhood stress – and how this relationship between parental attachment and stress regulation is different in teens and adopted children.

It’s crucial that parents understand how these factors impact child development – and how providing predictable, more, and responsive experiences with your child can help your child lay a strong emotional foundation for their adult life.

Why Are Relationships So Important to Stress Management?

Over the past 50 years, there’s been a tremendous body of research showing a link between how humans regulate and deal with stress and their overall health and emotional wellbeing. People who are in supportive relationships tend to be healthier and live longer than those who are in hostile relationships or are alone without friends.

This begs the question: “Why are these relationships so beneficial?” Most of the evidence points to the fact that, when we are with others with whom we have trusting and close relationships, their presence reduces our production of stress hormones when we are in potentially stressful situations. Being with those we are close to may also make us feel safer, but even when it doesn’t, their presence and support can impact how we respond physically. These stress hormones, if we produce them often enough, at high enough levels and for long periods, increase our risk of emotional disorders, obesity, poor heart health, and Type II diabetes. We call the process of reducing or blocking stress hormones when we are with others we are close to “social buffering.”

Understanding this phenomenon is particularly important in the study of children, as we know chronic stress in children can derail their cognitive and emotional development.

The Power of Attachment & Reducing Stress in Children

The development of social buffering in childhood is critically important and may serve as the basis for the ability to use relationships to buffer stress as adults. There’s a strong link between whether you felt safe as a kid with your parents and how secure you feel in peer and adult romantic relationships. Ultimately, early childhood attachment relationships build a deep-seated sense of trust that “If I need you, you will be there.”

In the 1990s, my laboratory did pioneering research on social buffering and parent-infant relationships. We found that if a toddler had formed a secure attachment relationship with their parent, they could get through potentially distressing events like getting a series of shots from a physician without any increase in cortisol (commonly referred to as “the stress hormone”). For children who had more insecure attachment relationships with the parent who took them to the doctor, this buffering effect was not present – we would observe their levels of cortisol rise even in the presence of a parent. Note that in all instances these toddlers would cry mightily when given their shots, but in secure relationships the parent’s presence somehow prevented the child’s brain from triggering a stress hormone response.

Research done on animals indicates that this effect is physiological; the presence of a parent functions to block the production of stress-producing hormones in a part of the brain called the hypothalamus, a region that connects the nervous and endocrine systems and is responsible for regulating basic bodily functions like thirst, sleep and body temperature.

Changes in Adolescence

While the effects of stress buffering are powerful and easily observed in younger children, the power of the attachment relationship with the parent as this type of stress buffer wanes with puberty. After puberty, something changes. Teens still rely on their parents and go to them in times of need, but the presence of a parent doesn’t seem to produce the same buffering effect on their stress systems. Because teens place a high value on peer and friend relationships, some speculated that maybe this stress buffering function simply transferred from parents to friends during adolescence.

To test this theory, we conducted a study using two groups of children, 9- and 13-year-olds. They all brought along their best friend and their primary caregiver, in most cases a parent. We gave them the Trier Social Stress Test, in which they were told to pretend they were introducing themselves to a new group of kids and to tell them some good and some not so good things about themselves. Then they had five minutes to prepare to give this public speaking presentation. They were also told that they would be evaluated on the quality of their speech and that it was being recorded to be replayed to a group of their peers. Following the presentation, they were asked to do math problems and recite the answers without the aid of a paper or calculator. As you can imagine, the combination of public speaking and math is very effective at generating stress in children. Indeed, this task is used around the world with adults and children to study the factors that affect stress reactions.

To test the potency of best friends as social buffers, in some cases the participants prepared for the speech with their parent and in some cases with their best friend. We observed some stark differences in how the two groups reacted. In the 9-year-olds, having a parent by their side was very effective in reducing a stress response. In addition, the presence of a friend also had a positive, nearly equal effect.

In the teenage group, we saw that the presence of a parent had little-to-no effect in reducing the participant’s stress. However, the hypothesis that friends step in to fill this stress buffering role in adolescence proved to be wrong. We actually observed that the presence of a friend made the participants’ stress indicators skyrocket – creating much more stress than they would have had alone.

We know from studies of adults that romantic partners in secure relationships will be powerful stress buffers. Thus adolescence may simply be a period where we lose the deeply embedded stress buffer we had with our parents as children and we have not yet grown into adult attachment relationships with our romantic partner that will once again buffer us from stress. Adolescence may be a time when we are open and vulnerable to the biological impact of the stress. But this may have an upside. It may help our bodies prepare for adulthood by letting stress hormones shape our brains and bodies in adaptation to the world we are entering as adults.

Building Attachment Relationships with Adopted Children

While it’s true that developing attachment relationships in early childhood is important, we do see encouraging results in studying the ability of adopted children to form these attachments. We’ve been studying children adopted from orphanages, and it’s clear that it’s really hard to prevent young children from forming attachments. In this study, our subjects are children who lived in orphanages until they were 18 to 36 months at which point they were adopted into families in the Midwest. Since most of them have not had opportunities to form attachments until the time they were adopted, you would expect them to struggle.

We found that within two months most of them had formed an attachment and by eight months all but a handful had. In most instances, these attachments looked to be reasonably secure. Being in a family is a powerful self-righting process for these kids, and we see all sorts of capacities come back.

However, we still see a signature of their earlier experience – especially in their capacity to use the presence of the attachment figure to buffer stress in children. It is as if without an attachment figure at a critical early period in their lives, they are not able to use the presence of the parent they have formed an attachment with to block their stress hormone system from being triggered when the child is frightened. It’s almost as if they are already teenagers.

Principles for Building Bonds

Forming secure attachment relationships relies on children experiencing being cared for sensitively and responsively by the adult in their lives. It’s creating a world for the child where they experience being cared for and – when they need their parent – their parent is there for them. It is notable that secure attachment is not a trait of the child. A child can be in a secure attachment relationship with one parent and an insecure one with the other parent. It is the relationship that is secure. But from those relationships the child forms expectations for how they will be treated when they become emotionally close to people.

Here’s a brief guide to the basics of forming secure attachment relationships with your children that will help you establish secure bonds with the child in your life.

Respond to your baby’s cry. While it can be exhausting, crying is one of an infant’s primary ways of communication. Within reasonable limits, you should respond to your child’s cries and see if they need a diaper change or are hungry or in pain as quickly as possible. This is very important to creating a secure bond that will last a lifetime. But note that if you have responded and the baby’s needs are met but dinner is not, it is healthy for you and your baby to set her down and let her entertain herself.

Follow your child’s lead. This is simple, yet extremely important. Be observant and responsive to your child; try to sense what they need from you and respond. This encompasses overtures to engage in play or comfort when they are in distress. But while you are following your child’s lead and, in a sense, letting them be in the driver’s seat, it is still important that you set the rules for the road. Following their lead while setting boundaries is the balance that helps children feel safe and loved.

Create a predictable environment. Predictability is a comfort to children. While you don’t have to be excessively rigid, having consistent family meals and bedtimes, as well as bedtime rituals like taking baths or reading a book, gives a child a sense of stability that is important to their wellbeing.

Make sure they are safe. A child who feels unsafe in their home won’t develop the sense of attachment necessary later in life. This safety means everything from a home free from physical dangers to having a nurturing day care provider to making sure they are not facing physical or emotional mistreatment from any family member or caregiver.

Notes for parents of adopted or foster children: The good news is that adopted children, especially those adopted at a relatively young age, can form lasting and meaningful bonds with their new families. However, it can be challenging, especially if the child has suffered any mistreatment or neglect prior to becoming part of your family. Mary Dozier of the University of Delaware has some great interventions and training models for adoptive parents on the Infant Caregiver project site.

For older children, the challenges may be greater. For parents adopting or fostering older children – especially those who have had negative experiences in early childhood – I suggest the Treatment Foster Care Oregon site developed by my colleague Philip Fisher of the University of Oregon.

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Megan R. Gunnar, Ph.D.

About the Author

Megan R. Gunnar, Ph.D.

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