How Having A Single Parent May Affect Your Attachment Style Later On

mbg Editorial Assistant By Abby Moore
mbg Editorial Assistant
Abby Moore is an Editorial Assistant at mindbodygreen. She earned a B.A. in Journalism from The University of Texas at Austin and has previously written for Tribeza magazine.
How Having A Single Parent May Affect Your Attachment Style Later On

The theory of attachment styles says the emotional care and security a child received growing up will often affect the way they behave and respond to relationships later in life as an adult. Kids with emotionally available, present, and attentive caregivers tend to grow up with a secure attachment style, whereas kids with unavailable or inconsistent parents may grow up with an insecure attachment style.

So what about the children of single parents? While having a single parent in and of itself is not going to produce the same attachment style in every child, there may be some common themes. 

How children's attachment styles are shaped by single parents. 

One 2012 study says, "single parenthood, per se, does not necessarily lead to differences in child attachment representations." According to licensed clinical psychologist Ayanna Abrams, Psy.D., several other factors play a role, including: 

  • The parent's mental health
  • Socioeconomic status
  • The parent's access to social support and community 
  • How emotionally accessible the parent is for the child 
  • The effects divorce or loss of the other parent have on the parent and/or child
  • Gender differences between parent and child

That said, there are two common dynamics that may form in a single-parent household:

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1. The single parent becomes over-involved in the child's life. 

When a child has a single parent, there tends to be a very close-knit bond that the two develop, says David Greenan, Ed.D., LMFT, professor of psychology at the Teachers College of Columbia University. 

If the single parent is both raising a child and working, it can be difficult for them to develop their own social life. This is especially true if aunts, uncles, grandparents, and even close friends do not live nearby, he says. When a child feels like they're the only resource a parent has for socialization, it can create a sense of worry and anxiety, Greenan explains. 

"As parents, it is dangerous to depend too much on your child to be the center of your world and to demand to be the center of theirs," psychotherapist Daryl Appleton, Ed.D., tells mbg. "It doesn't allow them to grow and develop healthy styles of attachment as independents and as future partners to others." 

This can begin to manifest early on, when children are resistant to going to school or having sleepovers. The child can actually become so worried about their parent, they want to stick around the house, Greenan says. 

Of course it varies by context, but these experiences can develop into an insecure attachment style called anxious attachment, which is rooted in a fear of abandonment and an insecurity of being underappreciated.

"When the child becomes an adult, he or she may yearn for emotional closeness since that was their earliest experience of attachment," Greenan explains. This is what can form that fear of abandonment. 

At the same time, they may also want to fend off that closeness since they grew up feeling responsible for the parent's well-being, he adds. If they're leaning more toward the latter behavior, it could indicate an avoidant attachment.

How to avoid this: Bringing more resources into the family system can help the parent dedicate more time to their own lives, Greenan says. Dedicating time to building community and trying to be more socially active can model similar behavior for children to follow. This can take a lot of stress off of the parent-child relationship, he says.  

2. The single parent introduces many different dating partners to the child.

While Greenan says he wouldn't discourage single parents from dating or becoming emotionally involved with new partners, there is a level of care that needs to be taken in communicating the process with a child. 

"When casual dating partners are brought into children's lives, there is the risk of them getting attached and then feeling abandoned," holistic child psychologist Nicole Beurkens, Ph.D., CNS, previously told mbg, "as well as general confusion about the person's role in their life."

If there's a revolving door of sorts, introducing new partners in and out of the household, the child may develop a disorganized attachment style. This attachment style is characterized by fear, mistrust, and inner conflict.

How to avoid this: Be sure to communicate the dating process to your child, and explain the partner's role in your life before introducing them.

"Allow your child to feel involved with the process by being able to ask questions, allow for emotions, and set healthy boundaries," Appleton says. "When parents hide their actions or misconstrue motives, this is what we see begin to psychologically impact children." 

The bottom line.

Being a single parent is hard. There is a fine balance that needs to be struck between being there for a child, while also making your own social-emotional needs a priority. No parent is going to get it right every time—we're only human. "The defining factor between a well-adjusted child of a single parent and one who was not?" Appleton asks. "It seems to be in how the parents communicated with their children and if they followed through." 

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