Learning to Love: How Parents Shape Children’s Later Relationships

Humans need more than food, water and shelter to survive. Because we are social beings, we also need to learn from a young age to depend on others, how to give and receive affection and that our physical and emotional needs will be met. Caregivers are the first people who fulfill those essential emotional needs for their children, and parent-child relationships have been shown to have real, long-term influences on children’s development.

Why do early parent-child relationships matter so much? First, infants depend completely on their parents. When an infant cries and their parent responds with food, affection or a diaper change, the infant learns that its needs will be met. Psychologists call this attachment because it means just that – children become attached to their parents because they know that their parents will take care of them and that they are protected.

Despite the dependent-nature of attachment, one important facet of attachment is that infants and children who are attached will venture away from their parent, exploring new things and their surrounding. This is because infants who are attached feel safe; they implicitly know that if something were to happen to them, their parent would be there instantly to respond to their needs. This doesn’t mean children who get upset with new people or things aren’t forming a bond with their parent – obviously, children are going to get scared and miss their parents sometimes – but a crucial aspect of attachment is that it is consistent and enduring – children who are attached know their parent will respond to their needs, meaning they are safe to explore as long as their parent is close by.

But attachment is not only important for parent-child bonds. In fact, fifty years of research shows that infants who have strong emotional bonds with their caregiver grow up to be more emotionally competent compared to those who have weak or inconsistent emotional bonds. Children who are securely attached to their parents grow up to express their emotions more, be more socially competent, and display more empathy compared to children who are insecurely attached to their parent.

Perhaps more importantly, research shows that securely attached infants grow up to have better quality relationships later in life. Children who grow up expecting their caregivers to be responsive and loving learn to expect that from other close relationships in their lives, like from friends and romantic partners. A new study followed up with participants over the course of 78 years and found that attachment in childhood predicted adult attachment to their spouses. The researchers suggest that children who had warm and responsive parents developed better strategies for dealing with negative emotions, which perhaps helped them deal with marital conflict and general life stresses.

Unfortunately, not all children grow up with responsive parents, and these children often exhibit emotional problems later in life. One extreme case of this is the Romanian Orphanages that were over-flooded with children in the 1980s despite there not being enough caregivers. Children received inconsistent care and were essentially neglected for many hours a day. When these infants were adopted years later, many had issues forming an attachment with their caregiver – some showing difficulties forming a relationship, others showing “indiscriminate friendliness,” in which they showed affection for many people even though they weren’t their caregiver or family members.

Attachment is one of the most well researched topics in child development, probably because parent-child attachment has such long-lasting effects on children’s wellbeing. From the moment infants are born, their parents are teaching them what it means to have a connection with another human being. In a sense, children’s first relationship with their parents forms the basis for their future relationships, teaching children what they should expect from their close bonds.