Attachment to parents and adjustment in adolescents: Literature review and policy implications
This is an introductory summary of a full paper which presents a critical review of the research literature on the relation between attachment to parents during adolescence and psychological and social adjustment. Recommendations for healthy parenting practices, government programming and research are summarised. Details on how to find the complete paper are given at the end.
Research Question 1: Does attachment to parents during adolescence impact psychological and social adjustment?
Secure attachment during adolescence is related to fewer mental health problems, including lower levels of depression, anxiety and feelings of personal inadequacy1-5. Securely attached adolescents are less likely to engage in substance abuse, antisocial and aggressive behaviour, and risky sexual activity2,6-9. Securely attached adolescents also manage the transition to high school more successfully, and enjoy more positive relationships with family and peers10,11. They demonstrate less concern about loneliness and social rejection than do insecurely attached adolescents and they display more adaptive coping strategies 1,12.
Research Question 2: What role, if any, do parents play in ensuring secure attachment during adolescence?
Parent-child relationships undergo important transitions during adolescence, including a decrease in time spent with parents and a shift from dependency to mutual reciprocity 13,14. Parents play a significant role in supporting secure attachment during these transitions 15. Adolescents benefit from parental support that encourages autonomy development yet ensures continued monitoring and emotional connectedness. Specific parenting skills that promote attachment security and autonomy development include psychological availability, warmth, active listening, behaviour monitoring, limit setting, acceptance of individuality, and negotiation of rules and responsibilities 16-18. Parental support during stressful periods of transition (e.g., entry to high school) predicts positive adolescent adjustment 11.
Implications for Effective Parenting
Parents need to recognize the continued importance of their relationship with their adolescence. They should be careful not to confuse adolescents’ development of autonomy with rejection of the parental relationship.
Parents need to be available to their adolescents, supportive and actively engaged in negotiation of increased autonomy and self-reliance.
Parents need to anticipate that their adolescent will require increased availability and support during periods of transition, such as entry into high school. Parents should support their adolescent in effective planning and management of this transition.
Parents need to support adolescents in their exploration of social norms by listening to concerns about social approval and peer pressure, discussing values and reasons for limit setting, and negotiating rules when appropriate. Parents need to monitor involvement in potentially dangerous situations and work with their adolescent to ensure safety.
Parents must be careful not to disregard adolescents’ real emotional difficulties by assuming that these are due to physical or hormonal changes associated with this period.
Parents need to be careful not to dismiss problems in the adolescent-parent relationship as simply due to age, temperament or other child characteristics. Both they and their adolescent contribute to the quality of the relationship.
Parents need to recognize the continued importance of their relationship with their adolescent for adjustment, despite their child’s increased interest in and time spent with peers. Parents need to be aware of and monitor their adolescent’s involvement with various peer groups and their activities at school.
Parents need to understand that as adolescents move into romantic relationships they can benefit from parents’ emotional support and guidance. Parents need to be available to adolescents to discuss their feelings, values and decision making regarding issues of intimacy and sexual involvement in romantic relationships.
It is advisable that parents of children who have experienced extreme difficulty in early child-parent relationships anticipate the challenges of adolescence and assess the need for mental health support.
Parents who recognize risk factors in themselves that may place their adolescent at risk for insecure attachment may benefit from counseling or therapy for their own difficulties, and/or to reduce the transmission of risk within the family.
Implications for Government Programming
Government should support the following initiatives in mental health programming:
Public education initiatives that debunk the myth of adolescent detachment from parents and enhance recognition and understanding of the importance of the parent-child relationship. Strategies to achieve this goal include media advertising campaigns and provision of information brochures through government agencies, public health offices and schools. Provision of funds for appropriate speakers, written and video materials, for junior high and high school parent groups, community centres, libraries, etc. would also be effective.
Development and evaluation of programs to assist parents in developing effective skills in parenting adolescent children, including skills in providing support and guidance during transition periods. This is most expediently achieved through the development of universal programs that target entry into high school and provide education and support regarding transitions in the parent-child relationships and effective parenting skills.
Development and evaluation of targeted programs that focus on attachment issues and effective parenting strategies for high-risk adolescents and their families.
Support of educational training to increase the understanding and awareness of adolescent attachment issues by mental health workers and other professionals involved in service delivery.
Recommendations for Research Initiatives
Development and validation of self-report, observational and/or interview based measures of attachment for adolescents.
Research on the determinants of stability and change in attachment from childhood to adolescence, and from adolescence to adulthood.
Investigation of transitions in attachment functions of parents, peers and romantic partners from early adolescence to early adulthood.
Documentation of the emergence of generalised versus differentiated attachment representations from early adolescence to early adulthood.
Investigation of parenting factors related to shifts from secure to insecure attachment versus from insecure to secure attachment during adolescence.
Identification of mediators and moderators of the relationship between adolescent attachment and functioning in young adulthood (i.e., poverty, parental psychopathology, peer relationships, school success).
Development and evaluation of both universal and targeted programs that focus on attachment, family relations and adjustment in adolescence.
1 Kerns, K. A., & Stevens, A. C. (1996). Parent-child attachment in late adolescence: Links to social relations and personality. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 25, 323-342.
2 Kobak, R., & Sceery, A. (1988). Attachment in late adolescence: Working models, affect regulation, and representations of self and others. Child Development, 59, 135-146.
3 Nada-Raja, S., McGee, R., & Stanton, W. R. (1992). Perceived attachments to parents and peers and psychological well-being in adolescence. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 21, 471-485.
4 Lessard, J. C., & Moretti, M. M. (1998). Suicidal ideation in an adolescent clinical sample: Attachment patterns and clinical implications. Journal of Adolescence, 21, 383-395.
5 Paterson, J., Pryor, J., & Field, J. (1995). Adolescent attachment to parents and friends in relation to aspects of self-esteem. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 24, 365-376.
6 Cooper, M. L., Shaver, P. R., & Collins, N. L. (1998). Attachment styles, emotion regulation, and adjustment in adolescence. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 74, 1380-1397.
7 Fonagy, P., Target, M., Steele, M., Steele, H., Leigh, T., Levinson, A., & Kennedy, R. (1997). Morality, disruptive behavior, borderline personality disorder, crime and their relationship to security of attachment. In L. Atkinson & K. J. Zucker (Eds.), Attachment and psychopathology. New York: Guilford.
8 Rosenstein, D. S., & Horowitz, H. A. (1996). Adolescent attachment and psychopathology. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 64, 244-253.
9 Voss, K. (1999) Understanding adolescent antisocial behaviour from attachment theory and coercion theory perspectives. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Concordia University.
10 Kenny, M. E., & Donaldson, G. A. (1991). Contributions of parental attachment and family structure to the social and psychological functioning of first-year college students. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 38, 479-486.
11 Papini, D. R., & Roggman, L. A. (1992). Adolescent perceived attachment to parents in relation to competence, depression, and anxiety: A longitudinal study. Journal of Early Adolescence, 12, 420-440.
12 Florian, V., Mikulincer, M., & Bucholtz, I. (1995). Effects of adult attachment style on the perception and search for social support. Journal of Psychology, 129, 665-676.
13 Larson, R., & Richards, M. H. (1991). Daily companionship in late childhood and early adolescence: Changing developmental contexts. Child Development, 62, 284-300.
14 Larson, R. W., Richards, M. H., Moneta, G., & Holmbeck, G. C. (1996). Changes in adolescents' daily interactions with their families from ages 10 to 18: Disengagement and transformation. Developmental Psychology, 32, 744-754.
15 Laursen, B., & Williams, V. A. (1997). Perceptions of interdependence and closeness in family and peer relationships among adolescents with and without romantic partners. In S. Shulman & W. A. Collins (Eds.), Romantic relationships in adolescence: Developmental perspectives. New directions for child development, No. 78. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass .
16 Allen, J. P., & Hauser, S. T. (1996). Autonomy and relatedness in adolescent-family interactions as predictors of young adults' states of mind regarding attachment. Development and Psychopathology, 8, 793-809.
17 Allen, J. P., Moore, C., Kuperminc, G., & Bell, K. (1998). Attachment and adolescent psychosocial functioning. Child Development, 69, 1406-1419.
18 Karavasilis, K., Doyle, A.-B., & Margolese, S. K. (1999). Links between parenting styles and adolescent attachment. Poster presented at the biennial meetings of the Society for Research in Child Development, Albuquerque, April.
This feature: Summary of Doyle, A.B., Moretti, M.M.,
Voss, K and Margolese, S. Attachment to Parents and Adjustment in
Adolescence: Literature Review and Policy Implications. Report to
Childhood and Youth Division, Health Canada, Ottawa, Canada. The full
paper is available at: