Secure attachment relationships protect kids from toxic stress

© 2019 Gwen Dewar, Ph.D., all rights reserved

Parents can help children recover from stress by offering physical affection and words of support. But is there more? Maybe secure attachment relationships also help kids develop the ability to self-soothe.

What happens when you soothe your baby’s tears? When you make eye contact, engage your baby in loving “conversations,” and show through your consistent actions, that you’ll be supportive when your baby is worried or distressed?

We’ve known for a long time that such babies have a better chance in life. When parents respond to their children with sensitivity and warmth, kids are more likely to develop secure attachments – loving, trusting relationships that promote confidence and emotional health.

In addition, studies show that sensitive, affectionate, responsive parenting protects children from toxic stress, the sort of stress that causes disease, changes the functioning of DNA, and alters brain growth.

How exactly does it work? If you hug your child, or offer comforting words, is it like pressing a button? A magic button that relieves pain, bolsters courage, and defuses stress?

The characterization isn’t far off the mark.

Parental soothing doesn’t just quiet a baby down. It also lowers a baby’s stress hormone levels (White-Traut et al 2009).

Infants appear to feel less pain when they experience skin-to-skin contact with a caregiver (Johnston et al 2017).

Babies born with disadvantages — prenatal risk factors for developing stress-related problems — have healthy outcomes when their parents provide them with lots of physical affection (Sharp et al 2012; Sharp et al 2014).

And research suggests that older kids benefit too. For instance, a brief, supportive phone conversation with a loving parent can lower the cortisol levels of an anxious child (Selzer et al 2010).

But what’s especially intriguing is the power of remembered love.

Experiments on adults show that just thinking about a loved one can diminish physical pain (Einsenberger et al 2011). And studies indicate that certain reminders can help us cope with stress. They might even disarm parts of the brain that make us feel anxious or threatened.

To see what I mean, consider a brain scan study conducted by Luke Norman and his colleagues (2015). The researchers asked 42 college students to view a series of photographs, but the images varied depending on group assignment:

  • Students in the attachment security priming condition viewed photos of people showing affection and support for each other — photos that primed the brain to think about secure attachment relationships. 
  • Students in the control condition viewed only images of household objects.

Next, each student was hooked up to a functional magnetic resonance imaging scanner, and asked to watch another series of pictures.

Some of these depicted emotionally neutral content, like geometric shapes. But in other cases, the content was designed to put people on edge. Students were shown faces with fearful or angry expressions.

The researchers already knew that such faces activate the amygdala, a part of the brain that specializes in threat detection, and switches us into stress-mode. The question now concerned the priming.

Would prior exposure to those “feel good” social images make any difference to the brain’s threat detector?

The answer was yes. Compared to students in the control group, those who had been primed to think of secure attachment relationships showed less activation in the amygdala.  And this was especially true for individuals with anxiety problems (Norman et al 2015).

Of course, this is just a single study. But the results are consistent with a growing body of evidence: Attachment security priming has a number of beneficial effects (Gillath and Karantzas 2019). It reduces physiological stress. It enhances working memory performance (Bai et al 2019; Gokce and Harma 2018). It may even boost creative problem-solving (Mikulincer et al 2011).

Do children experience similar benefits? There’s reason to think so.

Brandi Stupica and her colleagues tested the effects of secure attachment priming on 90 young school children (ages 6 and 7).

In this study, the social support images were presented very briefly — so briefly, in fact, that the kids weren’t even conscious of having seen them.

Then, after being presented with these subliminal images, kids looked at a series of pictures designed to make them feel frightened or nervous.

The researchers monitored children’s stress physiology, and, compared the results with those of children in a control group. Did the subliminal, “feel good” images make a difference? Yes. The kids who’d been primed showed less evidence of fear and stress, and the children’s home life mattered too: The least-stressed kids were the ones who had secure attachment relationships with their parents (Stupica et al 2017)

So perhaps this explains – at least in part – the health advantages enjoyed by kids who grow up with secure attachment relationships. It isn’t only the immediate support that matters – those times when a parent offers physical affection and emotional reassurance. Maybe, too, it’s the powerful memories that these experiences create – memories that help kids soothe themselves.

More reading

Assuming they don’t have to cope with poverty, family trauma, or abuse, how do children get stressed-out in the first place? I’ve written a number of articles about it.

Fascinating — and disturbing — research suggests that babies are affected when they overhear their parents fighting. They can also sense our stress. Young children sometimes experience stress in daycare, and (as I explain in my article about the importance of good student-teacher relationships) older children can get stressed-out in school.

For tips on coping with stress, see these Parenting Science articles:

And for more information about the effects of parental warmth and secure attachment relationships, see these articles:

Finally, are you wondering how researchers determine if a child is “securely attached?” See this Parenting Science guide.

References: How secure attachment relationships protect kids from toxic stress

Bai X, Chen X, Zhou M, Liu C, Hu Y. 2019. The effects of negative context and attachment security priming on working memory updating among anxiously attached individuals. Biol Psychol. 143:41-52.

Eisenberger NI, Master SL, Inagaki TK, Taylor SE, Shirinyan D, Lieberman MD, Naliboff BD. 2011. Attachment figures activate a safety signal-related neural region and reduce pain experience. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 108(28):11721-6.

Gillath O and Karantzas G2. 2019. Attachment security priming: a systematic review. Curr Opin Psychol. 2019 Feb;25:86-95.

Gokce A and Harma M. Attachment anxiety benefits from security priming: Evidence from working memory performance. PLoS One. 2018 Mar 9;13(3):e0193645.

Johnston C, Campbell-Yeo M, Disher T, Benoit B, Fernandes A, Streiner D, Inglis D, Zee R. 2017. Skin-to-skin care for procedural pain in neonates. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2:CD008435.

Liddell BJ and Courtney BS. 2018. Attachment buffers the physiological impact of social exclusion PLoS One. 13(9): e0203287.

Mikulincer M, Shaver PR, Rom E. 2011. The effects of implicit and explicit security priming on creative problem solving. Cogn Emot. 2011 Apr;25(3):519-31.

Norman L, Lawrence N, Iles A, Benattayallah A, Karl A. 2015. Attachment-security priming attenuates amygdala activation to social and linguistic threat. Soc Cogn Affect Neurosci. 2015 Jun;10(6):832-9.

Selzter LJ, Ziegler TE, and Pollack SD. 2010. Social vocalizations can release oxytocin in humans. Proc Biol Sci. 277(1694):2661-6.

Stupica B, Brett BE, Woodhouse SS, Cassidy J. 2017. Attachment Security Priming Decreases Children’s Physiological Response to Threat. Child Dev. 90(4): 1254-1271.

Content last modified 6/2019

Portions of this article, “How secure attachments protect kids from toxic stress,” are derived from “How love protects your baby’s brain,” a blog post by the same author published by Baby Center in 2014.