The emotional attachment a child develops for his or her parents by the age of 3 can be a valuable marker for how well the child will fare emotionally, socially, and academically later in childhood and into adulthood, according to a recently released study from London. The study of 14,000 children in the United States indicates that as many as 40% don't develop strong parental attachments and face lifelong struggles getting along effectively in the world.

The study was funded by the Sutton Trust, an education-based charity that strives to improve the lives and opportunities of underprivileged children. It describes itself as a think-and-do-tank using a strategic philanthropic approach.

The study involved collaborators from Columbia University and Princeton University in the US and the London School of Economics and Political Science and the University of Bristol in the United Kingdom.

Sophie Moulin, a doctoral candidate from the Princeton Sociology Department and the Office of Popular Research, says that "when parents tune in to and respond to their children's needs and are a dependable source of comfort, those children learn how

 to manage their own feeling and behaviors." The secure attachment this parenting style encourages provides a strong foundation from which the growing child can thrive.

The children in the Sutton study, all born in 2001, are part of the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study and, as participants in the study, are considered representative of all children in the US. The research team supplemented the data from the longitudinal study with data from more than 100 additional academic studies.

The researchers discovered the 40% lacking strong parental support systems:


  • Exhibited poorer behavioral and language skills at the preschool level.
  • Are more likely to drop out of school, job training courses, and jobs, especially when coming from an impoverished home environment.
  • 25% avoid their parents during times of conflict from any source because they've learned their parents ignore their emotional needs.
  • 15% resist their parents to avoid the distress their parents cause them.

Parents can nurture strong bonds with their children by responding positively to the child's emotional signals beginning in infancy. Simple actions such as holding a baby in a loving way and willingly responding to his or her cries and other physical needs help the child develop a healthy sense of well-being and belonging.

In response to the Sutton study, Susan Campbell, a psychology professor at the University of Pittsburgh, says "when helpless infants learn early that their cries will be responded to, they also learn that their needs will be met" and are more likely to establish secure parental attachments. Infants who do not receive such positive parental feedback "are more likely to learn that the world is not a safe place — leading them to become needy, frustrated, withdrawn or disorganized."

Source: Huber, B. Rose. "Four in 10 infants lack strong parental attachments." News at Princeton. The Trustees of Princeton University. Mar 27, 2014. Web. Apr 9, 2014.