New Study Explores Anger and Attachment in Toddlers

Attachment bonds form the foundation of a child’s well-being and set the stage for their behavior patterns. Children who have secure attachments with their caregivers early in life tend to be more self-reliant and have a stronger sense of self-worth and independence. Children who have insecure attachments to their caregivers early in life, as a result of abuse, neglect, or maltreatment, often struggle with developmental issues that can affect their social, academic, and relationship adjustment as they age. Anger has been shown to influence attachment security in young children. Interventions designed to address the anger and aggressive behaviors in toddlers are primarily aimed at addressing the behaviors of the children and the parents’ responses to those behaviors. However, Nancy L. McElwain of the Department of Human and Community Development at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign wanted to find out if addressing the relationship and attachment aspect of the parent-child relationship would influence the behaviors of children who are prone to anger.

McElwain assessed the behaviors, responses, and reactions of 120 three-year-old children, half of whom were girls. She evaluated them as they participated in several tasks designed to elicit emotional responses and demonstrate secure or insecure behaviors. She found that the children with the strongest attachment bonds were more compliant to the requests of their caregivers than those with insecure attachment. The experiment also revealed that the children with the highest levels of anger were also the ones who most willingly completed the tasks as instructed. The more secure the responses of the caregivers, the more willing these children were. This suggests that the easily angered children may be more sensitive to positive and negative responses of caregivers and this sensitivity could motivate them to be more agreeable. As expected, the children with less secure attachments were more dependent on their caregivers than those with secure attachments. McElwain believes that these results highlight the importance of focusing on attachment style when working with children prone to anger. She added, “The current findings also suggest that children high on anger proneness may especially benefit from interventions aimed at increasing the quality of the parent–child attachment relationship.”

McElwain, N. L., Holland, A. S., Engle, J. M., Wong, M. S. (2012). Child anger proneness moderates associations between child-mother attachment security and child behavior with mothers at 33 months. Journal of Family Psychology 26.1, 78-86.

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  • Sue


    April 10th, 2012 at 3:40 PM

    Children are quite perceptive at knowing those who are giving them love and those who are remaining standoffish with them. Even when they are not able to verbalize this we know that most certainly they can internalize this information. Having those in their lives who are not bonding with them is dangerous to their very development. Children need to be raised in a loving and nurturing environment. If they don’t have this in their lives it is clearly understandable how this kind of detachment would lead to a life of anger and a sense of loneliness as they grow through childhood into adults. I would sense it and you would too: imagine how hard it must be for a child to process that. They are so open and willing to give and to not receive that back in full must be pretty hard to understand.

  • reena


    April 10th, 2012 at 5:13 PM

    Think that the kids who are the most easily angered are more compliant because they are looking for a way to impress or try to warm up the adults in their lives to them?

  • Loralee


    April 11th, 2012 at 4:16 AM

    I know that there are people who give very little thought to how they act around their kids when they are young.
    There are times when being a parent is overwhelming, you have so much to do with raising the family and the job and your spouse and all of the other things that hit at us on a daily basis.
    But please take the time to think about what an impact this time could have on your child. You are shaping who your child will be through your every action and word. That is something that can’t be denied.

  • marsh


    April 13th, 2012 at 6:31 AM

    its never easy to be the perfect parent but there are a few things that really need the attention and effort from parents when it comes to children.and these are the things that can really mold the child,decide how the child’s personality develops.and anger is one thing that is best avoided during the developmental stage itself.we as parents need to do all we can to ensure this,by giving them a suitable environment and the right nurture.

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