The children of securely attached mothers think that God is close

Children’s sense of God’s closeness is apparently related, not to their mother’s religiosity, but to their mother’s attachment style – that is, whether the mother is calm and confident in her relationships or anxious and uncertain. Specifically, Rosalinda Cassibba and her colleagues have shown that the children of securely attached mothers (religious or not) tend to think that God is closer, as compared with the children of insecurely attached mothers.

The new finding builds on claims made last century by the British psychoanalyst John Bowlby that attachment style is transmitted from generation to generation (via non-genetic means). The new result suggests that a mother’s attachment style affects the kind of attachment her child forms not just with her, but with other potential caring figures, even non-corporeal ones.

Seventy-one Italian mothers were classified as having a secure or insecure attachment style based on a short interview. They also answered questions about their religious faith and attachment to God. Meanwhile, their children (average age 7; 29 boys, 42 girls) were presented with a felt board depicting a child and were told six stories involving that child: some were neutral (e.g. he sits at a table and reads), others were more distressing (e.g. his dog died). For each story, the children were asked to place a felt character to show where God was located. The children were able to choose from 10 possible felt figures to represent God – most chose a man or a heart.

The children of securely attached mothers tended to place God nearer to the child in both the neutral and distressing stories. By contrast, the children’s placement of God was unrelated to their mother’s religiosity. Cassibba and her colleagues aren’t certain of the mechanism underlying the relationship between mothers’ attachment and children’s sense of God’s closeness, but they think it probably has to do with the mothers’ care-giving style, or possibly a personality style shared with the parent.

The study has a number of short-comings including the fact that the children were locating God’s closeness to a fictional child, not to themselves. Also, we don’t know how specific this is – would they, for instance, have located a child’s teddy bear as nearer? Notwithstanding these issues, the researchers said their finding “is important both for attachment research in developmental psychology and the psychology of religion.”

Somewhat strangely for an article published in a psychology journal, Cassibba and her colleagues ended with the following advice for the pious: “A caregiver who desires his or her children to come to view God as a close relational partner may do well in placing a high priority on the children’s own needs for support and closeness. The caregiver’s implicit teachings about relationships is likely to be far more important than his or her explicit preaching about God.”


Cassibba R, Granqvist P, and Costantini A (2013). Mothers’ attachment security predicts their children’s sense of God’s closeness. Attachment and human development, 15 (1), 51-64 PMID: 23216392

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

7 thoughts on “The children of securely attached mothers think that God is close”

  1. The researchers' own religious views are obvious not only from the closing remarks, but also from the implicit assumption that God is somewhere. I'm reminded of studies – I'm afraid I've forgotten who did them – that challenged the assumption that children would tell you if you were talking nonsense. They asked children questions such as, “Which is bigger, yellow or white?” and young children quite happily answered these, and gave reasonable explanations if asked.

    I'd like to know more about what was going on in the minds of atheist children with securely attached mothers. Perhaps it was something like, “When you say 'God' you mean 'Dad'…”

  2. It is perplexing that a scientific study – to use the term loosely in this case – would posit the existence of God as a given.

  3. It leaves a lot of questions unanswered. For example, did the sample only include kids from backgrounds where religion was a given, or did it include more secular upbringings? But I think, regardless of its faults, it throws up interesting questions about the concept of god, as a feeling of being protected.

  4. Regardless of the real flaws of this study, it does make me think back to my own childhood with a mother with severe anxiety and wonder if that was a part of why it was hard for me to follow in the family's religion. While this study has issues, I think it also brings up interesting ideas about how seemingly unrelated behaviors may affect one another.

    Then again, upon more thought, couldn't this be more generalized to “mothers (or parents?) with anxiety produce children who are less likely to trust” with whoever they will not trust being either other people or a supernatural being? Things to think about!

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