Adult Attachment & Parenting
Attachment does not end in childhood. Attachment impacts how you have relationships the rest of your life. When you are small child, your primary attachments are to your caregivers. As you age, this attachment is transferred a bit to your friends and then when old enough, romantic partners. This can be seen when an 8 y.o. girl comes home crying and is so very upset because her best friend said something mean to her! She feels devastated because this relationship now MEANS more to her due to attachment. This can also been seen with adolescents or adults in their intimate relationships….and the spirit of these attachments are aptly capture by frequently heard tropes such as “He married a girl just like his mother!”
The dark side of relationships are often a reflection of childhood attachment (as well as trauma). A women who continually involve herself in relationships where a man physical and/or emotionally abuses her, is often repeating dysfunctional relationships from her childhood. It is also interesting to think about the internal working model such a woman might have about herself and those she attaches to.
Adult attachment theory came about through the work of Mary Main (student of Mary Ainsworth) and her colleagues. With the publication of their study titled “Security in Infancy, Childhood, and Adulthood: A Move to the Level of Representations”, these researchers connected childhood security to adult states of mind (Kaplan, Cassidy, Main, Kaplan, & Cassidy, 1985). Their work relied on the development of the Adult Attachment Interview (AAI; George, Kaplan, & Main, 1985). This interview involves asking parents to describe childhood experiences as related to the caregiving they received. The researchers were able to take the transcribed responses and place them in one of three adult attachment classifications that correlated to the different classifications of the Ainsworth Strange Situation attachment protocol. Their research showed a significant correspondence between a child’s attachment classification and the parent’s AAI status. Since then, these findings have been well replicated. This research has been significant in helping to elucidate the intergenerational transmission of attachment patterns.
One of the most important such studies was called the “London Parent-Child Study” (Fonagy, Steele, Steele, Moran, & Higgitt, 1991). This work was a collaboration between The Anna Freud Centre and University College London, and one goal was to find out whether parent’s adult attachment classifications would be predictive of their child’s attachment to them at one year and again at 18 months. Their research involved the collecting and analyzing of 200 parent prenatal Adult Attachment Interviews, which were compared with a number of outcome measures including child attachment. This study was quite fascinating as it involved pregnant mothers, who were given this AAI and then given an analogous attachment label similar to “secure”, “insecure” etc.. just like babies get. Then, they would follow the mothers and measure their babies at 12 months etc. They found that if a mother was given an “insecure” rating while pregnant, this actually PREDICTED that her baby would be scored as “insecure” at 12 months, 18 months….and then if you followed that child to 18 years…that child had a higher chance of having substance abuse or mental health issues! The reverse was also true in that secure parents had secure babies, but those children had much better outcomes at 18 years old. Let this study sink in….that even before a baby is born, you can almost predict how well they will do in life by an interview with the parent!! What does this tell you about attachment?
Another important aspect of these studies was that researchers wanted to discover the key element that made a “secure” parent transmit this security to their infant. This team found a clear connection between Reflective Functioning/Mentalization and attachment. For instance, parents who had high reflective functioning on their AAI also tended to be classified as secure and were highly likely to have children who were rated as having secure attachment at 12 months (Fonagy et al., 1995).
IMPORTANT NOTE: Just because a parent might have had less than an ideal childhood, and perhaps didn’t have the most secure attachment with their own parents, that this does NOT determine their result on the AAI! It’s not WHAT happened to you in the past that determines this, it’s whether or not you processed what happened and can talk about it an emotionally regulated way. Many parents who have had a difficult past, but have worked through it and have come to some sort of peace about it, can obtained an “earned secure” status on the AAI.**