The development of a child involves several aspects of the individual, among them physical, psychological, and social. Part of a child’s psychological and social development is the establishment of interpersonal relationships. One of the common theories of establishing these interpersonal relationships is attachment theory. Attachment theory asserts that infants seek proximity with parents or caregivers, especially in situations where the infant feels unsafe or insecure; the infant anticipates that the caregiver will provide emotional support and/or protection.
However, according to Raby, Steele, Carlson, and Sroufe (2015), there is a question within the theory and pertinent research regarding “the extent to which attachment patterns demonstrate continuity or change across development and across generations” (p. 414). This question formed the foundation for research conducted by Raby et al. (2015) in which they studied intergenerational continuities and changes of attachment patterns in infants of women born into poverty. In essence, the authors studied the infants after they had grown up and had children and those children to assess attachment patterns and any changes in those patterns in a study which spanned several decades.
To study intergeneration continuities and changes in the infants’ attachment patterns and then the children of those infants required a longitudinal approach. The initial group (group one, designated G1 by the researchers) of participants was assessed using the Strange Situation; the participants were between 12 and 18 months at the time of assessment (Raby et al., 2015). This assessment was performed again on the children of G1; this second group was designated G2. The G1 sample was composed of 55 individuals (Raby et al., 2015). The authors utilized the four styles of attachment to describe the infants’ attachment patterns in both groups. The authors studied several different factors which were thought to contribute to these styles. These different dimensions include infant attachment; maternal sensitivity; relationship with an alternate caregiver; child mistreatment; maternal depression; maternal life stress; maternal social support; and adult attachment. Maternal sensitivity was assessed through observation and the Home Observation for Measurement of the Environment (HOME). Child mistreatment was determined using a number of methods including interviews and second-hand reports from individuals like teachers, not to mention medical records and child protection records. Maternal depression was evaluated using two measures, the Beck Depression
Inventory (BDI) and the Center for Epidemiological Studies Depression Scale (CES-D). Maternal life stress was evaluated using the Life Events Scale. Adult attachment was assessed using the Adult Attachment Interview (AAI) when the G1 participants were 19 and 26. In terms of results, changes in infant attachment patterns in both groups were not correlated with the caregiving experiences or interpersonal stresses and supports throughout childhood and adolescence of the individuals. The researchers observed the influence on higher quality social support received during adulthood; intergenerational changes revealed a shift from insecure attachment to secure infant-caregiver attachment. The authors concluded that their results provided evidence for intergenerational continuities with regard to attachment disorganization but not with regard to security. Furthermore, children (that is, G2) whose mothers (that is, G1) had histories of infant attachment disorganization were far more likely to likewise experience disorganized attachments (Raby et al., 2015).
This was a particularly intriguing article. Some of the research I have read has been longitudinal, but nothing has been longitudinal quite like this. This study literally lasted decades and studied not one but two generations of individuals to first see how the infants developed and then how their development influenced the development of their children. This seems like the kind of research that prompts discussions in the popular media regarding “nature versus nurture.” While the previous statement may sound disparaging, it is not meant to be disparaging. There is something to be said for how an individual’s development may influence the development of their children. It seems clear from Raby et al.’s (2015) research that the experiences of the mothers definitely impacted the experiences of their children, both negatively and positively. The researchers point out that those adults who received higher quality social support had children who showed more positive attachment behaviors than their peers whose mothers did not. But those mothers who did not receive that social support had children who experienced the same maladaptive attachment reactions that their mothers experienced.
The article was intriguing and clearly contributed to addressing the question regarding intergenerational changes and continuities in attachment patterns. From an intellectual point of view, this study is very important and sets the stage for additional research. The results are enlightening; the fact that the researchers used several different measures to assess several different aspects helps to clarify how attachments can change and how caregivers influence the development of children. However, personally, the study was also heartbreaking to read.
I sometimes wonder if parents really realize how their own childhoods influence their parenting styles. Those children whose mothers had higher equality social support as adults fared better than their peers whose mothers did not. That means that there are children whose ability to form secure attachments to their caregivers will likely suffer; this in turn puts those children at risk as adults. They may struggle to form secure attachments. They are likely to form disorganized attachments. This means that their children (a group that might be designated G3, were they to be studied as well by the researchers) are at risk for insecure and disorganized attachments as infants and then likely as adults. It seems likely that these patterns will persist in those families.