The Broader Ecology Of Attachment Security

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Through this point I have considered what might be referred to as "classical" determinants of attachment security, namely those considered in most developmental theorizing about the origins of secure and insecure attachment (Belsky, Rosenberger, & Crnic, 1995a). But an ecological perspective on human development, one that underscores the fact that the parent-child dyad is embedded in a family system (Belsky, 1981), which is itself embedded in a community, cultural, and even historical context (Bronfenbrenner, 1979), suggests that if one wants to account for why some infants develop secure and others insecure attachments to mother, father, or even child-care worker, then there is a need to look beyond the "proximate" determinants of mothering and temperament.

Toward this end, we undertook a series of inquires using data collected as part of our longitudinal studies based upon a contextual model of the determinants of parenting that I advanced more than a decade ago which highlights the role of parent, child, and social-contextual factors in shaping the parent-child relationship (Belsky, 1984; see Figure 3.4). As should be apparent from Figure 3.4, the model presumes that parenting and thus the parent-child relationship is multiply determined and that the contextual factors of work, social support, and marriage can affect parenting both directly and indirectly (through personality). Not explicit in the figure, however, but central to the conceptualization

Belsky Process Model 1984
Figure 3.4 Determinants of parenting: A process model. Adapted from Belsky (1984).

on which the model is based, is the notion that parenting, and thus the parent-child relationship, is a well buffered system. This means that threats to its integrity stemming from limitations or vulnerabilities in any single source of influence (e.g., work) are likely to be compensated for by resources that derive from other sources of influence (e.g., marriage). Thus, parenting and the parent-child relationship are most likely to be adversely affected when multiple vulnerabilities exist (e.g., difficult temperament plus conflicted marriage) that accumulate and undermine the effectiveness of other sources of influence in promoting parental functioning. It is just such thinking that led us to examine the cumulative impact of multiple determinants of parenting in affecting attachment security, not just the impact of one or another source of influence.

In the first work of this kind that we carried out using data collected as part of our first longitudinal investigation, linkages were examined between attachment security measured at 1 year and (a) mother's own childrearing history reported during the prenatal period; (b) mother's personality assessed using questionnaires at the same point in time; (c) change in mother-reported infant temperament between 3 and 9 months (and already discussed above); (d) change in marital quality between the last trimester of pregnancy and 9 months postpartum (based upon self-reports obtained at both measurement occasions); and (e) prenatal reports by mothers of the friendliness and helpfulness of neighbors (i.e., social support). Results from univariate analyses revealed that mothers of secure infants scored higher than those of insecure infants on a personality measure of interpersonal affection, whereas mothers of avoidant infants scored lowest on a measure of ego strength; that the (mother-reported) temperaments of secure infants became, as indicated earlier, more predictable and adaptable over time, whereas the reverse was true of insecure infants; that insecure infants were living in families in which marriages were deteriorating in quality more precipitously than were secure infants; and that the neighbors of secure infants were perceived as more friendly and helpful than those of insecure infants (Belsky & Isabella, 1988). More important than these univariate findings, however, was evidence that emerged when maternal, infant, and contextual stressors and supports were considered collectively: The more that the family ecology could be described as well resourced (i.e., positive maternal personality, positive change in infant temperament, less marital deterioration), the more likely the child was to develop a secure attachment to mother.

This work was extended using data from our fourth longitudinal study, this one of a sample consisting exclusively of 125 firstborn sons whose families were enrolled when they were 10 months of age (rather than prenatally as in the first three investigations). These subjects were recruited from the same locale as those participating in the first three longitudinal investigations, though we relied upon birth announcements published in the local newspaper rather than names provided by local obstetricians to identify potential participants. Because of our interest in the multiple determinants of parent-child relations, extensive data were collected on a variety of sources of influence. At enrollment when infants were 10 months of age, mothers and fathers completed questionnaire-based personality assessments and self-reports pertaining to the social support available to them and their satisfaction with it, and whether work and family life interfered with each other or were mutually supportive. At 12 and 13 months, infants were seen in the laboratory to assess infant-mother and infant-father attachment, respectively. Following administration of the Strange Situation, parent and infant engaged in a short period of free play (in a separate lab room) and a number of procedures were implemented to evoke positive and negative emotions. For example, an experimenter tried to make the child laugh and smile using hand puppets; and the parent was directed to frustrate the child by taking a toy away from him while he was in a high chair. Videos of infant behavior following the Strange Situation were rated in terms of the extent to which the child expressed positive and negative emotion every 10 seconds; these ratings were then factor analyzed and combined with parent-report measures of temperament obtained at age 10 months in order to create composite indices of positive and negative emotionality.

Using these data, we again found that it is the cumulative vulnerabilities and resources of infants, parents and families that afford the best prediction of both infant-mother and infant-father attachment security, rather than any single variable or factor (Belsky, Rosenberger, & Crnic, 1995b; Belsky, 1996). Figure 3.5 depicts results pertaining to the cumulative effect of infant, parent and social-contextual factors in shaping infant-father attachment security (Belsky, 1996). In this research, three personality measures were composited (extraversion - neuroticism + agreeableness), as were two measures of infant temperament/emotionality (positivity-negativity), and four social-context measures ([social support satisfaction + number of people to provide support] + [work-family support-interference]). The measures derived from compositing each of these three sets of variables (i.e., personality, infant temperament, social context) were then split at its median; a high score on each composite measure was given a value of 1 to reflect conditions considered favorable for the development of a secure infant-father relationship, and a low score was given a value of 0 to reflect conditions presumed less conducive to the development of a secure relationship. These new values were then summed across sets of variables (i.e., parent, infant, social context), resulting in individual family scores ranging from a value of 0-3. As is apparent in the figure, the greater the family resources (i.e., cumulative resource score of 3), the more likely the infant-father relationship was classified as secure on the basis of the infant's behavior with father in the Strange Situation (Belsky, 1996). Similar results emerged in the case of the infant-mother attachment relationship (Belsky et al., 1995b).

Number of Antecedent Domains Above the Median

Figure 3.5 Probability of son-father attachment security as a function of cumulative resources (0 = low, 3 = high).

Number of Antecedent Domains Above the Median

Figure 3.5 Probability of son-father attachment security as a function of cumulative resources (0 = low, 3 = high).

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  • Sara Bergamaschi
    What is belsky's process model of determinants of parenting?
    7 years ago

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