The Developmental Sequelae Of Infantmother Attachment Security

In addition to affording an opportunity to evaluate the effects of early child care on infant-mother attachment security, data collected as part of the NICHD Study enabled me to explore individual differences in the future social and cognitive functioning of some 1,000 children studied in the course of investigating the long-term consequences of early child care experience. Drawing upon data gathered when children were 3, I examined two separate issues with respect to the developmental sequelae of early attachment security.

Are the Consequences of Attachment Security Dependent Upon Later Mothering?

Ever since the Minnesota investigators whose work was summarized earlier in this chapter started to chronicle the developmental consequences of attachment security and insecurity, demonstrating that early attachment predicted multiple aspects of later child development, there has been confusion about the developmental process by which early security comes to be related to later child functioning. Although some have mistakenly attributed to students of attachment theory the view that attachment security/insecurity has some automatic or inevitable impact on the course of children's future development (Breur, 1999; Kagan, 1982; Lewis, 1997), attachment theorists have been clear that this represents a fundamental misreading of the theory (Belsky & Cassidy, 1994). Indeed, Sroufe (1983, 1988) has asserted for years that development is a function of early and continuing experiences, such that what happens after infancy (or any other developmental period) can mitigate the otherwise anticipated consequences of experiences earlier in life. In fact, early work by the Minnesota team of investigators showed that the effects of attachment security on later development were, to a large extent, dependent upon the quality of maternal care that children experienced after attachment security was assessed at the end of the first year of life (Erikson, Egeland, & Sroufe, 1985).

Drawing upon this earlier work and theorizing, I set out to test the hypothesis that the developmental benefits of early security would be conditioned by the child's subsequent childrearing experiences, predicting that the most competent 3-year-olds participating in the NICHD Study of Early Child Care would be those who established secure attachments to their mothers by 15 months of age and whose mothers provided sensitive care to them when they were 24 months of age. Children who developed insecure attachments and experienced insensitive care subsequently were expected to function least competently, with all other children falling between these two extreme groups. And this is exactly what was found when data on socioemotional and cognitive-linguistic development gathered at 36 months of age was subjected to empirical assessment (Belsky & Fearon, 2002a). In other words, just as Sroufe (1983, 1988) had long argued, the developmental benefits of early security were dependent upon the continued experience of receiving emotionally supportive care and the developmental costs of insecurity were dependent upon the continued experience of receiving emotionally unsupportive care. Early security or insecurity did not inevitably have any developmental consequence—because development was a continuing process. The developmental sequelae of early attachment security/insecurity were determined, therefore, by whether experiences during the toddler years maintained earlier-established developmental trajectories, trajectories which, importantly, could be deflected by experiences which were inconsistent with earlier attachment security (i.e., insecure infants subsequently receiving sensitive care, secure infants subsequently experiencing insensitive care).

Do the Consequences of Attachment Security Vary by Contextual Risk?

In addition to addressing the question of whether the anticipated effects of early attachment security on later development were dependent upon the quality of maternal care experienced during toddler-hood, I drew upon the data collected as part of the NICHD Study of Early Child Care to see whether the effects of early attachment security varied as a function of the contextual conditions under which children grew up (Belsky & Fearon, 2002b). It seemed likely that the developmental benefits and costs of security/insecurity might vary as a function of whether children grew up under conditions expected to compromise their well being (e.g., low income, maternal depression, single-parent home) rather than under more developmentally supportive circumstances. To address this possibility, we created measures of cumulative contextual risk, classifying children as experiencing low, moderate, high, and very high levels of risk depending upon the circumstances in which they grew up across the first 3 years of life and then examined the extent to which early security (at 15 months) predicted later development (at 36 months) across ecological conditions.

Although we found that secure attachment proved to be a developmental benefit with regard to understanding spoken language (but not more general cognitive development or the ability to express oneself) irrespective of whether a child grew up under conditions of high or low contextual risk, in the case of expressive language and socioemotional outcomes, the predictive power of early attachment security varied as a function of contextual risk. Indeed, the expressive-language findings were consistent with what might be regarded as a simple risk-resilience model of attachment and later development in which security functions as a protective factor: Whereas the expressive language abilities of children with insecure attachment histories systematically declined as contextual risk increased, this was not the case for children with secure attachment histories (see Figure 3.6). Security, therefore, appeared to play a clear protective function when it came to children's ability to use spoken language.

In the case of problem behavior and social competence, it was the insecure-avoidant group that appeared to be most affected by contextual risk, evincing adverse effects of cumulative contextual risk at a level of risk lower than that at which all other attachment groups "succumbed" to contextual risk. In the case of behavior problems, whereas the attachment groups did not differ from each other at low levels of contextual risk (i.e., < 1), and all groups were adversely affected by high levels of risk (i.e., > 3), at moderate levels of risk (i.e., 2 risks) children with insecure-avoidant attachment histories showed the same level of poor functioning that the other attachment groups evinced only at high levels of risk (see Figure 3.7). A similar pattern emerged for social competence, with the avoidant

Parenting Teens Special Report

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