Positive and Negative Emotions and Coping as Mediators of Mother-Child Attachment and Peer Relationships

By Abraham, Michelle M.; Kerns, Kathryn A. | Merrill-Palmer Quarterly, October 2013 | Go to article overview

Positive and Negative Emotions and Coping as Mediators of Mother-Child Attachment and Peer Relationships


Abraham, Michelle M., Kerns, Kathryn A., Merrill-Palmer Quarterly


This study examined whether emotions and coping explain (mediate) the association between mother-child attachmentand peer relationships. Attachment, positive and negative emotion experience, coping, and peer relationships were examined in 106 fourth-grade through sixth-grade girls attending a 6-day residential camp. Attachment, experience of positive and negative emotions, and coping were measured prior to camp with questionnaires completed by girls and their mothers. Girls reported the quality of their best friendship at camp, and camp counselors rated girls' peer competence. Girls who perceived a more secure attachment to mother reported experiencing more positive and less negative emotions, were reported by mothers to use more social-support coping, reported more positive qualities in camp best friendships, and were rated by counselors as having enhanced peer relationships at camp. Further, the experience of positive emotions, problem-solving coping, and social-support coping mediated the links between attachment and peer relationships.

Children form close relationships with both family members and peers. An important insight from research is that the quality of children's relationships with parents and peers is interrelated (Cassidy, Kirsch, Scolton, & Parke, 1996; Kerns, Contreras, & Neal-Barnett, 2000). One theoretical perspective-attachment theory-proposes that the availability of a secure base in the attachment relationship with parents may promote exploration of the peer world (Kerns, 1996; Shulman, Elicker, & Sroufe, 1994). In addition, within the context of the parent-child attachment relationship, children develop a set of expectations, motivations, emotions, and behaviors regarding close relationships they may draw on in their relationships with peers (Kerns, 1996; Sroufe, Carlson, Levy, & Egeland, 1999).

Although support for a link between attachment and peer relationships is established (Booth-LaForce & Kerns, 2008; Schneider, Atkinson, & Tardif, 2001), there is less agreement and evidence for how to explain these effects. Emotion competencies may be one mediating mechanism (Kerns, Abraham, Schlegelmilch, & Morgan, 2007). In the context of parent-child attachment, children learn to understand their own emotions (Scharf, 2000), how to predict others' emotional responses (Kobak, 1999), and also how and when to express and regulate emotion to achieve a desired goal (Cassidy, 1994; Contreras & Kerns, 2000). The expression and regulation of emotions are also important for children's success in peer relationships (Eisenberg & Zhou, 2001; Hubbard & Coie, 1994; Parker & Gottman, 1989; Suveg, Jacob, & Payne, 2010). This study tested both the experience of emotion and coping as possible mediators of the link between mother-child attachment and children's relationships with peers in middle childhood.

Attachment: Associations With Experienced Emotion and Coping

According to attachment theory, children organize their behavior so they can use their attachment figures as a secure base (Bowlby, 1979). In early childhood, children use a variety of attachment behaviors, including clinging, following, and smiling, to maintain proximity and contact with attachment figures in times of happiness and distress (Sroufe & Waters, 1977). Children also use the contact in the attachment relationship to develop internal working models of social interaction (Bowlby, 1979; Bretherton & Munholland, 2008) that they then apply in social relationships in general (Sroufe & Fleeson, 1986) and with peers in particular (Kerns, 1996; Sroufe, Schork, Motti, Lawroski, & LaFreniere, 1984). Thus, attachment relationships influence multiple areas of development. For example, research demonstrates a relationship between secure parent-child attachment and both increased peer competence- conceptualized as sociability and leadership-and friendship quality (Booth-LaForce & Kerns, 2008; Schneider et al. …

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