Academic journal article Journal of Marital and Family Therapy

Physical Aggression in the Family and Preschoolers' Use of the Mother as a Secure Base

Academic journal article Journal of Marital and Family Therapy

Physical Aggression in the Family and Preschoolers' Use of the Mother as a Secure Base

Article excerpt

The quality of child-mother attachment relationships is context sensitive. Conflict and aggression in the marital relationship as well as aggressive discipline practices may diminish a child's confidence in her or his mother as a secure base. We investigated whether physical aggression against the mother, exposure of the child to it, and use of aggressive physical discipline practices were related to attachment security. Forty-five preschoolers and their mothers from a nonclinical, middle-class population were studied. Security scores were obtained from observers' descriptions of children's behavior at home. Mothers reported on marital conflict, physical aggression from their spouse, exposure of the child to aggression, and use of physical discipline practices. Findings indicate that marital conflict, physical aggression, exposure of the child, and use of physical discipline are significantly and negatively associated with security. Regression analyses show that physical aggression contributed unique information to the prediction of security, and that physical discipline did not mediate the associations between physical aggression and child security. Clinical implications of the findings presented are discussed.

In recent years, therapists and theorists in the field of marriage and family therapy have found attachment theory to be of great value in clinical settings and in research (e.g., Gottman & de Claire, 1998; Johnson, 1996; Johnson & Greenman, 2006). Perhaps they have discovered such a compatible lens in Bowlby's account, for as a developmental theory it is also a relational one. Bowlby, a clinician, pioneered seeing whole families together and children within the context of family relationships (Bowlby, 1949; Karen, 1994).

Child-parent attachment relationships play a central role in development. Bowlby (1982) and Ainsworth, Blehar, Waters, and Wall (1978) postulated that the quality of a child-mother attachment relationship is derived from the interaction experiences within that dyad. Attachment researchers have also pointed out the importance of taking the systemic context of individuals into account (e.g., Belsky, 1981; Bowlby, 1982, 1988; Davies & Cicchetti, 2004; Davies, Cummings, & Winter, 2004; Hinde & Stevenson-Hinde, 1990; Sroufe & Waters, 1977). Thus, they have hypothesized that child-mother relationships are affected by the larger context in which they take place. Several studies have demonstrated the context sensitivity of infant attachment security. For example, infant security has been found to be related to the quality of maternal caregiving in the home environment (e.g., Ainsworth et al., 1978; De Wolff & van IJzendoorn, 1997; Easterbrooks, Chaudhuri, & Gestsdottir, 2004; Pederson & Moran, 1995; Pederson et al., 1990; Posada, Carbonell, Alzate, & Plata, 2004; Posada et al., 1999).

Further, as the larger context is concerned, both maternal sensitivity and infant attachment security have been found to be significantly associated with family living conditions. Specifically, children in families living under more stressful circumstances, i.e., low socioeconomic status (SES), obtained lower sensitivity and security scores than those obtained by children in middle-class families (De Wolff & van IJzendoorn, 1997; Diener, Nievar, & Wright, 2003; Posada et al., 1999). Other studies have demonstrated that changes in child security are associated with an increase or a decrease of stressful events in family living conditions (Egeland & Farber, 1984; Vaughn, Egeland, Sroufe, & Waters, 1979). It is assumed that the occurrence of stressful events impacts the quality of maternal caregiving behavior, mother-child interactions, and ultimately a child's security if such events become a regular fixture of the child and mother's environment.

For most children, the marital relationship provides part of the immediate context in which the child-mother relationship develops. …

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