Academic journal article Canadian Journal of Behavioural Science

Parental Disavowal of Relationship Difficulties Fosters the Development of Insecure Attachment

Academic journal article Canadian Journal of Behavioural Science

Parental Disavowal of Relationship Difficulties Fosters the Development of Insecure Attachment

Article excerpt

A central postulate of attachment theory is that parents' sensitivity to their infants' signals is a primary determinant of the security of their relationship with their child (Ainsworth, Bell, & Stayton, 1971; Ainsworth, Blehar, Waters, & Wall, 1978). Infants who experience their parents' sensitive responsiveness to their emotional needs learn to regularly approach them for regulatory assistance. In addition, a parent's timely and appropriate responsiveness fosters a shared sense of harmony and cooperation within the parent- child relationship. These are central characteristics of attachment security (Ainsworth et al., 1971, 1978; Pederson, Bailey, Tarabulsy, Bento, & Moran, 2014). Meta-analytic findings have affirmed the association between parental sensitivity and attachment security. Although average effect sizes have been modest (r ^ .32, .24, and .27, respectively; Atkinson, Niccols et al., 2000; De Wolff & van IJzendoorn, 1997; Goldsmith, & Alansky, 1987), certain assessment methods have resulted in stronger associations (Atkinson, Paglia, Coolbear, Niccols, Parker et al., 2000). Furthermore, a meta-analysis of interventions aimed at increasing maternal sensitivity provided support for the notion that sensitivity plays a causal role in shaping the development of a secure attachment relationship (Bakermans-Kranenburg, van IJzendoorn, & Juffer, 2003).

Sensitivity is best assessed by observing parental behaviour during parent- child interactions (Mesman & Emmen, 2013); however, Ainsworth additionally incorporated mothers' reports about their infant, and relational processes, in the assessment process. Rather than accepting such reports at face value, she evaluated mothers' interpretations of their infants' needs against her observation-based impressions to assess the apparent accuracy or inaccuracy of mothers' accounts. In her evaluation of interview data, "mothers who were excellent informants...were rated as highly sensitive, in contrast to other mothers who seemed imperceptive to the nuances of infant behaviour" (Bretherton, 1992,p. 764). Thus, the comparison of observation and self-report provided additional information that contributed to her understanding of maternal sensitivity.

Ainsworth attributed certain discrepancies between mothers' and observers' impressions to maternal defensive processes that she saw as barriers to maternal sensitive responsiveness. She described the central attributes of sensitivity as a mother's ability to make herself accessible to the infant, to accept the validity of the child's experience, and to respond promptly and appropriately to the infant's cues in a way that satisfies his or her needs (Ainsworth, Bell, & Stayton, 1974). Sensitivity, then, requires the ability to accurately perceive and comprehend the child's experience, in- cluding emotions associated with attachment needs. Based on her original observations of mother-infant interactions, Ainsworth described how defensive processes could hinder maternal selfawareness and, in turn, this essential perspective taking ability:

The mother's ability to interpret accurately her baby's communications has three main components (a) her awareness...(b)herfreedom from distortion, and (c) her empathy...even a mother who is highly aware and accessible may misinterpret signals because her perception is distorted by projection, denial, or other marked defensive operations. Mothers who have distorted perceptions tend to bias their "reading" of their babies according to their own wishes, moods, and fantasies...Mothers who least distort their perceptions of their babies have some insight as to their own wishes and moods, and thus can more realistically judge the baby's behaviour. Furthermore, they are usually aware of how their own behaviour and moods affect their infant's behaviour (Ainsworth et al., 1974, p. 128).

A variety of defensive processes may thus cause parents to overlook or diminish signs of their child's discomfort or dissatisfaction. …

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