Addressing Parent-Child Conflict: Attachment-Based Interventions with Parents

By Kindsvatter, Aaron; Desmond, Kimberly J. | Journal of Counseling and Development : JCD, January 2013 | Go to article overview

Addressing Parent-Child Conflict: Attachment-Based Interventions with Parents


Kindsvatter, Aaron, Desmond, Kimberly J., Journal of Counseling and Development : JCD


Families often present for counseling with concerns pertaining to conflict between parents and their children. It may initially be assumed by parents that parent-child conflict is a manifestation of some internal disturbance or deficit central to the intrapersonal functioning of the child (Bowlby, 1988; Crittenden, Claussen, & Kozlowska, 2007). Many contemporary counseling policies and practices also are inclined toward intrapersonal explanations for the behavior of children in the context of parent-child conflict (Berlin, Zeanah, & Lieberman, 2008; Iwaniec, Larkin, & McSherry, 2007). For example, the provision of a diagnosis such as oppositional defiant disorder (a common diagnosis in cases involving parent-child conflict) describes the behavioral and temperamental symptoms of children while underemphasizing the relational context in which the symptoms manifest themselves.

Counseling interventions that concentrate solely on the child and not on the parent--child relationship as a whole are problematical in that parent-child relational patterns often play a significant role in the maintenance of parent--child conflict (Berlin et al., 2008; Bowlby, 1988; DeKlyen & Greenberg, 2008; Hughes, 2007; Moran, Diamond, & Diamond, 2005). Thus, an exclusive therapeutic focus on the symptomatology of a child or an adolescent in cases involving parent-child conflict is unlikely to yield results, because such a focus would fail to address a significant contributor to the underlying problem. Attachment theory provides a lens through which parent--child conflict can be conceptualized. From an attachment perspective, parent-child conflict is attributable to the unmet attachment needs of both children and parents and to the resulting problematic patterns of attachment in parent-child relationships (Hautamaki, Hautamaki, Neuvonen, & Maliniemi-Piispanen, 2010).

* Empirical Support for the Application of Attachment Theory in Parent-Child Conflict

There is now significant research supporting Bowlby's (1988) assertions that children's early relational experiences have an effect on later development (Berlin et al., 2008; DeKlyen & Greenberg, 2008; Kenny, 1995; Shonkoff & Phillips, 2000; Stoufe, Egeland, Carlson, & Collins, 2005), which emphasizes the relevance of attachment as a construct to be considered in the context of family counseling.

Some of the first empirical evidence pertaining to attachment and, more specifically, to the link between parental and child attachment behaviors emerged from research conducted by Ainsworth, Blehar, Waters, and Wall (1978), who studied infant/ parent behaviors in response to a brief separation and subsequent reunion in the context of an anxiety-provoking situation (i.e., the Strange Situation). Secure organization in infants was found to be associated with maternal sensitivity to infant need, while insecure forms of attachment (i.e., avoidant and resistant/ambivalent) were found to be associated with maternal rejection and the unpredictability of nurturing responses. In related research, Main, Kaplan, and Cassidy (1985) found a strong link (r = .62) between the attachment organization of infants and their parents. Similarly, Fonagy, Steele, and Steele (1991) found that maternal attachment representations predicted infant attachment style in 75% of cases.

The findings of the aforementioned research have since been duplicated in numerous studies (Fonagy, Gergely, Jurist, & Target, 2002; Fonagy, Steele, Steele, Moran, & Higgit, 1991; Grienenberger, Kelly, & Slade, 2005; Slade, Grienenberger, Bernbach, Levy, & Locker, 2005). Thus, there is a clear indication in the literature that there is an association between adult attachment security and parental ability to intuit and respond to the attachment needs of children. Furthermore, the literature suggests that there is an association between parental sensitivity to the needs of children and the development of attachment security in children. …

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