A study of low-income mothers showed that those with more attachment anxiety (i.e., mothers feeling unworthy of being loved) tended to show more unsupportive reactions to their children’s distress and to attribute child’s distress (e.g., crying) to the negative qualities of the child. The study was published in the Journal of Child and Family Studies.
The manner in which parents respond to their children’s negative emotions is an important aspect of child-parent interaction. It provides a valuable opportunity for the child to learn which emotions are acceptable, how to deal with their own emotions and emotions of others, and how to understand and regulate difficult emotions. This reaction of parents is called “parental response to distress.”
Previous studies have shown how parental response to distress affects numerous aspects of child development. Notably, it was shown that children whose parents show unsupportive responses to distress have higher risks for developing mental disorders and behavior problems. These unsupportive parental responses to distress involve actions that aim at minimizing the display of emotions (by the child), punishing the child for showing distress through scolding and shaming, and parents displaying their own distress, such as feelings of discomfort, embarrassment or anger.
Attachment styles — characteristic ways people relate to others in the context of intimate relationships — influence how a person will behave as a parent. Attachment styles reflect how individuals process their own sadness or other negative emotions. They can thus be expected to affect how individuals will respond to the negative emotions of their children. Individuals with so-called insecure attachment styles tend to see others as ill-intentioned and rejecting.
Study author Jacquelyn T. Gross and her colleagues hypothesized that parents with insecure attachment style may tend to show more unsupportive responses to their children’s distress. They conducted a study aiming to investigate the possible link between mothers’ attachment insecurity and their unsupportive responses to child distress.
The study participants were 164 “urban, predominantly African American mothers from low-income communities with preschoolers attending Head Start programs.” The researchers reasoned that “the stressors associated with low-income place parents at increased risk for insecure attachment style and insensitive parenting, which in turn may increase their children’s risk for poor developmental outcomes, such as insecure attachment and emotion dysregulation”.
Participants were divided into two groups. One group attended weekly meetings for 10 weeks, while the other group was on a waitlist for these intervention meetings. These interventions were a part of another study. After the start of this study, participants completed assessments of attachment styles (the Experiences in Close Relationships Scale) and unsupportive responses to child distress (the Coping with Toddlers Negative Emotions Scale).
Six months later, participants again completed the same assessments, but also went through a laboratory assessment procedure developed by study authors. In this procedure, researchers showed mothers 1-min video clips of different crying infants and asked them to rate their own emotions after viewing the clip and to state their opinions on why the infant was crying. Based on this, researchers assessed mothers’ negative and positive emotions and attributions (reasons why the child was crying).
Based on the data collected, the researchers created and tested a statistical model of relations between various factors included in the study. Results showed that greater attachment anxiety (an aspect of insecure attachment) at the beginning of the study predicted more negative emotions towards child’s distress and negative attributions of the reasons for distress 6 months later. This then predicted more unsupportive responses to child distress.
“Structural equation modeling showed that mothers’ attachment anxiety prospectively predicted more unsupportive responses to children’s negative emotions 4–6 months later, and that mothers’ negative emotions and attributions regarding child distress explained this link,” the study authors concluded.
The study contributes to our knowledge of links between individual attachment styles and parenting. However, it also has limitations that need to be taken into account. Namely, the data came from a study that involved an intervention aimed at parenting. It is possible that this intervention affected the results, but it was not included in the analyses.
Additionally, certain aspects of the study design limit the strength of any cause-and-effect conclusions. The possibility that influences between studied factors work in both directions cannot be excluded.
The study, “Mothers’ Attachment Style Predicts Response to Child Distress: The Role of Maternal Emotions and Attributions”, was authored by Jacquelyn T. Gross, Jessica A. Stern, Bonnie E. Brett, Megan H. Fitter, Jude Cassidy.