Attachment in the early years
Attachment in the early years

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Attachment in the early years

1 Introduction to attachment

The following audio is an interview between Professor Elizabeth Meins, from the University of York psychology department and John Oates of The Open University. Professor Meins’s research focuses on caregiver ‘mind-mindedness’ and its role in predicting children’s development and social cognition.

The audio will help to give you an overview of the topic of attachment in young children and will highlight some of the key themes. It is important to listen to this before continuing with this course.

Figure 1 Professor Elizabeth Meins
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Skip transcript: Attachment in the early years: Elizabeth Meins

Transcript: Attachment in the early years: Elizabeth Meins

[MUSIC]

Elizabeth Meins
I’m Professor Elizabeth Meins. I’m at the Department of Psychology at the University of York and I’m also an Economic and Social Research Council Professorial Fellow.
John Oates
And what’s your main area of research interest?
Elizabeth Meins
I’m interested in how early infant–mother interaction – and particularly a mothers' ability to tune into what their babies are thinking and feeling – predicts children’s subsequent development
John Oates
And what methods do you use to investigate this?
Elizabeth Meins
We use lots of different methods. To study early infant–mother interaction, we use observations, so we typically invite the mum and the baby into the developmental laboratory, which is essentially just a big playroom and we film the interaction and then we watch back the footage later on and pull out and code particular kinds of behaviours we’re interested in. We also do interviews, both with parents and also with children sometimes.
Obviously we can an awful lot of information for– from parents by giving them questionnaires to asses various aspects of all– their own psychological wellbeing but also their children’s development. And with kids themselves we give them lots of games and tasks that are designed to assess particular aspects of their social or cognitive or emotional development.
John Oates
What are the main questions that you’re addressing through this research?
Elizabeth Meins
Well we’re interested in whether or not the ability to tune into your baby in that first year of life can help the child’s subsequent development. So we’re interested in looking both at positive outcomes, but also whether or not tuning into your baby can actually protect your child against things like behavioural difficulties in the preschool and early school years. So we typically do longitudinal studies where, where we start in the first year of life and follow the children and families up over several years, if not decades. As was the case in our most recent study.
John Oates
Now attachment is generally seen as a really important outcome of the very earliest months of life. Would you say that research is still supporting that idea?
Elizabeth Meins
Yes, on the whole, and actually I think attachment as an outcome variable itself is very important. So in our work we’re interested in how this early attunement predicts attachment security. But I think we’re beginning to realise now that the idea that attachment predicts pretty much every aspect of the child’s development is certainly wrong and the evidence is not there to suggest that knowing the child’s attachment status at age one will enable you to work out that child’s developmental trajectory. So I think it’s more complex than might have been originally thought.
John Oates
So it’s often thought that secure attachment has all sorts of positive benefits; it’s ‘a good thing’. Would you say that these findings you’ve just been talking about actually undercut that idea?
Elizabeth Meins
Yes and the problem is that attachment is notoriously unstable over time. So even over a relatively short periods, such as six months, fewer than half of the children stay the same attachment category. Similarly, if you look from age 15 months to 36 months as they did in the big NICHD study in the States, again, fewer than half of the children stay stable. So obviously that’s complicated in that if you assess attachment at time one and then don’t assess attachment again and yet follow the child up it’s very difficult to know how to interpret those findings.
So unless we take multiple measures of attachment over time, as well as the other outcome variables, we can’t really understand how early attachment security does relate both to later attachment and to whatever developmental outcomes we’re interested in.
John Oates
Is what you’re saying, that attachment still is important in relation to other areas of development?
Elizabeth Meins
It depends what areas. So certainly I think now the idea that attachment predicts cognitive development isn’t well founded. It may be more important in predicting aspects of emotional development or the child’s behavioural integration, but really I think this notion that secure attachment will set that child on a good development course, has to be questioned.
John Oates
So what do you think are the practical applications of this?
Elizabeth Meins
Well obviously we’re interested because we find that this attunement is important for children’s development. We’re interested in helping facilitate parents become more attuned to their children. So we’re developing an intervention package that we’re going to use in a study with teenage mums, which is going to be delivered via a smartphone app, so the app will be a kind of user-friendly way of teaching them about their baby’s psychological development and give them fun activities to help them engage with what their babies are thinking and feeling.
And we’ve also been working with clinical psychologists around the country who are helping mothers hospitalised for a range of severe mental illnesses to help them learn more about what’s going on inside their child’s head, in order to facilitate better quality interactions and hopefully help the mothers recover more quickly too.
John Oates
So what would you say have been the most important recent advances in this field?
Elizabeth Meins
In our work on maternal mind-mindedness, so this is mothers' attunement to their babies' thoughts and feelings, we’ve been looking at both attuned comments but also non-attuned comments. We originally thought that these might be two poles of the same dimension, just as insensitivity is the opposite of sensitivity, but we’ve been finding that they seem to be unrelated.
So, in other words, mothers’ tendency to comment appropriately on their babies’ thoughts and feelings doesn’t relate to their tendency to make these misattributions and non-attuned comments. So this suggests that they might be slightly different facets of this ability to tune into your baby. And in the follow-up work, we’ve actually found that these non-attuned comments seem to be more important in predicting attachment security than the attuned comments, so they account for more of the variance in attachment security.
So maybe not misreading your baby’s internal state is more important than reading your baby’s internal states and they both seem to make independent contributions to attachment security.
John Oates
So just to clarify then it’s the higher the proportion of non-attuned comments, the less likely is it that the child will have a secure attachment classification?
Elizabeth Meins
Absolutely and interestingly mothers who have babies who are insecure-resistant, tend to do much higher levels of these non-attuned comments, so they seem to be, kind of, much more varied. So they score reasonably highly on attuned comments, but they do very many more of these non-attuned comments, so it would be things saying the baby was bored with a toy if they were still actively engaged with the toy, or, you know, saying the child didn’t want something when clearly they did. So this kind of misattribution of what’s going on for the baby.
John Oates
Excellent. Thank you, that’s great.

[MUSIC]

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Human beings are social animals; the ‘ties that bind us’ together are at the centre of our shared lives. From the moment of birth, attachment relationships are crucial to our survival and well-being. Research into attachment – what it is, how it develops and its role in our adult relationships – is one of the most active areas of research in psychology.

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