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Attachment in the early years
Attachment in the early years

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4.2 Emotional communication

One aspect of parenting behaviour that appears to be linked to attachment security is the expression of emotion, and emotional responses by both parents and infants.

Research summary 2: Emotional communication and attachment

Goldberg et al. (1994) analysed 30 video recordings of the SST, gathered in a longitudinal study of Canadian children. The recordings were selected to ensure that ten secure, ten insecure-avoidant and ten insecure-ambivalent relationships were included. The three groups were matched for infant gender, age at testing, and parent age, occupation and education. The analysis of the video tapes focused on recording and coding emotional events in the infants’ experience (smiles, whines, cries, etc.), and on mothers’ responses to these events.

First, it was found that insecure-ambivalent infants showed the highest frequencies of emotional events, followed by secure infants, with insecure-avoidant infants showing the fewest. There were also significant differences in the relative proportions of different types of emotional events: secure infants showed roughly equal proportions of positive, neutral and negative events, avoidant infants engaged in few negative events, and ambivalent infants showed high levels of negative emotion.

Taking into account these differing proportions of infants’ emotions, the mothers of secure infants responded most frequently to their infants’ emotions, and to all types of emotional event. Mothers of ambivalent infants responded rather less frequently overall, but a higher proportion of their responses were to negative affect; they rarely responded to positive emotions. Mothers of avoidant infants responded least often, and particularly infrequently to their infants’ negative emotions.

To summarise, secure infants showed a full range of emotions and their mothers responded to all of these; the dyads showed rich, full emotional exchanges. It could be said that the infants were learning that all emotions are ‘valid’ in relationships. The avoidant infants showed few emotions, and were especially muted in showing negative emotions. Their mothers were similarly unresponsive, especially to the very few negative emotions their infants showed. These infants seemed to be learning to suppress emotionality in general, and particularly to suppress negative feelings. The ambivalent infants showed a lot of distress, and their mothers responded especially to these displays. Ambivalent infants seemed to be learning that negative emotions get attention; that these are the ‘valid’ emotions in the relationship.

These results show clearly how mothers’ differential sensitivity to their infants’ emotional communications, and to the positive and negative emotions, can be an important factor leading to infants developing different types of internal working models of relationships. This confirms Ainsworth’s fundamental observations made during her pioneering studies (Ainsworth, 1969) as described earlier.