Socioemotional Risks in Early Childhood Research Paper

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Socioemotional development in early childhood pertains broadly to the quality of children’s evolving participation in relationships, with the parent–child relationship serving as a primary focus in early childhood. Socioemotional development takes into account normative achievements in emotional and cognitive developmental domains, and parental and child characteristics that contribute to individual differences in the quality of children’s emotional functioning and social behavior. This research paper is concerned with individual differences in the quality of young children’s socioemotional functioning, and selected risks to such functioning from the vantage point of attachment theory and research. Indeed, security of attachment represents a central means of conceptualizing and assessing socioemotional functioning in early childhood.

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1. Quality Of Attachment And Socioemotional Functioning

The reader is referred to Attachment Theory: Psychological for detailed treatment of the emergence of attachment theory and description of attachment classifications in infancy. Mary Ainsworth’s (Ainsworth et al. 1978) identification of the three basic attachment patterns in infancy (secure: group B; insecure-avoidant: group A; and insecure-ambivalent: group C), and Main and Solomon’s (1986) addition of the insecure-disorganized disoriented category (group D), significantly revolutionized thinking about the roots of socioemotional functioning in childhood. Whereas sensitive parental care has been found to predict group B classifications, rejecting, intrusive caregiving has been linked to group A classifications, and inconsistent and/or noncontingent caregiving has been predictive of group C attachments (Cassidy and Berlin 1994, Main 1981). Group D attachments have been linked to highly pathological caregiving such as child abuse and other forms of severe parental inadequacy resulting from parental psychopathology or drug and alcohol abuse (Solomon and George 1999). Among the insecure attachment groups, group D may represent the most insecure and the most at risk for the development of serious behavior problems in later childhood. In low-risk samples, 60–65 percent of infants are typically classified as secure, 15–20 percent as insecure-avoidant, 10 percent as insecure ambivalent, and 10–15 as insecure-disorganized.

2. Quality Of Attachment And Later Relationships

Central to attachment theory is the development of internal working models of relationships, which emerge with the advent of more sophisticated cognitive and memory capabilities as children move from sensorimotor to representational modes of functioning. Internal working models are believed to exert a powerful organizational influence on the manner in which information from the social environment is processed and interpreted, and on one’s behavior toward attachment figures and peers. Significant predictive relations are thus expected between quality of attachment in infancy and the quality of children’s subsequent relationships with peers. Secure children, who are likely to experience a history of caregiving empathy, warmth, and sensitivity, should be more likely to manifest such characteristics in interactions with peers and adults than children experiencing a history of caregiver rejection or inconsistency. Further, because of their history with a sensitive, responsive caregiver, secure children will be more likely than insecure children to organize their behavior around caregivers, and to enter into positive, cooperative relationships with them. Indeed, children classified as secure in infancy have later been found as toddlers and preschoolers to be more empathic and socially competent with peers, more compliant and cooperative with mothers, and more sociable with unfamiliar adults than children classified in infancy as insecure. Among the four Ainsworth–Main infancy classifications, the insecure-disorganized category appears to be particularly associated with more severe relationship disturbances in older children. Children classified as disorganized in infancy have been found to show heightened levels of disruptive behavior toward peers, and role-reversing, controlling behavior toward caregivers at age six. These findings are consistent with work finding disorganization in infancy to be linked with significant caregiving pathology. The extent to which early attachment security can predict the quality of later relationships with parents and peers is likely to depend on the stability of parental care over time (Lamb et al. 1985). Few would argue, however, that early security is inconsequential. Indeed, a basic tenet of attachment theory is that children who enjoy a secure relationship with the primary caregiver are better equipped psychologically to negotiate and resolve subsequent developmental challenges (e.g., establishing a sense of independence and mastery in the preschool years) than children who are insecure.

3. Risks For Insecure Attachment

Given the connection between quality of parenting and security of attachment, it follows that specific threats to the quality of parenting will place young children at risk for insecure attachment and, in turn, for socioemotional difficulties in the wider world. The following section identifies risks as derived from three domains: the parent, the parent’s social-ecological niche, and the child. What follows is by no means an exhaustive list. Indeed, it is reasonable to conclude that any stressor that compromises parents’ ability to provide adequate care places children at socioemotional risk. The following section highlights factors that have been repeatedly identified either theoretically or empirically as threats to attachment security in early childhood.

3.1 Parental Risks

3.1.1 Nonautonomous Working Models Of Attachment. Attachment theory proposes that working models of relationships continue to be revised and updated as older attachment relationships evolve and as individuals develop new attachments over time. The most significant development in the assessment of working models of relationships in adulthood is the Adult Attachment Interview (AAI) (George et al. 1985), a semistructured, autobiographical interview that inquires about adults’ perceptions of their early relationships with mothers, fathers, and other attachment figures. The AAI classification system places great emphasis on the manner in which past and present attachment relationships are described and the overall coherency of the narrative. The AAI yields four attachment groupings—autonomous, dismissing, preoccupied, and unresolved—which are viewed as reflecting one’s current state of mind with respect to attachment, and which map conceptually onto the Ainsworth–Main infancy classifications of secure, insecure-avoidant, insecure-ambivalent, and insecure-disorganized. Autonomous (secure) adults evaluate attachment relationships as meaningful and important, provide convincing supportive evidence for perceptions of their early attachment relationships, and take an open, balanced, and forgiving stance in portrayals of untoward experiences with caregivers, past or present. Dismissing adults tend to idealize their parents, using very positive descriptors to describe their relationships with them without convincing supportive evidence. Lack of memory, or providing accounts of experiences that belie the very positive descriptors given for parents, is characteristic of dismissing adults. Preoccupied adults are actively or (less commonly) passively preoccupied with their attachment figures. Their narratives are entangled, angry accounts of past and present experiences with caregivers, with excessive focus on perceived parental slights and transgressions, and parental character ‘flaws.’ Finally, unresolved adults show conspicuous lapses in the monitoring of reasoning and discourse in discussion about loss or abuse, indicative of significant mental disorganization vis-a-vis these experiences.

In a meta-analysis, Van Ijzendoorn (1995) reported that nonautonomous mothers were less sensitive and supportive in interactions with their young children than autonomous mothers. In this same report, 75 percent of infants had an attachment classification that corresponded with the analogous AAI classification of the mother. Autonomous mothers were likely to have secure infants, dismissing mothers were likely to have insecure-avoidant infants, preoccupied mothers were likely to have insecure-ambivalent infants, and unresolved mothers were likely to have insecure disorganized infants. Thus, autonomous mothers’ ability to respond to infants with sensitivity, dismissing mothers’ proclivities to reject infant bids, preoccupied mothers’ tendencies toward inconsistency, and unresolved mothers’ frightened frightening behavior function to organize infant attachments that are complementary to those of the parent. These findings suggest that parents with nonautonomous working models of attachment may place their children at risk for insecure attachment.

3.1.2 Parental Psychopathology. There is a large literature on the debilitating effects of parental psychopathology on children’s emotional well-being. Most commonly assessed has been maternal depression, probably because it is so widespread among women with small children, and this work consistently demonstrates that children of depressed mothers have elevated rates of internalizing (e.g., depression, anxiety) and externalizing (e.g., oppositional, ‘acting-out’ behavior) symptoms than children of nondepressed controls (Gelfand and Teti 1990).

Depressed mothering has been described as hostile, critical, disengaged, and intrusive, and thus it is not surprising that theoretical explanations for the transmission of psychopathology from depressed parent to child target the depressed parent–child relationship. Indeed, depression in mothers is associated with elevated rates of insecure attachment in infants, particularly when the depression is chronic and moderate to severe. Teti et al. (1995) found that 80 percent of infants of depressed mothers were classified as insecure (with 40 percent insecure-disorganized), compared to only 30 percent (10 percent insecure- disorganized) in the nondepressed group. That high rates of attachment disorganization were found among infants of chronically depressed mothers is consistent with the premise that unpredictable, frightened, or frightening behavior, which has been theoretically linked to disorganization, is more probable among parents with psychiatric disturbance.

3.2 Social-Ecological Risks

3.2.1 Marital Discord. Much has been written about the debilitating impact of marital discord on the socioemotional well-being of young children. High levels of marital stress are associated with reduced parental sensitivity and responsiveness, and with higher rates of insecure attachment. Presumably, marital discord affects attachment security indirectly, via its impact on quality of parenting, although Davies and Cummings’s (1994) emotional security hypothesis proposes that young children’s emotional security with parents is impacted directly by repeated exposure to marital conflict. Recent work has emphasized the importance of distinguishing between marital conflict that is resolved, versus unresolved marital conflict, with the latter being especially problematic for children.

3.2.2 Parental Social Supports. The quality of support parents receive from their broader social networks also relates to quality of parenting, although evidence for a linkage between social support and security of children’s attachment to parents is not as clear as it is for marital quality. Like marital discord, low social support has been associated with unresponsive, insensitive parenting, although its relation to insecure attachment is most clearly discernible in higher-risk samples. For example, Crockenberg (1981), in her study of relations of infant temperament and parental social supports to security of infant–mother attachment, reported an association between low support and insecurity only among temperamentally irritable infants. Social support may function most clearly for parents as a buffer against the ill effects of specific life stressors, such as difficult infant temperament.

3.3 Child Risk: Difficult Temperament

Although there is no universally accepted definition of temperament, most students of temperament would agree that it refers to a set of trait-like predispositions that are genetically based, that present themselves relatively early in infancy, and on the basis of which infants can be reliably distinguished. Typical ‘core’ constructs of temperament include emotionality (e.g., positive vs. negative mood), activity level, reactivity to stimuli, adaptability to changes in routine, and, possibly, sociability. Intuitively, it is reasonable to expect that infants who are negative in mood and highly reactive and unadaptable to new situations would present unwelcome challenges to parents, and in turn to their developing attachment security with the parents, in comparison with infants typically positive in mood, generally adaptable, and low in reactivity. Despite research since 1980, however, the role of infant temperament in the development of infant–parent attachment remains controversial. Temperament-attachment associations are, at best, modest, suggesting that quality of attachment and temperament are not redundant constructs. It is likely that temperamental predispositions do indeed influence the development of attachment security, but indirectly, via a more direct impact on parent–child relations and parental feelings of efficacy. Parents are likely to find difficult infants more challenging and potentially stressful than easier infants, and those parents who can engage successfully with and adapt to difficult infants are theoretically more likely to foster infants’ security than parents who withdraw from or overreact to these difficulties.

4. Attachment Security, Cumulative Risks, And Protective Factors

Studies of the impact of risk factors on development in older children consistently indicate that development is increasingly compromised as the number of risk factors to which a child is exposed increases. Such research, focusing on the socioemotional functioning of young children, is less common. However, Belsky (1996) recently demonstrated such a cumulative relation in a study of attachment security in infancy, which included the risk factors of parental psychological maladjustment, marital discord, difficult infant temperament, low parental social supports, high levels of work and family stress, and low social class. Studies of this kind illustrate the point that development takes place against a backdrop of risks and protective factors, the latter serving to buffer the child against the adverse effects of risks, and that both should be considered together in attempts to predict development. Interestingly, factors that are considered ‘protective’ are frequently at the opposite end of the same spectra as the risk factors (e.g., nondepressed vs. depressed parent, marital harmony vs. marital discord, easy vs. difficult temperament).

5. Future Directions

The specific manner in which risk and protective factors in early childhood interact to impact parenting and early attachment is poorly understood. However, such questions are at the forefront of the field. For example, how might an easy temperament in infancy buffer the negative impact of maternal depression on socioemotional functioning? Do an easy baby’s positive mood, low reactivity, and adaptability elicit less negative (or more positive) parenting from that parent, which, in turn, increases the likelihood of a secure attachment? Alternatively, does easy babies’ generally high adaptability lead them to more adaptable developmental outcomes even in the face of parental inadequacy, within limits? Answering such questions should help to elucidate important mechanisms of influence on development.


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