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Sensitive Parental Care In Childhood Predicts Better Relationships In Adulthood

We’ve written a few articles on the effect of attachment style on adult relationships (see here for a primer on attachment and here for all attachment articles). To recap, attachment style represents the ways in which we relate to the people we care about. Some people tend to be open and trusting (secure attachment), some people tend to be more needy and insecure (anxious attachment), and yet others prefer to keep their distance (avoidant attachment). Researchers know that people’s attachment styles can explain a lot about the roots of their behavior in their relationships.1 But where do these attachment styles come from?

The theory postulates that attachment styles form very early in life based on the care our parents provided.2 In other words, early childhood experiences teach us how relationships work, and those lessons get “transferred” to other important relationships – such as friendships and romantic relationships – later in life. This is a provocative part of attachment theory because it suggests that the quality of care a person receives during childhood influences their strategies for navigating close relationships in adulthood. However, until recently, researchers have had only indirect evidence of this path from early childhood care to later attachment styles.

In an impressive study recently published in Social Psychological and Personality Science,3 Zayas and colleagues observed and recorded mothers interacting with their 18-month-old babies in the lab. The researchers then coded mothers’ responsiveness toward their babies. For example, mothers were coded as being highly responsive if they were warm and attentive toward their babies, as opposed to intrusive or inattentive. Twenty years later, the researchers contacted these same children (now young adults) and surveyed them about their close relationships. The researchers found that the individuals who received the most sensitive care from their mothers at 18 months old also reported the most secure attachment to friends and romantic partners in early adulthood.

Overall, Zayas and colleagues’ research provides evidence for what attachment researchers have been suggesting for a long time: parents play a pivotal role in shaping our expectations and tendencies in close relationships, including our adult romantic relationships.

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1Mikulincer, M., & Shaver, P. R. (2007). Attachment in adulthood: Structure, dynamics, and change. New York: Guildford Press.

2Bowlby, J. (1982). Attachment and loss: Vol 1. Attachment (2nd Ed.) New York: Basic Books.

3Zayas, V., Mischel, W., Shoda, Y., & Aber, J. (2011). Roots of adult attachment: Maternal caregiving at 18 months predicts adult peer and partner attachment. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 2, 289-297.

Samantha Joel - Science of Relationships articles
Samantha's research examines how people make decisions about their romantic relationships. For example, what sort of factors do people take into consideration when they try to decide whether to pursue a potential date, invest in a new relationship, or break up with a romantic partner? 

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