If a mother has a negative perception of her baby when it’s just one month old, there’s a strong possibility that same baby will have attachment problems as an adult, thirty or forty years later. That’s the claim of a longitudinal study that recommends screening new mothers to see if they have a negative perception of their child, so that any necessary action can be taken to stop the transmission of attachment problems from mother to child.
Elsie Broussard and Jude Cassidy recruited twenty-six adults in the area of Pittsburgh, whose mothers had signed up to a longitudinal study up to forty years earlier. Back then, in the 60s and 70s, the mothers had been asked to rate their one-month-old babies on factors like crying, spitting, sleeping, feeding and predictability, and then do the same for the ‘average baby’. Twelve of the babies were judged to be at risk because their mothers had rated them more negatively than an average baby. Back to the present, and the researchers interviewed the adults using the Adult Attachment Interview, which includes questions about memories of their childhood, their memories of separation and loss and whether they felt affected by their parents’ behaviour. Based on these kinds of questions, the participants were classified as being securely or insecurely attached, the latter classification suggesting that they have ongoing problems forming healthy emotional attachments to other people.
The key finding is that 9 of the 12 adults who, so many years earlier, had been perceived negatively by their mothers were today classified as insecurely attached adults, compared with just 2 of the 14 adults who’d been positively perceived by their mothers. ‘…These findings reflect transmission from one individual’s representational world to that of another,’ the researchers said. In other words, the researchers believe that a mother who views her baby negatively has attachment problems and these problems tend to be passed onto that baby, even affecting his or her attachment style thirty or forty years later.
How could a negative attachment style be transmitted in this way? Apparently, earlier work in Broussard’s lab showed that ‘mothers with a negative perception of their infants had limited awareness of their infant’s states, had difficulties recognising their infant’s signals, and lacked a flexible and effective range of responses.’ Moreover, the researchers surmised, babies with mothers who perceive them negatively may fail to come to see their mother as a secure base and may come to feel ‘rejected and unloved, feelings that may contribute to an insecure state of mind [in adulthood] with respect to attachment.’ Given their results, Broussard and Cassidy suggested more professional support be given to new mothers, especially during the critical early period between hospital discharge and the next contact with medical staff.
As with so many studies that look for effects of parenting on children, this study contains a serious confound that’s barely touched upon by the researchers. The effects that Broussard and Cassidy attribute to parenting and attachment style could well be genetic. We’re not surprised when the children of tall parents grow up to be tall. Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that the children of insecurely attached parents grow up to be insecurely attached themselves.
Broussard, E., & Cassidy, J. (2010). Maternal perception of newborns predicts attachment organization in middle adulthood. Attachment & Human Development, 12 (1), 159-172 DOI: 10.1080/14616730903282464