Children’s attachment security, parental secure-base scripts and mother-child/father-child narrative styles – PTDC/PSI/64149/2006 (2007 to 2011)

Reaserch Team:

Manuela Veríssimo (Project Leader)
António Santos
Lígia Monteiro
Filipa Silva
Marília Fernandes


Project's Summary:

Documenting the specific, multiple contributors to children’s socio emotional functioning and learning remains a central goal of social scientists and has important theoretical as well as policy implications. Attachment theory (Bowlby 1973; 1980; 1982; 1988) is a widely used developmental theory that is well-suited for this line of inquiry because it has normative assumptions about the organization of children’s behavior around their caregivers and individual differences assumptions based on the nature and quality of parent child relationships in specific contexts. Perhaps the most compelling and challenging aspect of attachment theory is Bowlby’s (1980, 1982) claim that the nature of caregiver-child attachment relationships has broad and meaningful implications for children’s social and personality development across the life span. According to this organizational-relational perspective, early parent-child relationships are presumed to be the primary foundation for the emergence and fine-tuning of behaviors, interaction strategies, emotional understanding, and beliefs about the self and significant others. In order to link children’s experiences, beliefs and behaviors, Bowlby (1980, 1982; see also Craik,1940) posited an explanatory mechanism termed the "internal working model (IWM)." The IWM is presumed to be a set of affect-laden mental representations, assembled from experiences with caregivers, that contains beliefs/information about secure base relationships, expectations of relationships, and notions of self-worth. It is also presumed to be available in memory (but outside the realm of conscious awareness) to be carried over to influence the structure of social relationships beyond the parent-child relationship (Bretherton & Munholland, 1999; Bretherton, Ridgeway, & Cassidy, 1990). Over the first two years of life, these mental representations are inferred from assessments of children’s secure base behavior and caregiver sensitivity (e.g., behaviors and affect exhibited in the Strange Situation; Ainsworth, 1968; Ainsworth, Blehar, Waters, & Wall, 1978). As children transition to the preschool period, IWMs are thought to move from sensorimotor representations to mental representations that should, in principle, be more directly accessible and assessed (Bretherton, 1990; 1991; 1996).

They are also thought to be hierarchically organized and related to a variety of co-emerging representational and memory systems (Bretherton & Munholland, 1999; Crittenden, 1994). However, documenting the structure and content of developing IWMs and other related representational aspects of the attachment relationship during the preschool period has proven to be a difficult task (Bretherton et al., 1990; Oppenheim & H. Waters, 1995). Recent calls have been made for researchers to measure these representations in more rigorous ways (e.g., Maier, Bernier, Pekrun, Zimmermann, & Grossmann, 2004)) and in cultures that may differ along dimensions relating to social values, child rearing practices/investment, and socialization goals (Rothbaum et al., 2000). These kinds of analyses are critical for documenting the utility of attachment theory as well as for understanding the precise pieces of parent-child relationships that influence children’s social behavior in different contexts. The broad research goals of this study is to obtain data that will contribute to our understanding of the structure, content, and consequences of children’s developing IWMs during the preschool years. In order to achieve this goal we propose to integrate attachment and memory talk research because it provides theoretical explanations for how secure relationships provide a foundation for parents and their children to participate in detailed and embellished conversations about past experiences as well as how this elaborated style of relating may enhance children’s capacities to represent past relational experiences in more detailed and predictable ways. We contend that there are three specific components that need to be considered in order to contribute to our understanding of narrative transfer: the extent to which mothers and fathers are involved in their children’s lives; the quality of the mother- and father-child relationship (i.e., attachment relationship and representations); and characteristics of the child. Data will be collected on the sample of sixty (60) Portuguese parents. Children and their parents will be recruited when the target child is 2.5 to 3 years of age and followed for a second assessment when target children are 3.5 to 4 years of age. These data will include mother and father memory talks with the child ,assessments of parental values and beliefs, degree of mother and father involvement, and quality of mother and father attachment. We hope that the present project will contribute to the ongoing discussion within the attachment research community on understanding the "gap" between adult’s mental representations of attachment and their children’s sensorimotor representations of attachment.


Project’s aims:

What individual and dyadic mechanisms/processes contribute to children’s mental representations of attachment relationships in the preschool period? What is the relational transfer from mother-child -attachment relationships and narrative styles to father relationships? Do secure and insecure children differ in their representations and memories of attachment-related and non attachment-related shared experiences across relationships (i.e., mother, father)? We would like to specifically examine how children’s attachment security to mothers and fathers may influence their representations of relationships, scripted knowledge of secure base behavior, and their expectations regarding relational behaviors in different relational contexts. Addressing these questions necessitates the integration of cultural, socio-emotional, and cognitive approaches to the development of relationships. The present project sates that longitudinal data is needed to document how mother and father narrative styles are internalized, organized, and incorporated into their children’s narrative abilities.

FCT Project

Horários e Contactos

Dias úteis

das 9:30h às 13:30h

+351 21 881 1700/ 77