Research Briefing Paper for Schools, Settings and Services
Meins, E. (2017). Overrated: The predictive power of attachment. The Psychologist, 30 (pp.20-24).
This item originally appeared in the British Psychological Society’s online Research Digest, January 2017.
Summary by Ellice Macro, Assistant Educational Psychologist
Now more than ever, the critical importance of parent–child attachment is being emphasised. The Department for Health explicitly aims to promote secure attachment through the health visiting service and it’s Healthy Child Programme: Pregnancy and the first 5 years of life. Elizabeth Meins argues that attachment is ‘overrated’ in a thought provoking article for The Psychologist online.
There is a strong belief that secure attachment predicts ‘successful’ development in the child. Public Health England’s posters launched earlier this year tell us that ‘a loving, secure and reliable relationship with a parent or carer’ is important in areas ranging from ‘emotional wellbeing’ to ‘brain development’. And this optimal development isn’t merely short-term – we’re told that being securely attached as a baby helps ensure that you’ll form secure attachment relationships decades later when you come to have children of your own. In contrast, insecure attachment is believed to put the child on course for no end of trouble: physical ill health, delinquency, mental illness, substance abuse, poor job prospects, and criminality.
Meins raises the question ‘What possible theoretical grounds would lead you to hypothesise that being insecurely attached as a toddler would lead to all of this bad stuff?’ Meins states that ‘there’s no strong evidence for parent–child attachment in infancy predicting anything much about children’s later development’. Booth-LaForce and Roisman’s definitive 2014 study showed that early attachment doesn’t even predict attachment later in development, let alone all of these other things.
Ainsworth’s study of the strange situation identified children as securely attached or insecurely attached. Meins considers that people become misled by the term ‘insecurely attached’ and confuse it with a lack of attachment. Clearly, having no attachment to anyone is likely to have a negative impact on children’s development. But we’ve known for decades that children fail to form any attachment only under the most extreme conditions of social isolation and deprivation. The landmark meta-analysis by van IJzendoorn and colleagues reported the percentages of children in the four attachment categories for multiple circumstances – maltreatment, maternal mental illness, maternal substance abuse – and in none of these categories were children classified as having no attachment.
Meins also challenges the methodology and sampling of studies into insecure attachment. Studies often combine the three insecure classifications into a single insecure group in statistical analyses to combat problems associated with low numbers in the individual insecure groups, but it is important to underline how fundamentally different children in the insecure groups are from one another. Treating ‘insecurely attached’ children as a homogenous group is therefore problematic.
Laying so much emphasis on attachment isn’t helping anyone. Telling parents that secure attachment in the first two years of life is critically important for their children’s future development is likely to give many parents cause for concern. What if you suffered from mental illness after your baby was born or if your baby was severely ill or in need of special care in the first months and years of their life? Parents are unnecessarily being made to worry that they’ve scuppered their children’s chances before they’re even out of nappies.
Insecure attachment is being pathologised and vilified. It is not abnormal – at least 39 per cent of us are insecurely attached. Different types of attachment simply reflect the kind of individual differences you’d expect to see in any aspect of children’s early development. People are perfectly happy with variation in toddlers’ height, weight and ability to walk and talk, but don’t want variation in attachment relationships. Secure attachment is wrongly being set up as a benchmark for all toddlers to attain. The focus should be on equipping parents with evidence-based information on babies’ development and how best to interact and play with their children as they grow and develop.