If the parent-child relationship starts well, it tends to stay well

Photo: Crystal Hendrix Hirschorn. Creative Commons.

A study has found links between early secure attachment between a 2-year-old and his or her mother or father and the quality of their relationship at the age of 10 and 12. But it’s more complicated than simple cause and effect.

For example, a child who rejects a mother’s (but not a father’s) rules at 2-5½ is more likely to exhibit defiant and delinquent behaviour at 10-12, but only if the mother and child were insecurely attached when the child was 2.

The study provides further evidence that supporting children’s early relationships with their parents is a valuable investment in their future wellbeing.

The researchers, led by Lea Boldt at the University of Iowa in the USA, observed 102 children and their mothers and fathers (separately) 8 times and took measurements: when the child was 2, four times when the child was 2-5½ years old and then when the child was 8, 10 and 12.

Some correlations between earlier and later behaviour were similar for all children, both those securely attached at 2 and those who were not. A child who rejected a parent’s rules at 2-5½ was more likely to have a poor relationship with that parent at 10 and 12, whatever the state of their earlier attachment.

But some correlations were found to exist only if attachment at age 2 was insecure:

  • A child who rejects his or her mother’s rules at 2-5½ is more likely to have a poor relationship with the mother at 8, 10 and 12.
  • A child who refuses to imitate his or her father’s building of a toy at 2-5½ is more likely to have a poor relationship with the father at 8, 10 and 12 and also more likely to display defiant or delinquent behaviour as reported by the father.

Perhaps early attachment sets the scene for future interactions between parent and the child. If things start well, the parent and child have the capacity to work together to overcome conflict. But if not, then perhaps each incident of disobedience and refusal to cooperate adds to a growing atmosphere of frustration and conflict.

Boldt LJ, Kochanska G & Jonas K (2016), Infant Attachment Moderates Paths From Early Negativity to Preadolescent Outcomes for Children and Parents, Child Development