Child-mother attachment in infancy moderates adolescent reliability ratings


Interpersonal trust is a crucial part of healthy relationships. When we interact with strangers, we quickly assess whether we can trust them. And these important social skills can be shaped by our first relationship with caregivers.

Teens who had a tenuous attachment to their mothers as toddlers are more likely to overestimate the reliability of strangers, according to a new study from the University of Illinois.

The idea is to understand whether early attachment relationships with mothers have a longitudinal and predictive association with how adolescents process cues related to reliability, both behaviorally and brain-wise.

Xiaomei Li, PhD student, Department of Human Development and Family Studies (HDFS), U of I and senior author of the paper

The project is based on data from the Children’s Social Development Project, a longitudinal study conducted under the direction of Nancy McElwain, HDFS professor and co-author of the article.

During the first round of data collection, 128 toddlers and their mothers participated in a lab visit where researchers observed their interactions and assessed their attachment style.

Ten years later, when the children were in their early teens, they were invited back for a second cycle of study. This time, the researchers wanted to observe how teenagers rated the trustworthiness of strangers.

Placed under an MRI scanner, the teenagers viewed images of faces and were asked to rate the reliability of each face on a scale of 1 to 5. Simultaneously, the MRI scanner measured their brain activity. When assessing reliability, teens had to consider how likely they would approach the person for help or instructions if they were alone in an unfamiliar city.

The images were selected from an established database of photos of actors posing with emotionally neutral faces. The faces show varying degrees of reliability, determined and validated by previous studies conducted with independent observers who rated the reliability of each face based on their first impressions and intuitions.

Both securely and insecurely attached children agreed to rate “high reliability” faces, but children who were insecurely attached as toddlers were less likely to rate “low reliability” faces. reliability” as such. Their brain scans also showed less activity in brain regions associated with emotional processing when viewing unreliable faces.

“Adolescents who had a history of secure attachment showed greater sensitivity to untrustworthy cues compared to their insecure counterparts,” Li says.

“We were able to see how early relationship dynamics during infancy, which is a key period for socio-emotional development, predict adolescent functioning, even at the brain level.”

The core of attachment theory is whether the child trusts their primary caregiver to provide warmth and comfort when needed. Inconsistent or unreliable support from the caregiver can lead to an insecure attachment pattern.

“Because children with insecure attachment received inconsistent and unreliable care when young, they may now choose to avoid negative social cues as a defensive mechanism to protect themselves. Lack of brain activation supports this explanation. , suggesting that precarious adolescents are not processing unreliable clues,” says Li.

“In comparison, adolescents with secure attachment histories may be more open to thinking about and reacting to negative social cues.”

The findings also suggest the importance for parents to be open to their child’s negative emotions, McElwain says.

“A secure attachment is likely to develop when the parent can accept their children’s negative emotions and respond to them with reassurance and support. When parents avoid dealing with their child’s negative emotions, children may come to learn that these emotions are “bad”.

“It’s okay for children to be upset and these are important and teachable times when parents can help children deal with their emotions in an age-appropriate way. By doing so, children will be better prepared to engage in whatever comes their way later.”

McElwain points out that the effects of early experience are not irreversible.

“Much of brain development occurs during adolescence. Teenagers are much more able to consciously reflect on their experiences and emotions, making this an ideal time to step in and change behavioral patterns that aren’t working well. Parents, as well as other adults such as teachers or coaches, can help children and teens learn to deal with negative social cues or social situations through open discussion, role play and positive role models.

The Department of Human Development and Family Studies is part of the College of Agricultural, Consumer, and Environmental Sciences at the University of Illinois.


University of Illinois College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences

Journal reference:

Li, X. et al. (2022) Child-mother attachment moderates behavioral and neural assessment of adolescent trustworthiness. Social cognitive and affective neuroscience.


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