When interacting with your child, have you ever had that moment of utter shock when the words your mother said to you as a child come tumbling out of your mouth before you can stop them? At that moment, you’re probably wondering: “Am I becoming my mother?” Research from developmental psychology suggests that the answer is yes, but why remains unclear.
To study the continuity in relationship patterns from one generation to the next, developmental psychologists focus on attachment relationships. All infants develop an attachment relationship with their caregiver that allows them to explore the world around them while also allowing them to feel confident in their caregivers’ availability should they need them. However, all attachment relationships are not created equal. Whether infants feel secure or insecure in their ability to flexibly explore and rely on their caregiver is believed to depend on the quality of care they receive from their caregiver (Ainsworth et al., 1978). Attachment relationships are not just important developmental milestones in infants’ lives. Instead, as infants develop into adults the quality of their attachment relationships become internalized into representations of their attachment relationships. This internalized representation is referred to as adult attachment and is believed to influence the attachment relationship parents develop with their children (Main et al., 1985).
Nearly twenty studies have investigated the continuity of attachment across generations. When compiling the findings of all these studies, evidence suggests that variations in parents’ attachment representations strongly predict the quality of the attachment relationship they develop with their own child (van IJzendoorn, 1995). Thus, parents’ will likely develop similar attachment relationships with their children as they experienced with their parents.
What accounts for the continuity in attachment relationships? Studies have ruled out the possibility of shared genes between parents and infants (e.g., Roisman & Fraley, 2008), leading attachment researchers to focus on environmental factors, such as caregiving quality. However, studies that have attempted to account for the association between parents’ and infants’ attachment suggest that sensitivity doesn’t fully explain the strong association (van IJzendoorn, 1995). Recent research has focused on more narrowly defining exactly what constitutes sensitive caregiving and identifying the caregiving contexts in which sensitivity should be studied (Thompson, 1997). However, conclusive evidence remains elusive.
Although it’s not clear why, that nagging feeling that you’re becoming your mother might just be true.
M.D.S. Ainsworth,, M.C. Blehar,, E. Waters,, & S. Wall (1978). Patterns of attachment: A psychological study of the strange situation. New York: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. DOI: 10.1016/S0163-6383(80)80048-8
Main, M., Kaplan, N., & Cassidy, J. (1985). Security in Infancy, Childhood, and Adulthood: A Move to the Level of Representation Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development, 50 (1/2) DOI: 10.2307/3333827
Roisman GI, & Fraley RC (2008). A behavior-genetic study of parenting quality, infant attachment security, and their covariation in a nationally representative sample. Developmental psychology, 44 (3), 831-9 PMID: 18473647
Thompson, R. (1997). Sensitivity and Security: New Questions to Ponder Child Development, 68 (4) DOI: 10.2307/1132109
van IJzendoorn, M. (1995). Adult attachment representations, parental responsiveness, and infant attachment: A meta-analysis on the predictive validity of the Adult Attachment Interview. Psychological Bulletin, 117 (3), 387-403 DOI: 10.1037//0033-2909.117.3.387