Attachment-Related Dismissal Results in Underreported Distress in Children

Attachment bonds are formed in early childhood. Relationships with nurturing attentive caregivers result in secure attachment bonds in children as they age. However, dismissive caregivers who neglect or avoid relationships with their children tend to cause insecure and dismissive attachment behaviors and perceptions in these children. The attachment bonds directly shape children’s internal working models (IWMs), the way in which children see the world and others around them. But little attention has been given to how these attachments predict a child’s behavior and IWM in the absence of the caregiver. To address this issue, Lars O. White of the Yale University Child Study Center and the University of Leipzig in Germany conducted an experiment to determine how children’s IWMs would predict their behaviors and perceptions in new social settings.

To this end, White and colleagues conducted a study that evaluated the neural activity of 10 dismissing and 13 secure-attachment adolescents during a virtual ball-tossing game. The children believed they were engaged in a game with two other real children; however, the game actually involved computer-generated teammates. As the game progressed, each child would eventually be rejected until eventually all the children were left out of their respective games. During the experiment, the team evaluated the neural activity of the children, and then at the conclusion, they assessed their feelings of distress using self-reports.

The researchers found that the children who had distress attachment bias exhibited reduced left frontal wave activity during the rejection exercise, indicating distress. These children also showed less motivation to continue the exercise and predicted that they would be rejected before they actually were. In contrast, the participants with secure attachments did not display any outward or physiological signs of distress when they were rejected by their virtual peers. Surprisingly, in the self-reports, the distressed adolescents underreported their levels of distress in nearly all instances. White said, “Our findings imply that evaluations and regulatory strategies linked to attachment generalize to distressing social contexts in early adolescence.”

White, L. O., Wu, J., Borelli, J. L., Rutherford, H. J. V., David, D. H., Kim-Cohen, J., Mayes, L. C., Crowley, M. J. (2012, January 16). Attachment Dismissal Predicts Frontal Slow-Wave ERPs During Rejection by Unfamiliar Peers. Emotion. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0026750

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  • Vicci

    January 26th, 2012 at 5:14 AM

    Who are these parents who could be so cold to their children and avoid the relationships with them? Being a parent is such a blessing and how anyone who is allowed to experience that blessing would avoid it is beyond me. Children need all of the care and the love that they can get, they thrive on that and to ignore that is sad.

  • zelda

    January 26th, 2012 at 12:17 PM

    I feel so sorry for these kids who are obviously going through tough times, and yet they are not reporting this at all.

    So the question then becomes how on earth are we as a society supposed to know that this distress is going on in a childs life when they can’t speak up and speak out about the things that they are feeling?

    Teachers are so over worked, and rarely are there going to be other adults aside from the parents who are going to be around the children on a regular basis. So where does the responsibility fall?

  • Bruce

    January 26th, 2012 at 4:03 PM

    Vicci, You do realize you are posting on a “psychotherapy” website right? Implicit in your rhetorical question is a a sense that all behaviour is volitional and that therefore “these parents” are intentionally acting in an “unnatural way” and I presume you believe they should just pull themselves up by their bootstrings and become better parents. A basic tennet of psychotherapy is that people do not always act in a way that is consistent with their own values for reasons they do not understand and/or cannot change on their own. From this perspective, it makes perfect sense that an individual could behave in ways you feel are “unnatural”. Psychotherapy is about change, not about blame. “These parents” likely had innadequate parenting themselves. so blaming them would make no more sense than blaming their children, if you believe attachment theory. If you don’t then your commenting on a story based on it makes no sense at all. Just say you don’t buy the theory.

  • A.lee

    January 26th, 2012 at 10:39 PM

    early life experiences can have a make impact on kids.and if that is somehow negative it tends to leave a spot in their mind.this could go on and influence even unrelated things as has been proven by this experiment.ensuring physical well being is not enough, kids need to be taken care of in a way that is good for their holistic development.

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