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The Impact of Attachment to Mother and Father and Sensitive Support of Exploration at an Early Ageon Children’s Psychosocial Development through Young Adulthood

Karin Grossmann, PhD, Klaus E. Grossmann, PhD

University of Regensburg, Germany

October 2009, 2nd rev. ed.


Bowlby’s and Ainsworth’s approach to personality development relied on ethology1,2 and cross-cultural research,3 preserving the central questions of traditional psychoanalysis2 and drawing on the concept of mental representation as suggested by cognitive psychology. The ethological approach implies: a) a careful description and classification of infant and child behaviour;4 b) reference to a posited environment of evolutionary adaptedness for humans, as evidenced by young humans’ intense responsiveness to being left alone in a strange environment with strange people; and c) analyzing the function of emotions and behaviours in a social context.5 Attachment serves to ensure protection and care, and secure attachment serves to relieve distress, restore physiological homeostasis and encourage exploration. The impact of attachment in terms of biology and neurobiology has also been documented in recent studies.7,18 For example, it is through attachments relationships, that young children first learn to link emotions to external events in a linguistically meaningful manner. Further, non-pathological attachment relationships are the basis for becoming emotionally, socially and cognitively acculturated.6

In the early years, attachment relationships to parents and consistent caregivers are the predominant and most influential relationships in children’s lives. These relationships set the stage for infants’ physiological functioning, their emotional and cognitive interpretations of social- and non-social experiences, their language development, and their acquisition of meaning about themselves and others in complex social situations. Later, the attachment relationships mediate children’s acceptance and acquisition of their culture.14 Joint attention appears to be the central process;8 it emerges at around nine months,at the height of stranger anxiety. In this way, nature ensures that infants learn first about their family’s culture in the mother tongue. Attachment relationships that were vital for infant survival during human evolution9 continue to influence thoughts, feelings and motives and therefore close relationships throughout life. Early experiences of care, and the attachment relationship with the caregiver, have a long lasting impact on the child’s reactivity to stress.18

Within the framework of modern evolutionary biology, attachment theory focuses on the “gene-selfish” interest of children in receiving as much of their parents’ physical as well as psychological resources as possible.5,9 In terms of Trivers’10 parent-offspring conflict paradigm, attachment theory focuses on the offspring’s side of the conflict, and on the parent’s willingness or unwillingness to invest in any particular individual offspring. However, parental lifespan planning may help to explain possible differences in parental investment in care and differential parental sensitivity towards different children.26 This may also explain the moderate concordance of patterns of attachment even in monozygotic twins.11


Attachment theory posits a causal relationship between individuals’ experience with their parents or attachment figures and their capacity to form affectional bonds later on. If a child receives tender loving care when in need, and support for autonomy during exploration from mother as well as father, such experiences are assumed to a) give the child a sense of worth, a belief in the helpfulness of others and enable the child to explore the environment with confidence; b) be an optimal precondition for mutually supportive, enduring adult partnerships; and c) provide a model for later parenthood.12,6 Confident, competent exploration is equivalent to our concept of “secure” exploration.13 Combining the concept of secure attachment with secure exploration yields the concept of “psychological security” that we advocate.13


Originally, attachment research provided only one method to assess quality of attachment in infancy, using a separation-reunion paradigm (the strange situation). However, research results indicated a low validity of the infant-father strange situation assessment for predicting subsequent psychosocial development.15 Rather, father-child interactive quality during play or exploration, and sensitive challenges to the young child’s competencies seem to be better predictors of child development.16,24 Another challenge to attachment research is more a measurement than a conceptual issue: How do behavioural patterns of infant attachment become patterns of verbal discourse about attachment later?23

Research Context

Two longitudinal studies of children’s social and emotional development in not-at-risk middle-class two-parent families were started in the mid- and late 1970s: the Bielefeld project, or Project 1, which started with the birth of the infants, and the Regensburg project, or Project 2, which started when the infants were 11 months old.19 The children’s experiences in the domains of attachment and exploration were assessed in infancy, childhood and adolescence, with both mother and father using standardized or free observations. Semi-structured interviews about family matters were conducted with the parents on many occasions and later with the children. Representations of attachment were assessed at ages 10, 16 and 22, representations of friendship at 16, and representations of partnership at 20 or 22. For the analysis of early influences on the representation of close relationships, data on child attachment and exploratory strategies, maternal and paternal sensitivity and support were aggregated for the periods of infancy (birth to age three), childhood (five to 10) and adolescence (16 to 18).19 In addition, we conducted various studies in other cultures,20 adding to the long tradition of cross-cultural research on attachment.21

Key Research Questions

How does the capacity to make affectional bonds develop? How predictive are the qualities of infants’ attachment to mother and father during the first two years and their experiences of sensitive support during exploration for adolescents’ and young adults’ partnership representations? What are the roots of young adults’ representation of attachment relationships?

Research Results

Our longitudinal projects revealed several major findings:19

  1. Security in attachment and partnership representation at the age of 22 was significantly predicted from security of attachment in adolescence and childhood. Precursors of the ability to present a clear discourse about attachment issues were already observable at ages 6 and 10 years.22,23
  2. Mothers’ as well as fathers’ sensitive supportiveness, acceptance of the child and appropriate challenging behaviours, each in its own right and taken together, were powerful predictors of internal working models of close relationships in young adulthood.
  3. Mothers’ and fathers’ sensitivity during joint play with their children in various settings in the first six years of life contributed significantly to the child’s later quality of partnership representation. Parental sensitivity during play was characterized by parental support, and behaviours that promote cooperation and independent problem solving.
  4. In contrast to some other longitudinal studies of attachment development, patterns of attachment shown by the infants in the strange situation to the mother at 12 months or to the father at 18 months did not predict representation of attachment beyond childhood in either project. The single most influential variable in Project 1 was the fathers’ sensitive challenging behaviour during play with their 24- month-old toddlers.19
  5. Project 1 is an example of the complexity of developmental pathways beyond infancy. By the end of the first year, only 33% of infants had shown a secure pattern of attachment to the mother and only 41% to the father in the strange situation. Still, a secure pattern of attachment to the mother predicted more optimal development up to the age of 10. We argued that the high proportion of avoidance in this sample was due to German cultural demands for early self-reliance in the 1970s and did not necessarily indicate parental rejection as indicated by maternal sensitivity.17
  6. In Project 1, an insecure pattern of attachment in infancy was predictive of less optimal subsequent emotional and social development only if the child also lacked the experience of sensitive, supportive mothering and fathering in the domain of exploration. Even more importantly, parental rejection during middle childhood, traumatic experiences like the loss of a close friend, parental separation and parental actual or pending loss were most likely associated with adolescents’ insecure representation of attachment.25
  7. By age 22, however, a number of subjects had reflected thoroughly on their attachment experience such that parental divorce was no longer a major but only a mediating variable. The most powerful predictor of attachment and partnership representation at age 22, was the child’s representation of maternal and paternal support during middle childhood age and mothers’ and/or fathers’ rejection of the child, as indicated in a lengthy semi-structured interview when the children were 10 years old.27
  8. The socio-emotional development of the not-at-risk children in both projects was influenced throughout the years of immaturity by many factors that were often independent of each other. Infant attachment quality to mother and father were independent of each other, as was maternal and paternal play sensitivity towards the toddler. Parental rejection during middle childhood was not predicted by infant attachment security, nor was parental divorce or loss. Each factor could divert the child’s developmental pathway towards a more adaptive or a more non-adaptive direction.19,27

Our own cross-cultural research on Japanese and Trobriand infants confirmed three of the four core hypotheses of attachment theory:21 1. Infant attachment to at least one caring adult is universal; 2. the secure pattern of attachment was also the norm in both groups; and 3. security of attachment is positively related to competence.5,20 In our recent review, we summarize many studies that support the concept of psychological security indicating the combined influence of secure exploration and secure attachment. Psychological security was linked to cognitive competence, flexible gender-role behaviour, as well as resourceful transition and adaptions within the school system.13


Young children’s experiences of sensitive, accepting, supportive mothers and fathers start a pathway of positive psychosocial development for the child. Such experiences in the domains of attachment as well as exploration are at the roots of secure models of close relationships and healthy self-reliance in the academic domain.28 They are likely to be carried forward to other close relationships in childhood, adolescence and young adulthood. Changes in parental acceptance or disruption of the family can alter the pathway in either direction, temporarily or permanently.6,19

The child’s subjective experiences can best be assessed by open-minded, reliable observations of quality of interactions in structured situations3 and by semi-structured interviews that allow for a discovery of new categories. Analyses of the adaptive functioning of the attachment system must focus on adverse experiences, irritations and negative emotions. Analyses of secure exploration must focus on challenges to the child’s competencies. Appropriate emotional responses to real events and attempted appropriate solutions with the help of other trusted persons are reliable indicators of security of exploration. 

Implications for the Policy and Services Perspective

Throughout the early years, caregiver sensitivity implies an understanding and correct interpretation of and prompt and appropriate responses to the young child’s non-verbal as well as verbal expressions. A prerequisite for sensitivity is pacing the interactions according to the child’s rhythms, in both good and bad moods. Variations in the quality of maternal caregiving shape the neurobiological systems that regulate stress reactions.18 Higher sensitivity was found in mothers and fathers who valued attachments based on their recollections of being accepted themselves and sensitively cared for as a child.27 Likewise, in close relationships with non-parental caregivers or mentors in which the child feels safe and secure, the child will make ample use of joint attention to social and non-social objects and events. Learning is most effective if the child feels valued by the mediating person.29 

Parents who have experienced difficult childhoods themselves or who have an infant with special needs benefit from help in three pivotal domains: 1) understanding child development in all domains; 2) learning to respond sensitively to their individual child;30 3) finding enjoyment and sufficient time for sensitive, supportive interactions with the child in attachment- and exploration-relevant situations. In subsequent years, support in more domains become important, such as finding invested, knowledgeable mentors and educators for the child and monitoring the child’s friendship group. This is especially important when parents’ own education or acculturation leave too many gaps. Secure attachment is a necessary but not sufficient prerequisite for becoming a cooperative, valuable and accepted member of one’s group and society. Secure exploration must complement secure attachments so that children can successfully meet the many challenges posed by their social relationships.


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How to cite this article:

Grossmann K, Grossmann KE. The Impact of Attachment to Mother and Father and Sensitive Support of Exploration at an Early Ageon Children’s Psychosocial Development through Young Adulthood. In: Tremblay RE, Boivin M, Peters RDeV, eds. van IJzendoorn MH, topic ed. Encyclopedia on Early Childhood Development [online]. Updated October 2009. Accessed September 23, 2017.