Volume 7, Number 4, 1998

On Research

Secure attachments important to teen communication

Her parents were perfect, the young woman tells the researcher. She can't think of one bad thing to say about them.

Can she ever remember, the researcher asks, being afraid because her mother or father had left her somewhere as a small child, with a baby-sitter, for instance?

No, she replies. Her parents were always there for her. Always.

But, as she speaks, an electronic monitor registering electrical activity on the surface of her fingertips, tells another story: Her seamless, idyllic childhood is-as it sounds-too good to be true.

For years, the young woman has systematically avoided memories that shed light on her relationship with her parents, and as the researcher's questions have pushed her uncomfortably close to that territory, her body is subtly registering stress in the form of increased electrical activity.

Such scenes are typical of experiments directed by UD psychologist Roger Kobak, a leading researcher in the field known as attachment theory. Attachment researchers study close personal relationships-the ties between infants and their mothers, between teenagers and parents, between husbands and wives. They try to establish the characteristics and consequences of secure and insecure "attachments."

"Everybody has a primary attachment figure," says Kobak, an associate professor, who directs the psychology department's clinical training program.

"You see this person as a safe haven, someone you would like to go to in a time of distress. People who feel that their major attachment figure is available to them feel secure. But, they can feel anger, anxiety or depression when they feel that person is not available in a fairly certain sort of way," Kobak says.

The attachment system is a fundamental part of our biology, passed down to us through evolution, according to attachment theory. In Darwin's "struggle for survival," babies are more likely to succeed if they can identify their parents and communicate their needs to them, by crying or using other cues. Solid attachments continue to give an edge to people throughout their lives: People with secure relationships tend to get sick less and are less likely to die prematurely, Kobak explains.

Kobak's research often begins with the Adult Attachment Interview, which tests security in close relationships. Researchers question adolescent or adult subjects about their childhoods, asking them to recall times when they experienced conflict with their parents or felt fears of abandonment.

People who have secure connections with their main attachment figures-whether parents or spouses-will have clear memories of these past stresses and be able to discuss them comfortably.

People who are insecure can go in two directions: Their discussion can become incoherent and unfocused, showing that their attachment systems are hyperactive, or they will avoid discussion of attachment issues, adopting a strategy of "disengagement."

Kobak's research has shown that the Adult Attachment Interview can predict how well subjects will relate to people close to them. People who seem secure, based on the interview, tend to be more successful in current relationships, more willing to discuss problems and more effective in working them out.

When a parent and a teenager have trouble communicating, when the teen is withdrawn or hostile when confronted with a family conflict, the root problem may be an insecure attachment, Kobak says.

"You can see it as centering around one basic question, 'Can I count on this person if I need them?'" he says. "If the answer is yes, more or less, then you can go on with the normal developmental tasks of life." For adolescents-the group Kobak tends to focus on-those "normal developmental tasks" involve gaining increased personal freedom, while maintaining a helpful bond with parents.

But, if the answer to that key question is no, Kobak says, "You will tend to feel anxious and will deal with that anxiousness in one way or another. And, the ways of coping with that anxiousness can lead you on a path toward emotional disturbance."

Teens often cope with that anxiety by becoming withdrawn from their families, refusing to talk about interests and activities and spending all their time outside the house or in their rooms. They see a short-term gain in avoiding their parents: Less fighting. But, the long-term consequences can be destructive.

"We see this a lot in adolescents," Kobak says. "If they've arrived at the idea that their parents are unavailable to them for an extended period of time, they can become disengaged. Disengagement usually goes with a lot of adolescent problem behaviors."

Practically, these observations come down to this: Parents nowadays have to work harder to stay involved with their children.

"Parenting takes a lot of energy," Kobak says. "There's no doubt that families in which both parents are working at demanding jobs are at a disadvantage. When you're working very hard, it's easy not to pay enough attention.

"I don't think blaming parents helps at all," Kobak says. "As a society, I don't think we do enough to support parents. At the same time, when parents fail, I think it's important that we ask why."

Currently, Kobak is studying low-income mothers and their children in the Brandywine (Del.) School District. Using the Adult Attachment Interview and other strategies, he and his assistants are trying to determine if the children of women with attachment difficulties are especially likely to have psychological problems.

Kobak's focus on adolescents makes him something of a pioneer in attachment theory. The field originated in the 1940s and '50s with studies on infants by John Bowlby, the founder of attachment theory, and the focus has remained until recently on the mother-infant bond.

Kobak studied at the University of Virginia under Mary Ainsworth, another prominent attachment theorist and the creator of the Strange Situation, a test designed to gauge the strength of the bond between mothers and infants.

In that experiment, a year-old infant is placed in a room with a stranger and some toys. Researchers determine the baby's level of attachment by observing reactions when the mother leaves the room and when she returns. Properly attached babies will cry when the mother leaves and seek her out when she returns.

In his research, Kobak has extended Ainsworth's and Bowlby's premises to the study of adolescents. He has used the Adult Attachment Interview in place of the Strange Situation. And, he has found intriguing parallels between the two experiments.

"An improperly attached baby will become momentarily disorganized, quiet or confused, when his mother returns to the room," Kobak says. "An adult, in the Attachment Interview, may become momentarily incoherent in his speech. He may show a momentary change in tense or person, or talk about something in the past as if it were happening now."

The ultimate aim of Kobak's research is to devise new ways of helping families communicate. He oversees graduate student counselors as they work with families at the department's Psychological Services Training Center in Newark, Del., sometimes sitting in on sessions or working with clients himself.

"The role of communication problems in distressed relationships is pretty well-documented," Kobak says. "So, typically, we're trying to restore good communication. One problem is that by the time a lot of families seek help, they've already developed such levels of anger, animosity and disengagement that we spend a lot of time just trying to convince people that it will pay for them to re-engage with each other."

-Patrick Collier, AS '99PhD