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A New Reason to Blame, or Thank, Your Mother

New research finds that the quality of early maternal caregiving impacts a child’s emotional relationships once he or she arrives at early adulthood.
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As the holiday season approaches, families will soon be gathering around the dinner table to share stories, enjoy good food and engage in bouts of bitter recrimination.

With varying degrees of subtlety, mothers all across America will be posing pointed questions to their adult children, such as “So why aren’t you married yet?” or “Why don’t your romantic relationships ever last?”

Newly published research suggests a snappy answer: “Because of you, Mom!”

A paper in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science confirms the continuing consequences of our very first relationship: Our bond with our mothers. Specifically, the way our mothers parented us during our second year of life impacts the way we manage our close interpersonal relationships two decades later.

That’s the conclusion of a longitudinal study that examined interaction between mothers and their small children, and then checked on how those same kids were doing as young adults. The researchers, led by Cornell University psychologist Vivian Zayas, report the “quality of maternal caregiving experienced at 18 months of age predicted the extent to which the same participants more than 20 years later were uncomfortably relying on partners and peers, and experienced relational worries with partners.”

The study confirms the validity of attachment theory, which was developed in the 1960s by psychologist John Bowlby and refined in the 1970s by psychologist Mary Ainsworth. Its central notion is that infants need a primary caregiver who is available and responsive to their needs without being overbearing. Lacking such a figure, children fail to develop a strong sense of security, which makes it difficult to connect with others in a mature, mutually beneficent way as an adult.

The researchers focused on 36 individuals (20 females), all of whom were white and from middle- to upper-middle-class households. They were, on average, 18 months old when their interaction with their mothers was observed.

“Interactions were videotaped from behind a one-way mirror during two play episodes lasting three minutes and five minutes,” Zayas and her colleagues report. “Mothers were instructed to play with their child “as if they were at home,” and their behavior was coded on seven aspects: (a) facial expression, (b) vocal expression, (c) position and body contact, (d) expressions of affection, (e) pacing of turns, (f) control, and (g) choice of activity.”

(“Pacing of turns” refers to whether the parent truly engaged with the child in a back-and-forth communication, as opposed to ignoring the child for significant periods, or cutting off the child’s responses by insisting they move on to another toy or activity.)

The interactions were assessed by six trained coders, who made “categorical judgments of whether the mother exhibited sensitive, controlling or unresponsive patterns of behavior.” These assessments were combined to create separate scores for maternal sensitivity, controlling behavior and unresponsiveness to the child.

Twenty years later, the now-grown-up kids completed a detailed survey designed to measure their concerns about rejection and unwillingness to rely on others. They responded to a set of 10 statements, which were repeated several times with slight variations in order to focus on specific relationships in their lives.

First, the study participants rated on a 1-to-7 scale whether they agreed with such assertions as “I find it difficult to allow myself to depend on others” and “Other people make me doubt myself.” In the repeat rounds, the pronouns were changed, becoming “My mother makes me doubt myself,” “My father makes me doubt myself,” “My closest friend makes me doubt myself” and, if they were in a relationship, “My boyfriend/girlfriend makes me doubt myself.”

The researchers compared those responses with the parental-interaction scores of two decades earlier. The results “suggest that maternal caregiving is related to both the avoidance and anxiety dimensions of adult attachment,” they write.

“Specifically, sensitive maternal caregiving and an absence of controlling caregiving at 18 months of age predicted less avoidance to friends and partners, and less anxiety to partners, when the same individuals were 22 years old. These results suggest that the influence of maternal caregiving in early life is not limited to the first attachment relationship, but operates in attachment relationships more generally, such as with peers and partners.”

In a follow-up note, Zayas cautioned that the study doesn’t definitively prove cause and effect. She noted that “some of the continuity between mother's caregiving and her adult child's attachment patterns could be due to shared genetics or family environment,” and added that she “cannot rule out the possibility that the child's own temperament affected both quality of maternal caregiving and their own attachment in adulthood.” (Mom: If the blaming gets too intense, there’s your counterargument.)

Nevertheless, the study suggests a positive relationship with one’s mother — which entails her being there for her child, but not being too intrusive or controlling — is an important foundation of an emotionally healthy adult life. That's information worth sharing with parents (and prospective parents), perhaps while passing the pumpkin pie.