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Shaping the connection

Studies renew interest in effects of the parent-child bond.

March 31, 2003|Benedict Carey | Times Staff Writer

Children aren't the only ones showing off at the playground. Parents are on display too: There are the playful moms and dads, swinging on the monkey bars; the bookworms and cell phone gossips, their minds elsewhere; the anxiety-prone, shadowing their child's every step as if it could be the last; and those who continually bark instructions ("William, now what do we call that? William, what do we say to that boy? William!").

As natural as it comes to some, parenting is for others a work in progress. In part, psychiatrists say, this is because mothers and fathers often repeat some of the same gestures, patterns and habits of their own parents. These habits are more than mere quirks. As several years-long research studies now show, children who grow up with a warm, stable connection to their parents (or other caregivers) are primed to form the same kind of connection later on, whereas those who start with uncertain or anxious bonds often struggle to forge close relationships as adults, even with their own children.

The study of these parent-child bonds and their consequences is known as attachment theory, a field of psychology that over the years has inspired both scientifically rigorous research and a stream of unsubstantiated, quick-fix parenting therapies, from simple advice to touch and hug children more often to more forceful "rebirthing" techniques to induce attachment. Yet recent studies underscoring the lasting effect of a loving, attentive caregiver have generated a surge of renewed interest among family researchers and therapists about the notion of attachment. More than a dozen new books based on attachment have landed in bookstores over the last year, from parenting guides to scholarly works. A wide range of attachment-based research is underway, from studies of mothers in the San Francisco Bay Area to female prison inmates in Baltimore to low-income families in New York.

"The revolution has happened," said Victoria Levin, a behavioral research specialist at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md. "Attachment theory is now the background and backbone of a lot of the work that's going on in families with young children. This is because researchers who started out studying infants have followed these kids into adolescence. They find that the quality of their original attachment still predicts a child's competence, the way they interact with other people, how they do in school, whether they have behavior problems, and on and on."

Current studies attempt to teach parents the theory, in effect, so that they can apply it themselves. At UC San Francisco, Dr. Alicia Lieberman has worked with immigrant families and victims of domestic abuse, showing them how stress and painful memories can interfere with attentive parenting. Jude Cassidy, a psychologist at the University of Maryland, is running a program for about 100 inmates at a Baltimore prison, teaching them how to see their young children's behavior and body language as attachment students would. And at the Marycliff Institute, a family counseling center in Spokane, Wash., psychologists are significantly improving relations between parents and preschool children in an experiment called the Circle of Security.

Cammy Latimer, an elder-care worker in Spokane, had her hands full with two young children when she heard about this study. Her youngest child, Alyxandria, then 2, was prone to tantrums and defiance. "Once I had a stranger come up to me and actually say something about it," she said. "It wasn't much different from what I see other kids do, but at that point I was interested to try anything that could help me with her."

Latimer liked the fact that the program used a single image -- a circle -- to help explain how attachment worked. From a very early age, the theory goes, children move away from their parents to explore but continually circle back, using their parents as a "secure base." An infant crawling around a new room continually looks to her parent, for reassurance or attention, and periodically reaches out to be held. Children repeat the same loops -- moving away to explore, reaching or looking back to touch base -- as they get older, whether investigating a playground as a toddler, playing in the backyard with a new friend or phoning from a party.

In theory, the ideal parent does several things: encourages exploration, remains alert for the child's cues and signals for reassurance or shared emotion, and then responds to those cues by offering comfort.

"It's a dance between the child and parent, with rhythm and timing, and it's going on all the time, from a very early age," said Kent Hoffman, a psychologist at Marycliff who designed the program with two colleagues, Bert Powell and Glen Cooper.

To picture this circle, counselors asked Latimer and Alyxandria to participate in a classic attachment experiment called the Strange Situation. .

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