How Can Parenting Style Influence Your Childs Identity and Emotional Development?

Mankind and scientists have been concerned with the answer to the following question: Do children come to this world as tabula rasa (i.e. clean slate) or is their behavior and emotional makeup genetically predetermined?

In order to answer this question psychologists have primarily attempted to define emotions and their origin. However, researchers have not reached an agreement on the evolution and roots of emotional development (Broderick & Blewitt, 2016). On the other hand, there is evidence to support the view that emotions are necessary in the process of cognitive development while infants are born with certain innate emotions (distress, contentment, interest and disgust) that serve as survival mechanisms and enhance attachment to caregivers (Izard & Malatesta, 1987). During the first two years of life, emotional development will be rapid and young children will experience emotions such as anger, surprise, fear, and sadness. Self-conscious emotions such as pride, guilt, shame, embarrassment and empathy will evolve later in life along with self-recognition and higher levels of cognitive functioning (Lewis, 2008).

Additionally, research indicates that newborns learn how to perceive the world and themselves via the verbal and non-verbal interaction with their caregivers. The development of trust and worthiness emerge at the same time through interaction with caregivers (Broderick & Blewitt, 2016). The mothers touch, talk and smile can sooth a distressed baby or heighten positive effect in tranquil babies (Feldman & Eidelman, 2007). Tronick & Beehgly (2010), explain that normal caregiver-infant interaction is not always straightforward and can get messy. They report that only 30% of face-to-face communications during the first year are positive and the baby is able to respond to the mother in a calm manner, promoting synchronicity. As a result babies go through perpetual interactive derailment and emotional upheavals while the caregivers hopefully sooth them and introduce them to gradually longer periods of emotional regulation (Chow, Haltigan, & Messinger, 2010).

Likewise, the crucial role of the caregivers interaction in infant emotional regulation was demonstrated via a procedure called still-face paradigm. Tronick, Als, Adamson, Wise, & Brazelton, 1978) exposed infants to stressful situations where the mothers became unresponsive for a few seconds and later resumed their engaging, playful behavior. They found that even infants young as 2-3 months were distressed by their mothers unresponsiveness for several minutes after exposure. Yet, the importance of mothers behavior when the infants were distressed was evident; the more responsive and soothing the mother was the less avoidant and distressed the babies were.

Emotional interaction is purposeful and aims to elicit responsive care from adults that will ensure survival. However, Bowlby (1969/1982, 1973, 1980) and Erikson (1950/1963) have proposed that the nature of the relationship an infant has with his caregiver during the first year of his life can determine the working model of himself and others. Erikson argued that when babies feel that their needs are attended to in a timely and sensitive manner they could establish basic trust and the feeling of worthiness. Moreover, Bowlby perceived the infants relationship with the prime caregiver (usually the mother) as his first attachment relationship. Bowlbys attachment theory describes the quality of the infants attachment to the mother, its evolution and the psychological impact on the infant. The attachment that develops between the caregiver and the infant changes through time as the baby acquires new behaviors and emotional repertoire. At the first stage the development of attachment aims to keep the child safe while later at seven to eight months, the attachment is full-fledged. Around that time separation anxiety emerges when the infant is separated from the caregiver.

Bowlby suggested that attachment is a system and serves three purposes of maintaining proximity and emotional connection with the caregiver (proximity maintenance), it ensures protection (secure base) and creates a haven when the baby is distressed (safe haven). Bowlby and Erikson stressed that the quality of care an infant receives (such as responsiveness, sensitivity and security) will affect his life attachments to other individuals. The nature of the attachments an infant forms will influence expectations and behaviors in other relationships as well as the perception of the world and himself (i.e. working models).

Mary Ainsworth (Ainsworth et al, 1978) measured the attachment in her research utilizing the strange situation test that introduced stressful situations to young infants. Ainswoth and her colleagues identified three different types of infant attachment to adult caregivers by testing their needs for proximity maintenance, secure base and safe haven. There are three types of infant attachment. Securely attached (infants are distressed when separated by the mother but greet her happily when she returns and can be quickly soothed) possibly showing the beginning of optimism and hope. Anxious ambivalent-insecurely attached infants dont seem to feel safe even when the mother is available. Upon reunion after short separation, they appear to be ambivalent as to what they need from the mothers and fluctuate between being resistant to mothers affection and being angry towards her. Avoidant-insecurely attached babies fail to show any signs of distress upon separation from the mother and ambivalent behavior when reunited. They appear to seek comfort from her and push her away at the same time. A fourth category of disorganized-disorientated-insecurely attached infants was later identified by Main and Soloman (1986, 1990) where infants exhibited contradictory behaviors; inclination to be comforted by the mother and also rejecting her when she approached.

Finally, Ainsworth et al (1978) concluded that the quality of care and attachment during the first year of life is crucial in the childs emotional development. Infants who received consistent, sensitive care and were attended to when crying formed secure attachments to their caregivers. Babies were insecurely attached when their mothers were insensitive to their needs. Mothers of avoidant babies appeared to actively avoid holding their babies, were angry, less affectionate and often rejected them. Mothers of disorganized-disoriented infants seemed to exhibit frightening and/or abusive parental behavior.

Cultural and Environmental Influences

On the other-hand, various other factors contribute to the attachment and emotional development of infants such as the mothers depression or high stress levels or support of the community or extended family. Field et al (1995) found that children of depressed mothers appeared to be extremely fearful and inhibited while they experienced more negative emotions. Also, Atzil et al (2011) identified that intrusive mothers raise babies with unregulated, anxious behavior and are at high risk for emotional problems. Hane & Fox (2006) found that mothers with low maternal caregiving behavior (MCB) raised infants that showed more negative emotions, fearfulness, and less joint attention with their mother in comparison to the high MCB group. At the age of two to three years old there were significant differences in the behavior of the low MCB and high MBC children. The low MCB group indicated increased stress reactivity, social inhibition and more challenging and aggressive interactions with peers than the high MCB group.

Additionally, the relationship between maternal sensitivity and attachment security has been established in different cultures (Jin et al, 2012; Posada et al, 2004), some theorists argue that attachment theory describes the development of a bonding relationship only in Western cultures (Rothbaum et al, 2000). Yet, certain differences in the quality of attachment relationships can be identified across the cultures. In Japan, Israel and Korea (Jin et al, 2012) avoidant attachments are more rare in relation to ambivalent attachments when compared with babies in the United States. Also, German infants are more often avoidant-insecure than securely attached (Grossman et al, 1981).

Although, the evidence appears to be compelling and disheartening about the definitive influence of early attachment in the development of emotional development across the lifespan; research has brought to light optimistic data supporting the possibility of improving the quality of attachment at later stages of infancy. Sroufe et al (2005) concluded that infants could change from being insecurely attached to being securely attached after their first year of life. The positive change is a result of mothers feeling more confident in their caregiving abilities and relaxing as they get to connect more deeply with their babies. Additionally, the provision of help and guidance to the mothers was found to improve the quality of care that mothers were providing.

Broderick, P., C. & Blewitt, P. (2015). The life span: Human development for helping professionals. New Jersey: Pearson.