Psychotherapy and Neuroscience

Parent-child attachment

Interestingly a sample of midrange attached mothers with a highly elaborative reminiscent style tended to emit greater non-verbal parental warmth, increased glances towards their child and number of smiles, laughs, and positive facial expressions during their supportive elaborative interactions with their child (Fivush & Vesudeva, 2001). In fact attachment security has been associated with parent-child references to feeling states and their evaluations, i.e. the causes for emotion, outcomes, meaning of emotion to the child, emotional linking of current events with previous ones, eliciting self-referential information from the child, directives correcting emotional behaviors, and emotional confirmations (Laible & Thompson, 2000; Thompson, Laible, & Ontai, 2003). Securely attached children at 4 ½ years of age tend to have greater accessibility to event memory and evaluate events rather than merely orient to them. Their narratives provide answers to wh- questions (before being asked) and mental state terms of emotion and thoughts relating to an event’s meaning to the self rather than exclusively orienting to the when, where, and how an event occurred (Fivush & Fromhoff, 1988; Waters, Rodrigues, & Ridgeway, 1998; Newcombe & Reese, 2004). In this way verbal labeling helps the child to identify needs and ideas, offers greater access to explicit forms of expression of emotionally-laden internal experience, facilitates problem-solving cognitive activity, and ultimately is the vehicle for cognitive development.

On the other hand insecurely attached young children tended to orient to the where and why, have more difficulty fully and accurately communicating their experiences, make more memory errors, and spent less time with their parents than securely attached children (Goodman & Quas, 1997). These retrieval characteristics may reduce the insecurely attached children’s ability for using declarative processes to process self-referential experience into memory. This may increase the child’s later vulnerability for using implicit processes for processing later stress-related experiences like trauma and for the later development of implicit-related behavioral expression of symptoms (see an earlier section of this web site). For instance Goodman and colleagues (1997) found that out of a sample of 46 children aged 3-10 years maternal rated securely attached children had lower levels of initial upset with assumption of a traumatic medical procedure and when their parents left the office (Goodman, Quas, Batterman-Faunce, Riddlesberger, & Kuhn, 1997). When compared with those rated insecure avoidant and ambivalent, securely attached children after conclusion of the medical procedure provided significantly enhanced and accurate information when elaborating on the procedure during post-event play reenactment or verbal narrative. The amount of accurate information in the narratives increased in a developmental age-dependent manner. Parents rating themselves as having avoidant and ambivalent attachment styles had children who were initially more upset during early medical treatment and when the parent left the room. In fact, parental avoidance was characterized as more distressing and stressful to children than perceiving the anxiety of their parents (Alexander, Goodman, Schaaf, Edelstein, Quas, & Shaver, 2002). The act of discussing emotional states with mothers and siblings (Dunn, Brown, & Beardsall, 1991) over time seemed to foster greater social intra-relatedness and social reference. Mothers using assorted emotional regulation strategies, e.g. distraction, soothing, acquiescing, questioning, and explaining to their thirty month old toddlers, were later associated with the same children’s reduced level of negative affect to a disappointment task at five years of age (Spinrad, Stifter, Donelan-McCall, & Turner, 2004). Earlier maternal regulation also offered a greater degree of stress-resiliency. It is through this relationship and parental mirror that children likely learn how to explicitly convey the importance and personal significance of events, internal states and reactions, thoughts, and emotions, and ultimately how to develop an explicit theory of mind (Bretherton & Beeghly, 1982; Fivush & Haden, 1997). Parental use of elaborative narrative styles may help children in their future understanding of him/herself by supporting the use of declarative processes. This may support and stimulate neural activity in brain regions, like the hippocampus, that are responsible for mediating developing retrieval and declarative processes noted above (Diamond, 1990; Squire, 1992).


Alexander, K.W., Goodman, G.S., Schaff, J.M., Edelstein, R.S., Quas, J.A., & Shaver, P.R. (2002). The role of attachment and cognitive inhibition in children’s memory and suggestibility for a stressful event. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 83, 262-290.

Bretherton, I., & Beeghly, M. (1982). Talking about internal states: the acquisition of an explicit theory of mind. Developmental Psychology, 18(6), 906-921.

Diamond, A. (1990). Rate of maturation of the hippocampus and the developmental progression of children’s performance on the delayed non-matching to sample and visual paired comparison tasks. Annals of New York Academy of Sciences, 608, 394-426.

Dunn, J., Brown, J., & Beardsall, L. (1991). Family talk about feeling states and children’s later understanding of others’ emotions. Developmental Psychology, 27(3), 448-455.

Fivush, R., & Fromhoff, F. (1988). Style and structure in mother-child conversation about the past. Discourse Processes, 11, 337-55.

Fivush, R., & Haden, C.A. (1997). Narrating and representing experience: preschoolers developing autobiographical recounts. In: P.W. van den Broek, P.J. Bauer, & T. Bourg (Eds.), Developmental spans in event comprehension and representation. (pp. 169-98). Hillsdale, New Jersey: Erlbaum.

Fivush, R., & Vasudeva, A. (2002). Remembering to relate: socioemotional correlates of mother-child reminiscing. Journal of Cognition and Development, 3(1), 73-90.

Goodman, G.S., & Quas, J.A. (1997). Trauma and memory: individual differences in children’s recounting of a stressful experience. In: N.L. Stein, P.A. Ornstein, B. Tversky, & C. Brainerd (Eds.), Memory for everyday and emotional events (pp. 267-94). Mahwah, New Jersey: Erlbaum.

Goodman, G.S., Quas, J.A., Batterman-Faunce, J.M., Riddlesberger, M.M., & Kuhn, J. (1997). Children’s reactions to the memory for a stressful event: influences of age, anatomical dolls, knowledge, and parental attachment. Applied Developmental Science, 1(2), 54-75.

Laible, D.J., & Thompson, R.A. (2000). Mother-child discourse, attachment security, shared positive affect, and early conscience development. Child Development, 71(5), 1424-40.

Newcombe, R., & Reese, E. (2004). Evaluations and orientations in mother-child narratives as a function of attachment security: a longitudinal investigation. International Journal of Behavioral Development, 28(3), 230-45.

Squire, L.R. (1992). Memory and the hippocampus: a synthesis from findings with monkeys and humans. Psychological Reviews, 99(2), 195-231.

Spinrad, T.L., Stifter, C.A., Donelan-McCall, N., & Turner, L. (2004). Mothers’ regulation strategies in response to toddlers’ affect: links to later emotion self-regulation. Social Development, 13(1), 40-55.

Thompson, R.A., Laible, D.J., & Ontai, L.L. (2003). Early understandings of emotion, morality, and self: developing a working model. In: R.V. Kail (Ed.), Advances in child development and behavior (pp. 137-71). San Diego, California: Academic Press.

Waters, H.S., Rodrigues, L.M., & Ridgeway, D. (1998). Cognitive underpinnings of narrative attachment assessment. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 71(3), 211-34.