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Effects of Early Attachment Pattern on the Processes of Interpersonal Problem Solving and Explicit Memory in Preschool Children 22 Ağustos 2017

Effects of Early Attachment Pattern on the Processes of Interpersonal Problem Solving and Explicit Memory in Preschool Children


Yeşim Türköz, PhD

Clinical Psychologist



Attachment is a vitally important neurobiopsychological phenomenon depending on the  early relationship between baby and the caregiver. It mostly develops in the  first year and out of repeated patterns of the primary attachment relationship. Attachment patterns associated with  the quality of this relationship are believed to be maintained in the right orbitofrontal korteks and implicit-procedural memory. They implicitly govern affect regulation and information processing. This study is designed firstly to investigate whether attachment patterns stored in the right hemisphere and implicit memory have an effect on the stress coping mechanism which is also closely related to the right brain development. And the second purpose of the study was to explore the role of attachment paterns on explicit memory processes because of inevitable effects of attachment on information processing systems.  Seventy-seven 5-6 years old children in preschool education participated in this study and they were administered an attachment test, measures on problem solving behaviour specific to the interpersonal stressful situations and different memory tasks.  Results of the study revealed significant differences between secure and insecure groups in terms of the stress coping behaviour and memory performance. Secure children preferred positive coping behaviour in face of the interpersonal stressful situations whereas insecure children usually turned to negative  ways. Findings of the verbal memory tasks also indicated significant  group differences in favour of the secure group. It was predicted that attachment patterns maintained in the implicit memory would effect the stress coping mechanisms and explicit memory systems through their closely related neurobiopsychological developmental trajectories. Outcomes of the study generally supported this prediction.

John Bowlby devoted extensive research to the concept of attachment, describing it as a "lasting psychological connectedness between human beings" (Bowlby, 1969, p. 194). Bowlby shared the psychoanalytic view that early experiences in childhood have an important influence on development and behavior later in life.

Bowlby believed that attachment had an evolutionary component; it aids in survival. "The propensity to make strong emotional bonds to particular individuals [is] a basic component of human nature" (Bowlby, 1988, 3).

Characteristics of Attachment

Bowlby believed that there are four distinguishing characteristics of attachment:

Proximity Maintenance – A baby has a desire to be near to his care giver whom he attached to.

Safe Haven – He has a tendency to return to the attachment figure for comfort and safety in the face of a fear or threat.

Secure Base - The attachment figure acts as a base of security from which the child can explore the surrounding environment.

Separation Distress - Anxiety comes out in the absence of the attachment figure.

Function of Attachment System

Attachment behavior helps the baby to maintain closeness to a special person in order to feel himself as physically and emotionally secure.  (Jellema, 1999; Page, 2001)[1]. Consistency in this secure position gives way to form positive mental representations of self and the other as part of the attachment relationship. Positive mental representations are potential self regulating components in the future.

Mother’s sensitivity in response to emotional signals coming from the baby has a critically important role in terms of how the baby will organize his own emotional experiences.  If he feels that the mother is sensitive and responsive towards negative emotions, he will more likely to learn how to regulate distress with strategies that involve seeking comfort and support which facilitates the development of secure attachment. If distress signals are met with insensitivity and inconsistency by the care giver, the child is likely to associate distress with aversive consequences and will develop coping streategies contributing to insecure attachment (Brown and Wright, 2001).

Attachment Patterns

According to Main, Kaplan and Cassidy (1985) every baby has a biologically based tendency to seek to maintain proximity to the caregiver. The possible caregiver responses to this infant proximity-seeking intention are limited. She either permits or blocks the attempt of the baby, or behaves inconsistently. The type of responsiveness of the mother results in the corresponding organization of attachment.  

Ainsworth, Blehar and Waters (1978), developed a paradigm to classify attachment security, termed “Strange Situation”. Classification was based on the child’s response to a structured procedure, in which infants were exposed to two brief separations and reuninons with their mothers. Ainsworth identified three different attachment strategies depending on infants reactions in this situation. Secure, avoidant and ambivalent attachment. 

Securely attached infants were slightly distressed after the separation. Upon reunion they sought contact with their mothers and could easily be comforted and were able to use the mother as a secure base from which to explore the environment. Mothers of secure children were available and responded consistently and sensitively. 

Anxious-ambivalent infants responded with heightened expressions of anger upon separation and were hard to settle when reunited. Their mothers were observed to be inconsistent and intrusive in their parenting.

Anxious-avoidant infants behaved in a detached manner when their mothers returned as if unaffected by the separation and were unable to use the caregiver as a base from which to explore. These mothers were observed to behave in a rejecting manner.

Internal Working Models

As a  result of repeated interactions with the attachment figures infants develop organized representational structures which Bowlby called internal working models (IWM). Reflecting the systemic nature of behaviour, internal working models are representations of appraisals of the caregiver’s responsiveness to the child’s expression of attachment goals and of the child’s own worthiness to deserve this care. IWMs function as mental maps  in the brain. Some interpersonal information is processed by means of these maps. They are unconscious and assumed to be saved in the implicit memory (Bowlby, 1973; 1980; Hazan ve Shaver, 1994; Knox, 1999; Main ve ark., 1985; Page, 2001; Schore, 2000).

While they are relatively enduring structures, they are subject to revision based on new experience.

     Differences Between Secure and Insecure Attachment Groups

    There is considerable evidence about the differences between secure and insecure attachment groups. In general securely attached people have flexible and positive self concept, high tolerance of stress, strong affect regulation and flexible information processing. On the other hand insecurely attached people have a rigid (negative/positive) self concept, low tolerance of stress, difficulties in affect regulation and attentional defficiencies.

     Allan Schore, who is one of the most impressive authors of neuropsychobiology of attachment suggests that attachment theory is in essence a regulatory theory (2000, 2001). In attachment transactions the secure mother at an intuitive level is continuously regulating the baby’s shifting arousal levels and thefore emotional states. A goodenough attunement, helps the baby to tolerate distance from the caregiver. Mothers sensitiviy towards the need of the baby’s reapproachement, brings out the  synchronicity of interaction.

    The harmonious interaction between the infant and mother has been described as a resonance between two systems attuned to each other by corresponding properties (Sander, 1991).  As the baby experiences the regulatory function of his/her mother, he/she evaluates environmental stressors, develops adaptive coping behavior and self regulating functions. Attachment therefore can be defined as the dyadic regulation of emotion.

Misattunements and Repairments: Resilience / Coping

Howewer the primary caregiver is not always attuned and frequent moments of misattunement is experienced between the dyad. The disruption of attachment bonds in infancy leads to a regulatory failure and an impaired autonomic homeostasis which requires repairment. Interactive repair folllowing misattunements is essential to the internalization of a structural system for regulating stressful negative affect. Transitions from negative to positive emotional states help the child develop resilience in the face of stress.

Neurobiology of Attachment and Stress Behavior

Brain systems dominating stress coping behavior grow in the early phases of development and affected from the quality of the primary relationship. As well as autonomic nervous system (ANS), limbic structures of central nervous system (CNS) are also important in affect regulation and stress reactions. Right hemisphere has deeper connection with both the limbic system (Tucker, 1992) and ANS than the later developing left hemisphere. It is therefore more dominant for the human stress response (Wittling, 1997).  Bowlby  suggested that the limbic structures are intimately tied to attachment, because compared to the left “the right limbic system may be better connected with subcortical neurochemical systems associated with emotion” (Buck, 1994). Postnatal early phases have critical importance on growth of limbic-autonomic structures because they mediate stress-coping capacities for the rest of the life span.

Early interpersonal stress-inducing and stress-regulating events have long enduring effects.

Attachment experiences and brain development

Orbitofrontal cortex is a corticolimbic area between cortex and subcortex which is thought to be strongly effected from the quality of attachment relationship.

It is known to begin a major maturational change at 10 to 12 months and to complete a critical period of growth from the middle to the end of the second year. This time frame is identical to Bowlby’s maturation of an attachment control system that is open to influence from the developmental environment.

This prefrontal system appraises visual facial information, processes feedback information and therefore monitors, adjusts and corrects emotional responses and modulates the motivational control of goal-directed behavior. So after a rapid evaluation of environmental stimuli the orbitofrontal system monitors feedback about the current internal state in order to make assessments of coping resources and it updates the appropriate response outputs in order to develop adaptive adjustments to the environment. The integrity of orbitofrontal cortex is necessary for acquiring very specific forms of knowledge for regulating interpersonal behavior.

The orbital prefrontal region is especially expanded in the right hemisphere which is specialized for inhibitory control and it comes to act as an executive control for the entire right brain.

Early stressful experiences:

Early adverse developmental experiences may leave behind a permanent physiological reactivity in limbic areas of the brain, thereby inhibiting its capacity to cope with future stressors. Cortisol (a stress hormone) can also be produced in response to a danger that has not been consciously registered, galvanizing implicit memory in the right hemisphere.

Once programmed in, the reactions that went with the initial period of abuse or neglect are immidiately reactivated whenever a reminder occurs, whether or not the threat is real.

Chronic stress causes extreme increase in cortisol levels.  

These surges of cortisol also cause cell loss in the hippocampus, damaging learning and explicit memory (which is why some trauma can not be recalled, only restructured).

(Balbernie, 2001). At the same time extreme amygdala activity in the face of stressful situations also deteriorates hippocampal processes.These effects may impair cortical consolidation.

Early traumatic experiences that affect the formation of limbic and subcortical areas of the brain result in extreme anxiety, depression and a lack of ability to form secure attachment. On the other hand, secure attachment can promote resilience so that secure infants can cope with stressful events without their cortisol levels rising.

Attachment and Cognitive Processes

It is important to note that not just painful experiences but novelty itself is a stressor for babies. Howewer the capacity to approach, tolerate and incorporate novelty is fundamental to the development of cognitive processes. Naturally, babies prefer novelty. So effective coping with stress and ability to achieve affect regulation becomes important for healty cognitive processing.

A mind of a baby who has a “secure base” is ready to explore environment.

Information processing needs consistency in order to discard redundant information. Inconsistency increases loads of attentional system which has a restricted capacity. Overloaded attentional system has a difficulty in preference for novelty. Unstable representations in insecure anxious babies overloads attentional system which may impair novelty processing. Eventough avoidant babies have more stable representations, negative rigidity and difficulty in emotional regulation may result in withdrawal of attention from the external world because external world is full of negative experiences.

Forms of Memory

There are two main systems of memory in human beings: Implicit and explicit.

Implicit memory relies on brain structures that are intact at birth and remain available to us throughout life. Implicit memory involves parts of the brain that do not require conscious processing during encoding or retrieval. When implicit memory is retrieved, there is no awareness of remembering. But it influences here and now feelings, perceptions  and behaviors. It is mediated via brain circuits involved in the initial encoding and independent of the medial temporal lobe/hippocampus.

Explicit memory is a form of memory requiring conscious awareness for encoding and having the subjective sense of remembering. It includes semantic (factual) and episodic (autobiographical) memory. Explicit memory begins to develop by the second birthday following the the maturation of hippocampal structures and orbitofrontal cortex.  

Attachment Patterns and Forms of Memory

Attachment patterns represented by internal working models are maintained in implicit-procedural memory which is assumed to be localized in orbitofrontal cortex.  Since early trauma experiences cause damages in hippocampal structures, explicit encoding and retrieval processes are expected to be deteriorated. So eventhough attachment relationship is represented in the implicit memory, it is thought to be indirectly effective on the later developing explicit memory systems.

Remembering is a here and now process which includes both kinds of memory systems

Implications of the research

Important implications can be drawn from all these theory and research:

Attachment pattern has an influence on information processing systems by means of implicit procedural memory. Children having a secure base can pay attention to novelty, cope with stress and explore the environment. Therefore they are expected to develop better memory functions.

Insecure children are either anxious or avoidant and far from the curiosity of exploration. They may have attentional difficulties, low tolerance of stress and may have difficulty in explicit memory functionning.

 Present Study

The aim of my own study was to investigate whether early attachment patterns are implicitly influential on types of coping strategies  in stressful interpersonal situations and memory performances in different explicit memory tasks.

The question was:

Is there any differences between secure and insecure children in terms of stress coping strategies and memory performances


77 preschool children participated in the study. They were 5-6 yrs old and from four different kindergartens representing three different levels of SES.

They were applied measures on three different dimensions:

1-Attachment Pattern was investigated by means of a projective test including figures of a doll family.

2-Problem Solving Behavior in Interpersonal Stressful Situations was measured by the same doll family figures too. An additional measure was  a teacher questionnaire.

3-Memory performance is measured by a test battery named “Children’s Memory Scale” and secondly a cued recall task was used about the stories of the doll family.

Assessment Measures were as the following:

Attachment Story Completion Test  (Cassidy, 1988; Uluç, 2005)

Problem Solving Story Completion Test  (Türköz, 2007)

Children’s Interpersonal Problem Solving Style Teacher Rating Scale (Türköz, 2007)

Cued Recall Test (Türköz, 2007)

Childrens’ Memory Scale (Cohen, 1997; Tekok and Dikeç, 2001

Family Questionnaire (Türköz, 2007)

Ankara Developmental Scanning Inventory (Savaşır, Sezgin and Erol, 1994)

Dimensions of The Scales

Attachment Story Completion Test  has two dimensions

Secure / Insecure

Problem Solving Story Completion Test has four dimensions

Assertive-Positive / Aggressive / Submissive / Passive aggressive

Children’s Interpersonal Problem Solving Style Teacher Rating Scale  has also four dimension

Aggressive Attitude/ Passive Aggressive Attitude/ Assertive – Positive Attitude / Submissive Attitude

Childrens’ Memory Scale has three different subtests

Dot location (visual)


Word Lists

     And several dimensions:

verbal / visual;

recognition / recall;

immidiate / delayed recall ;

general memory


Rating and Classification

77 subjects were classified into two  groups in terms of attachment security: secure / insecure.. %80 of the children were rated as secure and %20 as insecure.

Classification depends on the independent raters’ evaluative scores of the attachment story completion test. Raters watched video tapes of the children and rated each story in terms of the  described qualitative criteria.


Statistics were based on the comparisons between the two groups.

Although attachment is a categoric variable of the study, calculation of the rating scores allows it to be treated as a continous variable too. Therefore so called Attachment Security Score  was used to compare girls and boys in terms of the degree of attachment security. T-test resulted in a significant difference in favor of the girls.

So gender was taken as a covariate. As result of its testing, regression equation  is provided in most of the dependent variables.

ANCOVA has been conducted on the base of all the dependent variables. Between group differences were ignored for those variables on which regression equation of gender failed.


Significant differences were found between the  secure and insecure groups both in interpersonal problem solving behavior and in memory performances. 

In interpersonal problematic situations, secure children turned to assertive-positive coping ways while insecure children  selected submissive or aggressive coping behaviour.

In memory tests, secure children showed higher performance in most of the verbal memory tasks…


Number of insecure children should be increased

New stories may be added to the Attachment Story Completion Test

Gender effect should be considered in future research and sample size needs to be increased.


Results of the study strenghten the possibility that attachment patterns maintained in the implicit memory influences stress coping mechanisms and explicit memory systems through their closely related neurobiopsychological developmental trajectories.

Outcomes of the study revealed relevant implications for trauma research and intervention.

Early relational trauma or chronic traumatization are risk factors for children in terms of disrupting their optimal development of the stress coping systems and explicit memory functions. It is suggested that treatments of traumatized individuals should consider the likelihood of impaired stress coping and memory systems.