Toward a new understanding of legacy of early attachments for future antisocial trajectories: evidence from two longitudinal studies

Dev Psychopathol. 2012 Aug;24(3):783-806. doi: 10.1017/S0954579412000375.


Early parent-child attachment has been extensively explored as a contributor to children's future adaptive or antisocial outcomes, but the specific developmental mechanisms remain to be fully understood. We examined long-term indirect developmental sequelae of early security in two longitudinal community samples followed from infancy to early school age: the Family Study (102 mothers, fathers, and infants) and the Parent-Child Study (112 mothers and infants). Constructs at multiple levels (child characteristics, parent-child security, parental discipline, and child antisocial outcomes) were assessed using a range of methods (extensive behavioral observations in a variety of settings, informants' ratings). Both studies supported the proposed model of infant attachment as a potent catalyst that moderates future developmental socialization trajectories, despite having few long-term main effects. In insecure dyads, a pattern of coercion emerged between children who were anger prone as toddlers and their parents, resulting in parents' increased power-assertive discipline. Power assertion in turn predicted children's rule-breaking conduct and a compromised capacity to delay in laboratory paradigms, as well as oppositional, disruptive, callous, and aggressive behavior rated by parents and teachers at early school age. This causal chain was absent in secure dyads, where child anger proneness was unrelated to power assertion, and power assertion was unrelated to antisocial outcomes. Early insecurity appeared to act as a catalyst for the parent-child dyad embarking on a mutually adversarial path toward antisocial outcomes, whereas security defused such a maladaptive dynamic. The possible mechanisms of those effects were proposed.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Aggression / psychology*
  • Child
  • Child Behavior / psychology*
  • Child, Preschool
  • Conduct Disorder / psychology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Infant
  • Longitudinal Studies
  • Male
  • Models, Psychological
  • Object Attachment*
  • Parent-Child Relations*
  • Parenting / psychology
  • Personality Development