Adolescents’ Attachment Security Predicts Compliance During COVID-19

We have known for a long time that attachment security is a protective factor in the face of stress. Coulombe & Yates (2021) published “Adolescents’ Attachment Security Predicts Compliance During the COVID-19 Pandemic” in Child Development. They examined relations among attachment, mental health, and prosocial and health protective responses to the COVID-19 pandemic. Media reports often note that adolescents have exacerbated the pandemic by socializing and partying which may relate, in turn, to adolescent egocentrism, perceived invincibility, and risk-taking behavior. However, Coulombe and Yates note that, “prosocial behavior requires some element of risk (e.g., approaching others, even in kindness, may eventuate in social rejection), and the same neural changes that underlie adolescent risk taking behavior also promote prosocial behavior.”

Attachment security is associated with the concept of safe haven. The sensitive and responsive caregiving provided by parents fosters capacities for self-regulation in that the child knows that it is okay to venture out but there is a safe haven to which you can return. Not surprisingly, attachment security is related to elements of prosocial behavior including perspective-taking and empathy as well as positive mental health outcomes. Coulombe and Yates worked with a longitudinal sample which provides the benefit of testing before the pandemic began. They found that:

Adolescents who reported more secure attachment relationships at age 12 evidenced smaller-than-expected increases in mental health symptoms from age 14 (prior to the pandemic) to age 15 (during the first phase of U.S. pandemic). Moreover, attachment security predicted increased prosocial and health protective behaviors during the first weeks of the pandemic, and these relations were mediated by the promotive effect of attachment security on adolescents’ mental health responses to the pandemic.

The study was limited to the early phase of the pandemic but is a helpful extension of the attachment literature. In another recent study, Waters et al. (2021) find support for the prototype theory of attachment — the notion that the early parent-child relationship is the prototype for understanding future relationships. Yet, roughly 30% or so of individuals change their attachment status between childhood and adulthood, suggesting that interventions to address attachment distress may be especially important before adolescence so as to buffer the inevitable stressors encountered during the teen years.

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Karen H Nelson is an emerita professor of psychology at Austin College. Since retirement, she has worked with HACCAH Solutions (haccah.com).

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Karen Nelson

Karen Nelson

Karen H Nelson is an emerita professor of psychology at Austin College. Since retirement, she has worked with HACCAH Solutions (haccah.com).

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