B3572 - Does attachment style in childhood predict mental health difficulties in early adulthood - 20/07/2020

B number: 
Principal applicant name: 
Philippa Clery | University of Bristol (UK)
Dr Liam Mahedy, Dr Angela Rowe
Title of project: 
Does attachment style in childhood predict mental health difficulties in early adulthood?
Proposal summary: 

Attachment theory explains social, relationship and personality development across the lifespan (Bowlby 1969) and has been shown to provide a psychological framework for understanding mental ill health (Mikulincer & Shaver, 2007). The basic postulation is that very early childhood social interactions with primary caregivers are internalised to create and maintain conscious and unconscious mental representations of the self and others. These form the basis of ‘attachment styles’, which have an impact on close relationships and ability to regulate emotions. There is extensive evidence that attachment style is a predictor of coping strategies, adjustment in response to stressors and therefore a vulnerability to mental health problems (see Mikulincer & Shaver 2012 for a review). Research has widely demonstrated an association between secure attachment style and well-being and positive mental health, whilst both insecure attachment styles (anxious and avoidant) have been associated with poor relationship quality, psychological vulnerability and maladjustment, and mental health difficulties (e.g. Sroufe et al., 1999; Hankin et al., 2005; Mikulincer & Shaver 2007; Groh 2016; Spruit 2019). However, the direction of causality is less well established as most studies rely on cross-sectional design and measure attachment style as a discrete variable at a single point in adulthood.

By using a large prospective birth cohort, we will be able to (a) investigate the prospective relationship and (b) use latent variable modelling of repeated measures of attachment to create a more robust and detailed measure of attachment style. This will aid more nuanced explanations of how and when insecure attachment style may lead to mental ill health, such that the association can be interrogated to identify possible intervention targets.

This proposal has implications for healthcare provision and public health policies around childhood and parental interventions to support research to address the growing number of mental health difficulties in later adolescence.

Impact of research: 
This research will be able to determine whether there is a prospective relationship between attachment style in childhood and mental health outcomes of depression and self-harm at 18 years of age, helping identify if this is a causal link or what the key confounders are in this relationship. This has significant implications for nature and timing of interventions to target attachment styles or other factors, to inform an effective public health response, including parenting programmes, psychological intervention, or school and social environments.
Date proposal received: 
Friday, 17 July, 2020
Date proposal approved: 
Monday, 20 July, 2020
Mental health - Psychology, Psychiatry, Cognition, Mental health, Attachment style, Statistical methods, Childhood - childcare, childhood adversity, Parenting, Psychology - personality