Secure attachment patterns shown in many teen mothers and their infants

Date Published: 

Emery, J., Paquette, D. & Bigras, M. (2008). Factors predicting attachment patterns in infants of adolescent mothers. Journal of Family Studies, 14, 65-90.

Reviewed by: 
Jonathan D. Schmidt

Adolescent motherhood has been associated with problems such as low self-efficacy, poor knowledge of child development, increased stress and depression, and insecure and disorganized attachment patterns. Children with insecure or disorganized attachment patterns are at risk for a host of negative outcomes: the former for poor social competence and aggression, the latter for an even higher likelihood of developing mental illnesses and externalizing behaviour. Adolescent mothers have been found to be less communicative and more irritable and controlling than adult mothers. These patterns highlight the potential for child protection involvement and early interventions, but care should be taken when generalizing since problems associated with teen motherhood may be caused, or at least exacerbated, by stigma and marginalization.

This longitudinal research sought to identify factors predictive of mother-infant attachment patterns in a sample of 138 teen mothers with no reported child protection involvement. Most attachment relationships were secure (59%), but the proportion with other attachment styles was generally similar to those of other studies, i.e. disorganized (26%), resistant (5%), and fewer than usual were avoidant (9%). Socio-demographic factors were unrelated to attachment patterns except for years of schooling. Mothers with more schooling were more likely to have a secure relational pattern. Parenting stress and satisfaction with social support predicted secure attachment. Counter to expectations, maternal history of child maltreatment, maternal sensitivity, and infant temperament (both maternal and observer perceptions) did not contribute to predicting attachment patterns. Disorganized attachment patterns were not predicted by more severe constellations of risk. Teen mothers with lower reported stress and higher satisfaction with social support were more likely to have secure attachments with their infants. These findings had a small to medium effect size and can be judged to be clinically significant; however, most of the variation in attachment patterns remained unexplained.

These results highlight positive outcomes for most of the teen mothers, underscoring the fact that stigmas associated with teen motherhood can be undeserved. Nonetheless, interventions aimed at stress and social support, and possibly even years in school, may make a difference for teen mothers and their infants.

Methodological notes: 

The inclusion criteria were first time mothers under 19 years old and living with their babies. A total of 228 adolescent mother-infant dyads were recruited via special schools and group homes for adolescent mothers (74 dropped out for various reasons and 16 didn't meet one or more criteria). Mothers were mostly Caucasian (75%), Haitian (9%) and Latin American (8%), and most (84%) were born in Canada. Ages ranged from 13.5 to 18.9 (M = 17, SD = 1); and they had completed between 6 to 12 years of schooling (M = 9, SD = 1.3). Three-quarters of the mothers were single during pregnancy. One third received public assistance. All children were born at term and were healthy; more infants were female (57.1%) than male (42.9%). Research assistants met mothers for interviews during the pregnancy, at 4 months, 10 months and at 15 months, to complete various research instruments. This research may not generalize to teen mothers with Child Protection Services involvement.