This study examined adolescent attachment organization and developing adolescent autonomy as predictors of changing levels of social skills and delinquent behavior during midadolescence. As hypothesized, adolescent attachment organization at age 16 predicted relative changes in levels of social skills and delinquent behavior. Overall attachment insecurity predicted decreases in social skills (relative to more secure adolescents), and attachment preoccupation predicted relative increases in delinquency when it occurred in conjunction with high levels of maternal autonomy.
These findings are consistent with literature associating attachment insecurity with externalizing behaviors at other points in the lifespan (Fagot & Kavanagh, 1990
; Rosenstein & Horowitz, 1996
). The findings go beyond this existing literature, however, in showing not simply cross-sectional associations but rather that attachment organization can help explain changes over time
in functioning during adolescence. Given the high degree of stability in rank orderings of individuals’ rates of deviant behavior from childhood through adulthood (Loeber, 1991
), one might wonder whether it was even feasible to try to predict relative changes in levels of problematic behavior in a sample of midadolescents. Although not all expected predictions were obtained, this study was nevertheless able to account for approximately 10% of the change in social skill levels and delinquent activity over a 2-year period. Although these nonexperimental findings do not establish causality, one explanation for these results is that insecurity in adolescence may have impeded the adolescent’s ability to accurately process and integrate the affective components of the increasingly complex social interactions of this period, leading to deteriorating functioning over time. These results clearly suggest that lawful developmental change does occur in patterns of problematic behavior during midadolescence and that adolescent attachment organization may be a promising place to intervene in efforts to reduce the incidence of adolescent delinquent behavior.
One of the clearest findings of this study was of a moderating effect of preoccupied attachment on the relation between displays of autonomy in the family and relative changes in adolescent social functioning over time. A more preoccupied adolescent attachment organization was most strongly predictive of relative decreases in skill levels when preoccupation co-occurred with strong maternal displays of autonomy. Maternal displays of autonomy, which many studies have found to be linked to positive social outcomes (Allen, Hauser, Bell, et al., 1994
; Allen, Hauser, Eickholt, et al., 1994
), were neutral to positive in their relation to outcomes in this study, but only for nonpreoccupied adolescents. For preoccupied adolescents, maternal displays of autonomy were associated with higher levels of delinquency over time.
It is interesting to note that a complementary moderating effect was also found when maternal preoccupation was paired with adolescent displays of autonomy, with the more extreme version of this combination tending to predict relative decreases in adolescent social skills over time. In each moderating finding observed, the effect was always of an individual’s attachment preoccupation interacting with displays of autonomy by the other member of the dyad. This suggests the importance of taking a family-systems perspective on attachment and autonomy within the family (Cowan, 1997
; Marvin & Stewart, 1990
). Both sets of moderating effects suggest that individuals who are more preoccupied with attachment relationships may be most unsettled not by their own developing autonomy but by autonomy displayed by their partner in the interaction. Given that maternal and adolescent insecure preoccupation were not correlated, the findings of moderating effects of attachment organization on the meaning of autonomy within the family for both teens and mothers provide two relatively independent pieces of data in support of this notion.
One explanation for these findings is that for more preoccupied individuals, autonomy displayed by the other member of the dyad was highly threatening. For preoccupied individuals, who have difficulty gaining cognitive or emotional distance from their dependency in attachment relationships, seeing another’s displays of autonomy (and hence independence) may evoke fear, followed by anger that the other person will not be available to meet attachment needs. Of note, qualitative inspection of the videotapes of interactions with preoccupied adolescents in which mothers displayed high levels of autonomy suggested that these mothers tended to display their own autonomy in somewhat rigid and overly forceful terms. For example, they frequently launched into long monologues in defense of their position. These monologues were reasoned and confident but far less flexible and open than the confident, reasoned statements of the mothers of nonpreoccupied adolescents.
Such noninteractive displays of autonomy may be particularly threatening to adolescents whose attachment organization is more oriented toward heightened interaction with parents. Observing one’s mother display her autonomy rigidly and forcefully may also serve a releasing function that sanctions assertion of one’s impulses, as some childhood research has suggested (J. W. Sroufe, 1991
). This in turn could lead to dysregulation of behavior and to dysfunctional efforts to gain parental attention and interaction. In short, these findings are consistent with the idea that preoccupied individuals may be somewhat “autonomy phobic,” especially regarding someone else’s display of autonomy. Delinquent and unskillful adolescent behavior has the predictable effect of bringing about a great deal of parent–teen involvement and interaction—interaction that may be desirable to a preoccupied individual in spite of its likely angry and conflictual nature (Allen, Moore, et al., 1998
) and may be a response to insecurity arising from observing maternal autonomy.
An analogy to attachment in infancy may be illustrative here. In the infant Strange Situation attachment paradigm, insecure-ambivalently-attached infants (the counterpart to insecurely preoccupied adolescents) frequently express a very high degree of distress upon separation from mothers (i.e., displays of maternal autonomy), and upon reunion their attachment behavior often consists of angry gestures and dysfunctional efforts to reunite with the parent (Ainsworth et al., 1978
). Preoccupied adolescents may well be reacting to displays of maternal autonomy by using delinquent behaviors both to express anger toward parents who are displaying their own autonomy and to express their distress and need for parental attention.
The finding that preoccupation with attachment is a risk factor in the context of a partner’s autonomy suggests that for families with more preoccupied adolescents or parents, adolescence itself may be risky, given the increasing autonomy in family interactions that characterizes this period (Collins, 1990
; Hill & Holmbeck, 1986
; Steinberg, 1990
). As such, these findings may be useful in identifying one of the routes by which the developmental transformations of adolescence lead to the rapid increase in delinquency during this period. Moffitt (1993)
noted that although significant stability exists from childhood conduct problems to adolescent delinquency, much delinquency in adolescence arises de novo. It may be that some of this emerging and costly delinquent activity stems from the confluence of the preexisting vulnerability of a preoccupied attachment organization and the new developmental challenge of increasing autonomy in relationships. The appearance of an interaction of preoccupation and autonomy could also be useful in explaining the somewhat surprising findings in the literature that for some adolescents, various autonomy-promoting interactions in adolescence, such as high levels of youth employment (Steinberg & Dornbusch, 1991
) and the presence of independent adult mentors (McCord, 1992
), may lead to increased risk for deviant behavior.
One of the more important implications of these findings is that they suggest a need to move beyond simple, “one size fits all” main effects explanations of optimal family functioning, particularly with respect to autonomy processes. Although for the large majority of adolescents, autonomy development within the family appears to be a positive factor, this does not appear to be universally true. Rather, a model is emerging of autonomy development within the family as a normative part of adolescent development, but one that also presents a significant challenge. Adolescents with secure attachment organizations may well be up to meeting this challenge of observing their mothers behaving more autonomously. They may in fact find these displays to be “releasing” in the positive sense of freeing them to learn to be more autonomous themselves and to gain social skills over time; nonpreoccupied adolescents in this study fared well over time when exposed to maternal displays of autonomy. However, adolescents who are struggling with issues of autonomy already, as reflected in their preoccupation with attachment experiences, may find the normative challenge of coping with maternal displays of autonomy to be threatening and overwhelming. Sensitive parenting for these adolescents might well involve mothers focusing more on helping their adolescents understand and express their own views and on buttressing the relationship rather than focusing heavily on presenting logical and dispassionate reasoning supporting their own position.
These findings are consistent with a branching pathways
model of the development of psychopathology, in which earlier risk factors become manifest in later psychopathology only in the presence of specific environmental challenges (L. A. Sroufe, 1997
). Understanding the moderating influences of individual characteristics on social–environmental factors, such as autonomy development, is critical to developing interventions tailored to the needs of individual adolescents and their families (Tolan, Guerra, & Kendall, 1995
; Tolan & Loeber, 1993
; Weisz & Weersing, 1999
). These findings are consistent with emerging research suggesting that autonomy processes may be associated with far less positive outcomes for families in risky environments (McElhaney & Allen, 2001
) and with findings that a range of presumably positive parenting behaviors may be linked to lower levels of deviance only for children and adolescents who are not showing evidence of disturbed attachment relationships (Allen, Moore, et al., 1998
; Wootton, Frick, Shelton, & Silverthorn, 1997
). This study provides further evidence that a child or adolescent’s attachment organization may fundamentally alter the meaning and consequences of the parenting behavior to which they are exposed.
Although this study advances our understanding of the relation of attachment organization to the development of adolescent deviant behavior by using multiple methods—including tests, observations, and self-reports repeated over time—there are nonetheless a number of limitations to these findings that bear consideration. First, although longitudinal studies of change allow for more opportunities to examine potentially causal processes than does cross-sectional research, they cannot in and of themselves support causal inferences. Second, this study sought to assess relations of attachment to social functioning in a moderately at-risk sample, for whom differences in levels of functioning would be most likely to be meaningful, and because we used a unique process to select the specific sample used in this study, the results cannot be generalized to normal populations without further replication. Third, lack of data on fathers limits our ability to draw inferences about this important part of the family system and creates a clear need for future research involving fathers. Fourth, the findings obtained in some cases suggested slightly different predictors of changes in social skills and delinquent behaviors. These differences may arise out of the relatively modest power of a study this size, or they may suggest some instability in the patterns of predictions obtained or the presence of unexplained distinctions in processes leading to social skill development versus those leading to avoidance of delinquent behavior.
Limits to the attachment and autonomy data also suggest several areas where further research might be profitable. Because attachment security was so strongly negatively correlated with dismissing attachment organization, it was not possible to examine dismissing attachment organization separately. Results for security could therefore almost as easily be interpreted as the inverse of results for insecure-dismissing attachment. This correlation also suggests that there were relatively few adolescents in the study who would have met criteria to be classified as having a primary attachment organization of insecure-preoccupied. This means that predictions from the preoccupation observed may have in many cases reflected effects of moderate levels of preoccupation within an overall secure attachment organization. Also, the Q-sort attachment methodology used in this study did not allow assessment of insecure-unresolved classifications. This does not invalidate the present findings, as unresolved attachment organization is a superordinate classification that coexists with an otherwise secure, dismissing, or preoccupied attachment organization, but it suggests one avenue for future research. It should also be noted that the measures of autonomy that were used focused on a particular context for the display of such autonomy: within verbal discussions. Consideration of autonomy as defined in other ways (e.g., as reflecting emotional alienation) would likely lead to differing results (Fuhrman & Holmbeck, 1995
Finally, the 2-year longitudinal window of this study, although optimal for examining changes over substantial periods of time, does not provide information about the intervening processes that may have led to these changes. Further research is now needed to clarify the mechanisms by which attachment organization may influence the development of poor social skills and deviant behavior over the course of adolescence.