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(The limits of) Attachment theory and adolescent relationships

April 11, 2013

In her 2003 review of adolescent relationships, Peggy C. Giordano pointed out the dominance of attachment theory in this field of research. She writes:

“…many scholars interested in adolescent relationships rely on concepts and insights derived from attachment theories as a framework for their
research; indeed, this is arguably the most prominent theoretical position within the existing relationships literature. Attachment theories emphasize the important role of very early experiences in the family, particularly the infant-mother relationship (Collins & Sroufe 1999, Hazan & Shaver 1987). Individuals who develop secure early attachment(s) are believed to be more successful in forging later relationships, including close friendships and romantic relations. The logic underlying this approach includes the notion that the security and stability this early relationship provides frees the developing youth to comfortably explore subsequent relationships (Bowlby 1973). In addition, these early experiences engage cognitive processes—what Furman and colleagues (Furman & Simon 1999, Furman & Wehner 1994) call cognitive representations or “views” of relationships. These generalized attitudes and beliefs also play a significant role in the individual’s ongoing relationship experiences and choices. For example, individuals who do not experience secure attachment may develop a sensitivity to rejection in later relationships (Downey et al. 1999). Finally, attachment models include the notion of skill building. Individuals who have positive early attachment experiences have not only constructed particular views of relationships, but have also had numerous opportunities to practice relationship skills that they can carry over into the next relationship (Collins & Sroufe 1999).” (p.259)

She discusses the limitations of this approach; “Although these ideas are intuitively appealing and have garnered empirical support, for several reasons attachment models are not entirely comprehensive as a framework for understanding adolescent relationships. First, by emphasizing carry-over or consistency across the various relationships, this perspective fails to adequately highlight the unique developmental roles, subjective meanings, and relationship dynamics connected to each relationship form. Certainly, researchers theorizing about adolescent relationships increasingly describe several distinct functions or qualities (see, e.g., Furman & Wehner 1994).” (p.259) (Giordano also considers the assumption that attachment is “a priori a developmental ‘good'” (p.260) and the tendency of attachment-based approaches to the field to be relatively individualistic – “the emphasis on the young person’s early experiences as a model for later relations does not readily lead to explorations of broader social influences on a relationships’ form or content. However, experiences associated with gender, race, social class, school, or neighborhood context(s) all significantly influence the shape of adolescent relationships.” (p.260)

Ref: Peggy C. Giordano (2003) Relationships in Adolescence. Annu. Rev. Sociol. 2003. 29:257–81

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