Parent-Child Synchrony Isn’t Always Better for Attachment Development

Summary: Researchers revealed nuanced insights into parent-child synchrony, differentiating between behavioral and brain-to-brain connections in 140 families. This research indicates that higher brain-to-brain synchrony, particularly in mothers with insecure attachment traits, might compensate for less attuned interactions.

While mothers and children demonstrated stronger behavioral synchrony, fathers and their offspring showed greater neural synchronization, suggesting varying strategies of emotional connection and compensation within family dynamics. These findings pave the way for deeper explorations into optimizing parent-child relationships, especially in families with neurodivergent children or those with experiences of care and adoption.

Key Facts:

  1. Mothers with insecure attachment traits exhibited more brain-to-brain synchrony with their children, possibly as a compensatory mechanism.
  2. Fathers and children had higher neural synchrony, while mothers and children showed stronger behavioral synchrony, highlighting different patterns of emotional bonding.
  3. The study aims to identify an optimal range of synchrony to enhance relationships and child attachment development, challenging the notion that more synchrony is always beneficial.

Source: University of Essex

More synchrony between parents and children may not always be better, new research has revealed. 

For the first time a new University of Essex study looked at behavioural and brain-to-brain synchrony in 140 families with a special focus on attachment.

It looked at how they feel and think about emotional bonds whilst measuring brain activity as mums and dads solved puzzles with their kids. 

This shows a mom and daughter.
Attachment was assessed in parents with an interview and in children with a story completion task. Credit: Neuroscience News

The study – published in Developmental Science – discovered that mums with insecure attachment traits showed more brain-to-brain synchrony with their children. 

Dr Pascal Vrticka, from the Department of Psychology, said: “For secure child attachment development, sensitive and mutually attuned interactions with parents are crucial.  

“If the parent, here the mother, has more insecure attachment traits it may be more difficult for the dyad to achieve optimal behavioural synchrony.  

“Increased brain-to-brain synchrony may reflect a neural compensation mechanism to overcome otherwise less attuned interaction elements.” 

The study also discovered different behavioural and brain-to-brain synchrony patterns depending on whether the parent was a mum or a dad.  

Fathers and children showed stronger brain-to-brain synchrony, whereas mums and their kids had stronger behavioural synchrony.  

These findings suggest higher father-child brain-to-brain synchrony may reflect a neural compensation strategy to counteract a relative lack of behavioural synchrony.   

It hopes this research will springboard studies into parent-child relationships and open new avenues for intervention and prevention.  

It comes as Dr Vrticka prepares to work with the NHS to explore family relationships. 

He added: “Together with the East Suffolk and North Essex NHS Foundation Trust, we will soon start looking at synchrony within families with neurodivergent children and children with experiences of care and adoption.  

“Our aim is to find behavioural and neurobiological correlates of an optimal range of synchrony to help all families with their relationships and child attachment development. 

In doing so, we must appreciate that not only low but also high synchrony can signal interaction and relationship difficulties.” 

Attachment was assessed in parents with an interview and in children with a story completion task.  

Brain-to-brain synchrony between parents and children was derived from functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS) hyperscanning.  

Finally, the parent-child interaction was video-recorded and coded for behavioural synchrony. 

The study was led by Dr Trinh Nguyen who now works at the Italian Institute of Technology in Rome, Italy, and Dr Melanie Kungl from the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg, Germany – along with colleagues from Vienna, Berlin, and Leipzig. 

About this parenting and psychology research news

Author: Ben Hall
Source: University of Essex
Contact: Ben Hall – University of Essex
Image: The image is credited to Neuroscience News

Original Research: Open access.
Visualizing the invisible tie: Linking parent–child neural synchrony to parents’ and children’s attachment representations” by Pascal Vrticka et al. Developmental Science


Visualizing the invisible tie: Linking parent–child neural synchrony to parents’ and children’s attachment representations

It is a central tenet of attachment theory that individual differences in attachment representations organize behavior during social interactions.

Secure attachment representations also facilitate behavioral synchrony, a key component of adaptive parent–child interactions. Yet, the dynamic neural processes underlying these interactions and the potential role of attachment representations remain largely unknown.

A growing body of research indicates that interpersonal neural synchrony (INS) could be a potential neurobiological correlate of high interaction and relationship quality.

In this study, we examined whether interpersonal neural and behavioral synchrony during parent–child interaction is associated with parent and child attachment representations.

In total, 140 parents (74 mothers and 66 fathers) and their children (age 5–6 years; 60 girls and 80 boys) engaged in cooperative versus individual problem-solving. INS in frontal and temporal regions was assessed with functional near-infrared spectroscopy hyperscanning.

Attachment representations were ascertained by means of the Adult Attachment Interview in parents and a story-completion task in children, alongside video-coded behavioral synchrony.

Findings revealed increased INS during cooperative versus individual problem solving across all dyads (𝛸2(2) = 9.37, = 0.009).

Remarkably, individual differences in attachment representations were associated with INS but not behavioral synchrony (> 0.159) during cooperation.

More specifically, insecure maternal attachment representations were related to higher mother–child INS in frontal regions (𝛸2(3) = 9.18, = 0.027).

Conversely, secure daughter attachment representations were related to higher daughter–parent INS within temporal regions (𝛸2(3) = 12.58, = 0.006).

Our data thus provide further indication for INS as a promising correlate to probe the neurobiological underpinnings of attachment representations in the context of early parent–child interactions.

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