Separation from the caregiver is a cornerstone of attachment theory; however, attachment research has not thoroughly explored how infant separation experiences in the context of parental separation and divorce effects attachment. Judith Solomon and I designed the first systematic study of its kind designed to address the question of effects on infant attachment to mother and to father during the first and second year of life. The study involved first born infants and their separated or divorced parents in comparison with intact families. The study findings showed that overnight visitation with father was a risk factor for disorganized attachment with mother. Disorganized attachment with father was also more likely than secure in both separation groups (overnight, no overnight), but was unrelated to visiting arrangement. Poor parent communication, high parent conflict, and mothers’ reported inability to protect their infants from the situational and couple distress were contributing factors to disorganization with mother. These findings led to questions regarding how the infants were doing one year later. Our follow-up study explored mother-child dyadic interaction during a series of problem-solving tasks. The findings showed overnight visitation with father in infancy or the current (i.e., toddler) overnight visitation was a risk factor for behavioral deterioration (e.g., clean up) for tasks that followed a five-minute separation. This “breakdown” phenomenon suggested that early visitation experiences may have contributed to a dysregulating stress response that followed strong activation of the attachment system by maternal separation. The combined study findings raise questions about the sources of young children’s vulnerability when parents separate, and how to support attachment with mothers and fathers and help parents gain or regain sensitivity over the long term.
Carol George, Ph.D. is Professor of Psychology at Mills College, Oakland, CA. She received her doctorate in developmental psychology from the University of California, Berkeley in 1984. She teaches courses in life-span development, infancy, adolescence, and attachment, co-directs a master's degree program in infant mental health. She has authored numerous research articles, book chapters, and books on adult and child attachment and caregiving, including Attachment Disorganization (1999), Disorganized Attachment and Caregiving (2011), and The Adult Attachment Projective Picture System. Dr. George has been in the forefront of developing attachment assessments for children and adults, including the Attachment Doll Play Projective Assessment, the Caregiving Interview, the Adult Attachment Interview, and the Adult Attachment Projective Picture System. She does extensive training and consultation on the application of attachment assessment for topics across the life span in research and clinical settings. Dr. George is an Assistant Editor and on the Editorial Board of Attachment and Human Development.