Four studies were conducted to examine the associations between attachment and adjustment in non-abused and sexually abused children. A self-report technique was used to assess both children and their caregivers.
In the first study, 461 non-abused, children, aged between 8 and 15 years, were recruited from the general community. Children completed self-report measures that assessed attachment, adjustment, and family functioning. Their caregivers completed measures that assessed their own attachment and current family functioning. An attachment measure suitable for the child (ASQ-Y) was amended from an adult version (ASQ) and tested in this population. The modified measure was factor-analysed and a four-factor solution derived. This solution was in line with current conceptualisations of adult attachment as a four-style/two-dimensional model (Bartholomew, 1990; Bartholomew & Horowitz, 1991). For caregivers, attachment was measured according to both the five continuous dimensions defined by Feeney, Noller and Hanrahan (1994), and the categorical and continuous conceptualisations of Bartholomew and Horowitz (1990; 1991).
As hypothesised, the attachment of children and caregivers in the non-abused sample was predominantly secure. The modified attachment measure (ASQ-Y) was successful in identifying strong predictive associations between secure attachment in children and their adjustment. This was particularly the case for confident attachment: high comfort with closeness and low avoidance of relationships. Secure attachment was associated with healthy family functioning. These relationships were also evident in caregivers; however, associations between child and caregiver attachment were moderate. Neither caregiver attachment nor family functioning mediated the relationship between child attachment and child adjustment. Family functioning variables were associated with both child attachment and child adjustment. These findings are consistent with the concept that attachment security drives healthy adjustment and family functioning. Boys tended to be more avoidant and girls more confident in relationships. Of particular importance was the finding that younger children were more preoccupied than older children, and that older girls were more preoccupied than older boys. Finally, children and caregivers rated their family functioning significantly differently.
In the second study, 54 sexually abused children and their non-offending caregivers completed self-report measures investigating the inter-relations of attachment, adjustment, and family functioning. The effect on child adjustment of abuse characteristics (e.g., frequency, duration, identity of the perpetrator), child attachment, and caregiver attachment was investigated. Children completed measures of their own attachment, adjustment and family functioning. Caregivers completed an intake interview detailing the nature of the abuse, together with measures of their own attachment, history of abuse, mental health and family functioning. Caregivers also completed measures of their child's adjustment.
As expected, children and caregivers in this group were highly insecure, often reporting severe clinical symptomatology and family dysfunction. As in Study 1, child attachment security was strongly associated with child adjustment and family functioning, particularly for the anxiety-over-relationships dimension. Preoccupation with relationships was consistently the most significant predictor of adjustment. In line with Study 1, associations between child and caregiver attachment were evident for the avoidant dimension. There were associations between caregivers' reports of high levels of avoidance or discomfort with closeness, and children with both internalising and externalising symptomatology. As in Study I, perceptions of family functioning differed, children rating their families as significantly more dysfunctional than their caregivers did. Neither caregiver attachment nor family functioning mediated or moderated the relationship between child attachment and adjustment. Neither gender nor age moderated this relationship.
In the third study, non-abused and abused children were matched for gender and age, with the purpose of comparing their attachment and adjustment. A subset of measures (completed by both groups) was examined. As hypothesised, across all measures of attachment and adjustment, sexually abused children displayed higher levels of insecurity and symptomatology. As hypothesised, family functioning differed, abused children reporting more dysfunction, particularly in family roles and emotional involvement. Contrary to the hypothesis, there were no group differences in attachment between abused and non-abused boys. Group differences in attachment and adjustment were evident for girls.
In the fourth and final study, 85 caregivers of sexually abused children taking part in a larger treatment study were assessed on measures of their own history of abuse and level of psychopathology. The attachment measures completed in Study 2 were used. There were two components to this study. Firstly, caregiver history of abuse was examined for its effect on both caregiver attachment and caregiver adjustment. Contrary to the hypothesis, there were no significant associations between prior abuse and caregiver attachment. However, there were significant associations between reported emotional abuse and psychopathology. Caregivers who, as children, had experienced emotional abuse reported clinically significant levels of somatization, anxiety, and depression. In line with the hypotheses, caregiver attachment style was related to mental health, although caregiver attachment did not mediate or moderate the relationship between history of abuse and caregiver mental health.
In the second component of Study 4, 54 caregivers of the sexually abused children who had completed the ASQ-Y were examined for effects of the history of abuse, caregiver attachment, and mental health on both child attachment and child adjustment. There were strong associations between caregiver mental health and child attachment. Associations between caregiver mental health and child adjustment were not significant. A caregiver's history of abuse was not related to child attachment or child adjustment. Thus, caregiver attachment did not mediate or moderate the relationship between history of abuse and child attachment or child adjustment. Furthermore, caregiver attachment did not mediate or moderate the relationship between caregiver mental health and child variables.
In summary, the results of the four studies confirm that sexually abused children were more likely to be insecurely attached and poorly adjusted, and to live within a dysfunctional family environment. Children and caregivers with insecure patterns of attachment reported poor adjustment; however, the reasons or processes underlying this relationship are not completely clear. There were direct associations between avoidant caregiver attachment and avoidant child attachment. In terms of attachment and adjustment, the role of attachment was evident in a number of associations, and analyses of particular styles or categories of attachment revealed consistent pathways to particular symptomatology. However, after a more finely-grained analysis the mechanisms for these pathways were not clarified.
Nevertheless, there were temporal associations between attachment security and adjustment in both non-abused and abused populations. These findings suggest that attachment security plays an important role in generating the levels of adjustment of sexually abused children and their caregivers. Additionally, it reinforces the importance of considering sexual abuse from a relational context rather than an abuse-specific approach.