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The Parent-Child Bond: Q&A with Guest Lecturer

Q&As

The effects of a parent’s bond with a child have been a popular topic in the news. But what does the science say? The Museum’s upcoming four-week course The Parent-Child Bond: Behind the Science of Attachment, which begins on April 17, will explore the latest psychology and neuroscience on attachment through expert guest speakers, online resources, documentary footage, and in-class projects. Howard Steele, a professor of psychology at The New School and founder of the journal Attachment & Human Development, will be a guest lecturer for the course and also appears in the Museum’s attachment-themed Science Bulletin, part of the Museum’s innovative exhibition and online media program. Below, Steele answers a few questions about the psychological effects of parent-child relationships.

How do bonds from the first few years of a child’s life affect later development?

Howard Steele: Babies come into the world biologically and behaviorally primed to relate to others who will provide care. Without such care, we would not survive. The quality of care provided is a core influence on brain development and sets up expectations that endure over time and context—for example, when all goes well, “I smile and the world smiles back.” These expectations influence interactions and relationships with peers, teachers, and others beyond the initial, ongoing relationships to mother, father, siblings, or grandparents that comprise our families.

Your research also focuses on caregiver-child relationships in foster or adoption situations. Does this type of attachment differ from parent-child relationships?

Steele: The capacity to establish and maintain attachments is so deeply embedded in our nature that when we are removed from an unfavorable caregiving environment, we quickly learn to appreciate a different, higher quality of care such as can be provided by a foster or adoptive situation. Babies and children adapt quickly and positively to the new, more favorable environments both behaviorally and biologically. But the older a child is when adopted, the greater the challenge, especially if the pre-adoptive experiences have been harsh.

How do parent-child bonds affect family members or friends outside of the relationship?

Steele: Via the “expectations” I mentioned above. These expectations are a product of the mind. The mind is thought to include internal working models: “internal” since they are in mind; “working” since they are always monitoring the availability of attachment figures—people we would call on if we were in distress; and “modeling” since they use past experiences to evaluate how dependable others will be in a time of need, and how worthy one is of support.

To see Dr. Steele in the Science Bulletin on attachment, watch the video below:

To sign up for the course, click here.

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