Individual differences in adult attachment have significant clinical and societal implications. For example, adult attachment-related variation is associated with (a) higher quality peer relationships, (b) more effective conflict resolution with romantic partners, and (c) more sensitive and responsive parenting. The goal of this proposal is to examine the antecedents of adult attachment in early caregiving experiences. Recent theoretical arguments suggest that high quality and supportive parenting develops into a script-like representation of the attachment relationship, and that these script-like representations of attachment come to influence behavior in adulthood. However, several issues remain unaddressed. Specifically, there has been no large sample empirical demonstration that script-like attachment representations develop from early experience or that these scripts- like attachment representations are associated with more established measures of adult attachment like the Adult Attachment Interview (AAI), an indirect assessment of adult attachment representations. We propose to address these gaps in two ways: (1) by examining the developmental antecedents of script-like attachment representations and whether secure base script knowledge accounts for associations between early experience and the AAI and (2) exploring several potential cognitive correlates of script-like attachment representations relevant to AAI performance, specifically memory accessibility and organization.
The first aim (SA1) is to examine the developmental antecedents of script-like attachment representations by taking advantage of a large prospective, longitudinal sample, the NICHD Study of Early Child Care and Youth Development (SECCYD), which followed 857 participants from infancy to late adolescence. Script-like attachment representations will be assessed by re-coding existing data with a newly developed coding scheme. We will then examine the developmental antecedents of script-like attachment representation with measures of the quality of early experience (e.g. parental sensitivity) collected across development, exploring in particular whether variation in secure base script knowledge mediates associations between early caregiving experiences and adults states of mind regarding attachment as assessed by the AAI. A second set of studies (SA2) will seek to explore the cognitive correlates of script-like attachment representations. We will conduct two laboratory- based studies examining the influence of script-like attachment representations on memory accessibility and organization. These studies will test the extent to which script-like attachment representations facilitate memory recall and the production of well organized/complete attachment narratives using well-established paradigms from the cognitive psychology literature. The knowledge gained from these specific aims has the potential to (1) inform our understanding of the influence early experience can have on later development, (2) provide an operative mechanism to target in interventions focused on attachment relationships.

Public Health Relevance

The proposed research aims to better understand the relations between the quality of children's early experience with caregivers and the development of healthy adult relationships. The quality of early experience with parents has been linked to higher quality peer relationships, romantic relationships, and better quality parenting. The proposed work is relevant to public health in that it will shed light on the mechanisms that underlie the influence of early experience on adult adjustment, opening the opportunity for the development of interventions that directly target this mechanism in therapeutic contexts.

National Institute of Health (NIH)
Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health & Human Development (NICHD)
Postdoctoral Individual National Research Service Award (F32)
Project #
Application #
Study Section
Special Emphasis Panel (ZRG1)
Program Officer
Esposito, Layla E
Project Start
Project End
Budget Start
Budget End
Support Year
Fiscal Year
Total Cost
Indirect Cost
University of Minnesota Twin Cities
Schools of Arts and Sciences
United States
Zip Code
Waters, Theodore E A; Raby, K Lee; Ruiz, Sarah K et al. (2018) Adult attachment representations and the quality of romantic and parent-child relationships: An examination of the contributions of coherence of discourse and secure base script knowledge. Dev Psychol 54:2371-2381
Waters, Theodore E A; Ruiz, Sarah K; Roisman, Glenn I (2017) Origins of Secure Base Script Knowledge and the Developmental Construction of Attachment Representations. Child Dev 88:198-209
Vaughn, Brian E; Waters, Theodore E A; Steele, Ryan D et al. (2016) Multiple domains of parental secure base support during childhood and adolescence contribute to adolescents' representations of attachment as a secure base script. Attach Hum Dev 18:317-36
Waters, Theodore E A; Steele, Ryan D; Roisman, Glenn I et al. (2016) A Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count Analysis of the Adult Attachment Interview in Two Large Corpora. Can J Behav Sci 48:78-88
Waters, Theodore E A; Fivush, Robyn (2015) Relations Between Narrative Coherence, Identity, and Psychological Well-Being in Emerging Adulthood. J Pers 83:441-51
Waters, Theodore E A; Bosmans, Guy; Vandevivere, Eva et al. (2015) Secure base representations in middle childhood across two Western cultures: Associations with parental attachment representations and maternal reports of behavior problems. Dev Psychol 51:1013-1025
Waters, Theodore E A; Fraley, R Chris; Groh, Ashley M et al. (2015) The latent structure of secure base script knowledge. Dev Psychol 51:823-30
Steele, Ryan D; Waters, Theodore E A; Bost, Kelly K et al. (2014) Caregiving antecedents of secure base script knowledge: a comparative analysis of young adult attachment representations. Dev Psychol 50:2526-38