Impact of early attachment experiences on adolescents’ mental health and future thinking
Background: Attachment theory [Bowlby, J. 1969, 1973, 1980 Attachment & Loss, Volumes I-III, London: Hogarth Press] proposes that a person’s experiences of care in infancy and childhood lay the foundations for their internal working models of themselves and others. Inconsistent, unpredictable or hostile caregiving can lead individuals to hold negative internal working models which can impact on their mental health later in life. Many looked after and accommodated young people have experienced this type of neglectful or abusive parenting. These experiences of parenting may lead looked after young people to have internal working models of themselves as ineffective and of others as powerful, thus leading them to develop a learned helplessness and a more external locus of control. Objectives: A systematic review was carried out in order to explore the mechanisms by which the relationship between attachment and depression functions in adolescence. An empirical study aimed to investigate whether young people with negative attachment experiences, those who are looked after and accommodated, have higher levels of depression or a more external locus of control than other young people of the same age and the role these play in their future thinking. Method: Nineteen papers investigating mediators and moderators of the attachmentdepression relationship in adolescence were reviewed. In the empirical study, a group of looked after and a group of non-looked after young people aged 15-18 were asked about their approach and avoidance goals for the future and were asked to rate beliefs in their control over, and likelihood of, achieving these goals. Results: Evidence was found for a number of mediators of the relationship between attachment and adolescent depression. There were also found to be significant differences between the two groups with differing care histories with regards to levels of depression and locus of control, with looked after young people having higher levels of depression and a more external locus of control. A mediation analysis found that locus of control mediated the relationship between looked after status and future thinking. Conclusions: A person’s attachment history and experiences of care in early childhood can impact on their levels of depression and locus of control. There are a number of factors which mediate or moderate the attachment-depression relationship, most of which can be attributed to an individual’s internal working model of either themselves or others. Locus of control plays a critical role in young people’s future thinking and professionals working with accommodated adolescents should facilitate these young people to have experiences which will help to increase the internality of their locus of control. Objective: Attachment security has been found to be a significant predictor of depression in adolescence. This review aimed to examine the pathways by which this relationship functions by reviewing studies which have investigated potential mediating or moderating factors. Method: Studies were included if they investigated mediation and/or moderation of the relationship between attachment and adolescent depression. Results: A number of cognitive and social factors were found to mediate the attachmentdepression relationship. Age was found to be a significant moderator of the relationship but the findings on gender were inconsistent. The findings should be treated with caution, however, as many of the studies reviewed were potentially underpowered. Conclusions: A model is proposed in which mediating factors were linked to the internal working models of self and others. The need for future research to be carried out in clinical adolescent populations with sample sizes large enough to ensure adequate power was identified.