A Family Affair

Parents, Children and Society

Legacy of Childhood on Attachment Security in Aging Adults

Childhood experience affects security among aging adults.

As I have noted before, a fundamental development question which motivates so much research on child development and advocacy on behalf of children stems from the belief that what happens early in life matters to how children turn out, not just in early childhood, or middle childhood, or even adolescence but well beyond. Needless to say, it is a challenge for scientists to stick around long enough to follow children from a young age well into adulthood to address this issue of the legacy of early experience. Sometimes scholars come up with short cuts toward this end.

Recently, a pair of academics at my university, Birkbeck University of London, did just that in order to see whether a particular developmental experience left a lasting legacy many, many years later on those exposed to it. The experience was unique to Britain and took place during the second world war: In September, 1939, some three million children were evacuated from urban and industrial areas of the country to more rural regions in a Government initiative to reduce the risk of injury and death of aerial attack-the German Blitz. The children were individually fostered in private homes-so each child lived in a separate place apart from the other children he or she might have left home with and apart from the familiar teacher who accompanied them.

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How did this experience affect the children involved? Did their age at time of evacuation matter, the foster care received, the length of period away...or other factors for that matter? These were the developmental questions that motivated James Rusby and Fiona Tasker to tack down 1,467 adults between the ages of 62 and 72 who had been evacuated from their childhood homes in the county of Kent in southeast England (near London), travelling by train to South Wales and the counties of Devon and Cornwall in the south west of England, as well as some agemates who had never been evacuated. Some 869 usable questionnaires were received and available for examination. (For more infomration, see: http://www.informaworld.com/smpp/content~content=a902161602~db=al...)

Results showed that only males seemed to have been affected by their experience-in terms of their security of attachment-as least as evident using a questionnaire measure completed some half century after WorldWar II. Whereas some 64% of those men who had not been evacuated as children qualified as secure, this was true of only 39% of those who had been evacuated; the contrasting figures for women were 44% vs. 38%. The men who were evacuated were more likely to qualify as dismissing in their attachments, that is, of not regarding being close to others as important and as not being inclined to share their feelings with others.

Of even more interest perhaps than these overall differences between males who were and were not evacuated, were findings pertaining to the conditions that either attenuated or exacerbated the apparent effects of evacuation. I say "apparent" because in a retrospective study such as this, one can never be certain that there were not important confounding factors that made those evacuated and those not evacuated different in the first place.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the most important factor accounting for why some men and women among those evacuated were found to be secure whereas others were not was age at time of evacuation: Evacuation in early childhood-age 4 to 6 years--increased the likelihood of an aging man or woman not being secure in late adulthood. Intriguingly, though, females evacuated around the time of puberty-10 to 12 years of age-were also likely not to be secure. This finding seems not unrelated to other work by the same investigatory team showing that girls who were 10-12 at time of evacuation were, so much later in life, at increased risk of manifesting clinical levels of anxiety.

It was also the case that, among the evacuees, those recalling poor care in their foster homes rather than good care were less likely to be secure. We need to be aware, though, of the possibility that being insecure could color one's recollection of childhood experience as much as being the result of it.

The great, late British psychiatrist, John Bowlby, who gave birth to attachment theory anticipated these results back in 1939 when he and his colleagues raised concerns about those age 4 to 6 years of age being parted from their parents and families, even in an effort to save their lives and limbs. It is sad that he is not alive to read about them. He would have been fascinated.

Jay Belsky is Director of the Institute for the Study of Children, Families and Social Issues and Professor of Psychology at Birkbeck University of London. more...

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