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Mental health and wellbeing during adolescence: The role of child attachment and parents’ representations of their children (ATTACH)


“Mental health and wellbeing during adolescence:

The role of child attachment and parents’ representations of their children”


Adolescence is a sensitive developmental period because of all the biological, cognitive, affective and social changes that occur; we also know from the literature that adolescence is a sensitive period since the majority of mental disorders begins in adolescence and tends to persist in adulthood. One of the things about mental health research is that we know a lot more about risk factors than we know about protective factors. Among the last ones, we know from a large body of research that one big important protective factor for mental health in adolescence is attachment security.

The literature provides strong evidence that the exposure to early stress influences later emotion regulation. Regarding adopted children, early stress, poor life conditions and separation may constitute potential risk factors regarding their socio-emotional development, and the period of adolescence, which involves separation experiences and new relationships may be especially sensitive in this regard. Concerning children who experienced parental divorce, the experience of divorce increases the probability of developing insecure attachment, since there is less parental availability, more conflicts between parents and more parent-child negative interactions. Divorce can also cause discontinuity of attachment: children who experienced divorce during their childhood are more at risk of displaying insecure attachment in adolescence, although they had been assessed as secure in infancy.

While most studies on attachment and behaviour problems in adopted children (i.e. younger than 11 years of age) provide relatively optimistic results, there are only few studies addressing these issues in adolescents who had been adopted in infancy or in childhood. Furthermore, the relationship between divorce, quality of attachment and behavioural problems has been poorly and mainly studied in infancy/childhood, while only two studies have investigated this issue in adolescence.

The present project investigates the attachment representations, the socio-emotional adjustment and possible behaviour problems, and the parents’ representations about their children in adopted adolescents, adolescents with divorced parents and adolescents living with their biological parents. It is hypothesized that adolescents adopted in infancy or in childhood and adolescents with divorced parents present more often behaviour problems, and that the emergence of these problems is mediated by the adolescent’s attachment representations, which in turn are influenced by the parents’ representations of their children and by cultural factors.

The project is particularly innovative and relevant for Luxembourg/Germany, since it analyses the representations of the self in relation to significant others, such as parents and friends, during adolescence. Therefore, the study can provide significant guidance to the services that are involved in mental-health interventions, indicating the factors that enhance security in families, in order to prompt the development of targeted interventions, both preventive and rehabilitative. Furthermore, the study of the attachment representations of adopted adolescents and adolescents with divorced parents might support clinical services in the establishment of interventions that can also help parents in better understanding the children’s needs and difficulties, thus improving their wellbeing. More generally, this project will generate new important knowledge concerning the effects of caregiving, attachment, separation, early trauma and deprivation on mental health across the life cycle and particularly during adolescence, and concerning the protective role of secure attachment. Adolescence is thought to be an especially sensitive period in this regard, yet this has not been fully explored. The mediating role of adolescents’ attachment regarding mental health concerns an important research question in the current project, which is crucial regarding potential interventions.

This project is funded by the Fonds National de la Recherche, Luxembourg (2015-2018)

Involved members: