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Adult attachment in looked after children and their mental health: Exploring the link between childhood adversity and the development of psychopathology

Cameron, Carly (2022) Adult attachment in looked after children and their mental health: Exploring the link between childhood adversity and the development of psychopathology. PhD thesis, Murdoch University.

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People who have experienced out-of-home care as children or adolescents often have disrupted attachment relationships and are overrepresented in clinical populations. Previous research has drawn a link between attachment style and specific types of psychopathology. This thesis explores the experience of early childhood adversity with a sample of adults who were Looked After Children (LAC) in relation to their mental health in adulthood. Using classifications from the Adult Attachment Interview (AAI) and a range of measures of attachment, trauma, defence styles, dissociative experiences, psychopathology and personality, this thesis sought to examine how disrupted attachment in childhood translates into psychopathology and what builds resilience in those who experience early adversity without the development of psychiatric disorders. Of particular interest is the concept of Earned Security, which can be derived from the AAI classification system developed by George et al. (1985) whereby some people who experience substandard caregiving early in life still go on to be classified as having a secure attachment representation, albeit ‘Earned’ as opposed to ‘Continuous’ security. First, a systematic literature review of 11 identified studies of Earned Security was conducted. In Study One, the LAC sample was compared quantitatively to normative samples on the above-mentioned measures to determine whether there were significant differences in relation to the experience of childhood adversity. Study One established that the LAC sample was significantly higher on the Overprotection subscales of the Parental Bonding Instrument (PBI) for both Mother and Father, as well as significantly higher on the Avoidance and Anxiety subscales of the Experiences in Close Relationships-Revised (ECR-R) than normative populations, and significantly lower on the Care subscale of the PBI for Mother and Father. The LAC sample was also significantly higher than normative populations on the Dissociative Experiences Scale, and the Emotional Abuse, Emotional Neglect, Physical Abuse and Physical Neglect subscales of the Childhood Trauma Questionnaire.

Study Two used Thematic Analysis to examine the AAI transcripts of the LAC sample qualitatively. Five overarching themes were identified (along with 26 subthemes). Study Three used a Mixed-Method Comparative Case Study and found that Protective Factors such as Reflective Function, Reparative Attachments, Time in Therapy, a Positive Initial Foundation, Help-Seeking Behaviours and Mature defences play a role in the development of resilience for those who have experienced childhood adversity but did not go on to develop psychopathology. These studies imply that for professionals working with LAC populations (or other groups who have experienced significant early adversity), the Protective Factors identified in this thesis have clinical utility across a range of service systems and areas of policy. Tailored interventions focused on enhancing these Protective Factors can be utilised to create a more integrated systems approach to building resilience, buffering against psychopathology and facilitating a shift towards ‘Earned Organisation’ with respect to attachment representations.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Murdoch Affiliation(s): Psychology, Counselling, Exercise Science and Chiropractic
Supervisor(s): Drummond, Peter and Lewis, Andrew
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