Preschoolers tend to form closer friendships in the early grade-school years if they are securely attached to their mothers, according to a new study.
"In a secure, emotionally open mother-child relationship, children develop a more positive, less biased understanding of others, which then promotes more positive friendships during the early school years," said Nancy McElwain, University of Illinois (U-I) assistant professor of human and community development and study co-author.
Scientists have known about the link between attachment and friendship quality, but they haven't understood the reasons it exists, she added.
The study included 1,071 children from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development Study of Early Child Care and Youth Development. Researchers assessed mother-child attachment at age three.
They also assessed how openly mothers and children acknowledged and communicated about their emotions when the child was four-and-a-half.
"We found several ways in which the early mother-child relationship may affect later friendship quality," McElwain said. She noted that a number of measures were used.
At four-and-a-half years and again in first grade, children were assessed for what the researchers called a hostile attribution bias. The child was given a series of hypothetical vignettes in which a peer did something negative to the child, although it wasn't clear if the peer had meant to hurt or antagonise the child.
For example, an interviewer might say, "John throws a ball and it hits you in the back". The child was then asked why his peer had acted in that way. If a child interpreted the peer's behaviour as intentional (for example, "He meant to hit me in the back"), it indicated a hostile attribution bias.
Child language ability was also evaluated at four a half years and again in first grade.
Finally, mothers and teachers were asked to report on the child's general peer competence in first grade and the quality of the child's relationship with his or her closest friend in third grade.
Several pathways led from close early mother-child attachment to later friendship quality. In one pathway, children who were securely attached at age three showed more open emotional communication with mothers and better language ability at four and a half, she said, according to a U-I release.
"The preschool years are an interesting period to study because the child's rapidly growing language skills allow parents and children to share in ways they haven't been able to before," McElwain noted.
The study was published in Child Development.