In this issue

Reflections on the Legacy of Early Relationships

G. Stanley Hall Award Recipient for Distinguished Contribution to Developmental Psychology, Grazyna Kochanska, discusses her research.

By Grazyna Kochanska

To receive the G. Stanley Hall Award for Distinguished Contribution to Developmental Psychology is both humbling and elating. What a great honor it is to join the ranks of the previous recipients, all remarkable scholars and pioneers in developmental psychology, including my long-term friend and colleague, Dr. Nathan Fox, a co-recipient of the Award.

The overarching goal of our team's research is to promote children's positive, adaptive pathways of socioemotional development and to prevent maladaptive pathways. We aim to explain why some children embark on positive paths toward prosocial, internalized, rule-abiding conduct and robust social competence, whereas others enter maladaptive paths toward callousness, disregard for conduct rules and others' feelings, antisocial behavior and impoverished competence. We see early parent-child attachment, formed in the first years of life, as one source of those divergent pathways, and we longitudinally chart its complex, indirect yet powerful, long-term implications.

Although early relationships are key for human growth (Bowlby, 1969/1982; Collins & Laursen, 1999; Sroufe, 2005, 2016), understanding their long-term impact is challenging. Unqualified, direct long-term effects are rarely found. What then, if any, is the enduring legacy of early relational experience? What mechanisms account for diverse developmental paths unfolding in the wake of early relationships? Those questions pose provocative, intriguing and compelling challenges for our field.

 In recent years, our team's longitudinal studies, both correlational and experimental, in low- and high-risk families, have produced a wealth of converging, synergistic evidence to support a novel model of socialization. That model portrays the early parent-child attachment as a powerful catalyst that alters or moderates long-term future developmental cascades and dynamics even though it may not have lasting unqualified, direct effects. An early, insecure relationship sets the tone for an unfolding adversarial, negative cascade. We have amply documented that the well-documented cascade from the child's biologically-based difficult temperament to the parent's negative, coercive control to future maladaptive socioemotional child outcomes (e.g., Dishion & Patterson, 2006; Pardini, 2008) unfolds differently in insecure, suboptimal relationships than in secure, optimal ones. In insecure parent-child dyads, the child's difficult temperament easily triggers the parent's negative, coercive, power-assertive control, which in turn, likely leads to maladaptive child outcomes (disregard for rules, antisocial, disruptive conduct problems). Early insecurity thus serves as a catalyst for future negative reciprocity and a mutually resentful dynamic, with the parent and child growing increasingly adversarial and ultimately, undermining outcomes of socialization (Boldt, Kochanska, & Jonas, 2017; Kim, Kochanska, Boldt, Nordling, & O'Bleness, 2014; Kochanska, Barry, Stellern, O'Bleness, 2009; Kochanska & Kim, 2012).

By contrast, an early secure relationship effectively offsets risks of such negative cascades. Children's difficult temperament does not seem to elicit parental harsh discipline; further, even when parents use forceful control, it does not appear to be toxic, in that it does not predict conduct problems. Instead, early security appears to set a stage for positive, cooperative, effective socialization (Kochanska, Aksan, Knaack, & Rhines, 2004; Kochanska et al., 2010).

We interpret our findings within a systemic, organismic view of development, in which early attachment is key because of its role in the initiation of complex future sequelae or cascades (Masten & Cicchetti, 2010; Sroufe, 2005). Attachment is an organizing core in development, always integrated with later experience and never lost; formed in infancy, it has a distinct, privileged impact, above and beyond future experiences, framing child subsequent transactions with the environment (Sroufe, 2005, 2013, 2016). Attachment acts as a catalyst for future parent–child socialization process, serving a key conditional or probabilistic role by influencing complex mediation and moderation effects and initiating future developmental cascades that ultimately lead to negative or positive outcomes. In other words, early attachment organization alters future processes that unfold in the parent-child dyad.

Our next challenge is to understand why and how such divergent cascades unfold over time in parent-child dyads with different attachment histories. We believe we will find some of the answers by studying the parent's and the child's internal working models of each other – the explicit and implicit representations, perceptions, cognitions, expectations and attributions that guide their interactions – emerging over time and reflecting the history of their relationship (Dykas & Cassidy, 2011). My team and I look forward to elucidating those compelling and complex developmental processes in future studies.

I would like to close with a brief personal reflection. I arrived in America from Poland in 1981, with my young daughter, a couple of suitcases, and a recent Ph.D. from the completely unknown University of Warsaw. I feel privileged beyond words to have been given the amazing chance to live the American dream ever since.

I have many people to thank. My family and numerous friends and colleagues have offered support and encouragement over the years. Many graduate and undergraduate students, postdocs and collaborators have made amazing contributions to my work. I am also grateful to many institutions. The Laboratory of Developmental Psychology at the National Institute of Mental Health, directed by Dr. Marian Radke-Yarrow and the University of Iowa have both been conducive niches for my growth as a scholar. As well, generous funding from the National Institute of Mental Health, Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development and the National Science Foundation have made my research possible. I owe them all a large debt of gratitude. Finally, and most of all, I thank my parents, whose early love and provision of security made it all possible.


Boldt, L. J., Kochanska, G., & Jonas, K. (2017). Infant attachment moderates paths from early negativity to preadolescent outcomes for children and parents. Child Development, 88, 584– 596. DOI: 10.1111/cdev.12607

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Collins, A. & Laursen, B. (Eds.). (1999). Relationships as developmental contexts: The Minnesota symposia on child psychology (Vol. 30). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Dishion, T. J., & Patterson, G. R. (2006). The development and ecology of antisocial behavior in children and adolescents. In D. Cicchetti & D. J. Cohen (Eds.), Developmental psychopathology (2th ed., Vol. 3, pp. 503–541). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

Dykas, M. J., & Cassidy, J. (2011). Attachment and the processing of social information across the life span: Theory and evidence. Psychological Bulletin, 137 (1), 19-46. doi:10.1037/a0021367

Kim, S., Kochanska, G., Boldt, L. J., Koenig Nordling, J., & O'Bleness, J. J. (2014). Developmental trajectory from early responses to transgressions to future antisocial behavior: Evidence for the role of the parent-child relationship from two longitudinal studies.

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Kochanska, G., Aksan, N., Knaack, A., & Rhines, H. M. (2004). Maternal parenting and children's conscience: Early security as moderator. Child Development, 75, 1229-1242. doi:10.1111/j.1467-8624.2004.00735.x

Kochanska, G., Barry, R. A., Stellern, S. A., & O'Bleness, J. J. (2009). Early attachment organization moderates the parent-child mutually coercive pathway to children's antisocial conduct. Child Development, 80 , 1297-1309. doi:10.1111/j.1467-8624.2009.01332.x

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Kochanska, G., Woodard, J., Kim, S., Koenig, J. L., Yoon, J. E., & Barry, R. A. (2010). Positive socialization mechanisms in secure and insecure parent-child dyads: Two longitudinal studies. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 51, 998–1009. doi:10.1111/j.1469-7610.2010.02238.x

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