U of I study: Parent's conversational style contributes to child's security

URBANA -- Parents who use a particular conversational style with their children--drawing them out to elicit detailed memories about past shared events and to talk about emotions--contribute to the child's secure attachment, sense of self-worth, and eventual social competence, says a new University of Illinois study published in a September special edition of Attachment and Human Development.

"As soon as children start talking, parents develop conversational patterns with their kids, and different parents have very different patterns," said Kelly K. Bost, a U of I associate professor of human development.

In the study, Bost and her colleagues compared the conversational styles of 90 mothers and their three-year-old children with assessments the scientists had made in the home of the children's attachment security. The research confirmed that mothers of securely attached children use a more elaborative conversational style than those of insecure children.

"In elaborative conversations, parents provide rich detail and lots of background information and try to get their child to provide new information from his memory as the conversation goes on," Bost said.

Experts believe elaborative conversations aid in memory development, foster the ability to organize and tell personal stories, and promote a sense of shared history with the parent, she said.

"These conversations are much easier and more evident in secure parent-child relationships in which parents are sensitive to their children's communication. Children are also more likely to participate in the conversation," she said.

"And a secure parent-child relationship also provides a framework for future relationships with peers and romantic partners," she said.

But Bost wanted to know something else: Why do some parents use an elaborative conversational style while others do not?

In a separate measure, Bost asked the mothers to participate in an adult attachment interview, which assessed the mothers' attachment experiences.

"We found that the mothers' experiences, their own attachment beliefs, also contributed to the child's security in the home. When mothers had secure relationships with their parents, they were more likely to respond sensitively to their own children, suggesting that these behaviors are intergenerational," she said.

The mother's own attachment and her conversational style both contributed to the child's attachment, but they contributed different things to the child's security, Bost said.

"Adult attachment wasn't related to mothers' use of elaboration in conversation; instead, the mothers' own attachment security helped them to talk more openly about positive and negative emotions. That openness is an important social skill to hand down to children because labeling and understanding emotions are very important for any kind of social relationship," she said.

Parents should try to incorporate both elaboration and open talk about feelings and emotions into conversations with their children, she added.

"When you pick your son up at school and ask about his day, try to pull him into the conversation and be responsive to his communication. Keep asking open-ended questions--get him to elaborate. If you can provide an emotional touchstone from years past, do that too. You might say: Do you remember when this happened last year? How were you feeling then? What did you do?" she suggested.

"It's important because, through our conversations, we're helping our children organize their life experiences in their minds, understand them, and be able to tell people about them," she said.


The study was funded by the National Science Foundation. Co-authors are Nana Shin and Brent McBride of the U of I Department of Human and Community Development, Geoffrey L. Brown of the U of I Department of Psychology; Brian E. Vaughn of Auburn University; Gabrielle Coppola of Universita G.D. Annunzio di Chieti; Manuela Verissimo and Ligia Monteiro of the Instituto Superior de Psicologia Aplicada; and Byran Korth of Brigham Young University.

Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 30 Apr 2016
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