Faculty Focus: Child’s Play
Developmental psychologist Tia Murphy is directing a series of research projects based upon her observational studies of 83 local preschoolers and their moms.
At the annual meeting of the Eastern Psychological Association in March, Associate Professor Tia Murphy seemed to be in several places at once. Not only was she presenting the work she and her former students had authored, “Attachment and Jealousy Responses in Preschool-Aged Children,” but she was co-author on four other poster presentations, three of which presented results from students’ projects conducted in her Social and Personality Development class last fall.
Murphy and 12 of her students—part of an impressive Washington College showing that included 42 student co-authors and seven faculty members—were drawing upon data gleaned during an observational study they had conducted over the past three and a half years with 83 local preschoolers and their moms.
These studies, Murphy says, can help us understand environmental factors that influence social and emotional development, and can inform how parents can raise more emotionally competent children. Her students looked specifically at questions such as: How does attachment influence how aggressive children might be in free play? Are “only” children more empathetic than children with siblings? How does a child’s temperament influence feelings of guilt?
“This is an amazing opportunity for our students to be engaged in developmental research,” Murphy notes. “The students were given the freedom to come up with their own research ideas and follow them all the way through to presentation at a regional conference.”
For the jealousy study, Murphy, with the help of many students over the past several years, observed children’s jealousy through a paradigm that employed a doll to represent a new baby and that instructed the mom to try her best to ignore her own child while making comparisons between her child and the baby. With mom’s lavish attention focused on the tiny interloper, Murphy and her students were able to conduct intense observational coding of the preschoolers’ externalized responses: Were they aggressive or hostile to their mom or the experimenter? Did they act out for attention? They also coded for inhibition responses. Did they look worried? Were they uncomfortable enough to try to leave?
“What we found is that the child’s response is associated with the attachment quality between the mom and the child,” Murphy explains. “Less secure kids were more likely to exhibit externalizing behaviors in the first two episodes where I was holding the baby doll and then when the mom was holding the baby doll.”
Different qualities of attachment are believed to be developed according to how parents respond when their children are in distress, Murphy explains. To measure attachment among the study participants, moms were asked to sort 90 index cards that describe children’s attachment behaviors, which were then correlated with what has been found to be an optimal security sort to see how close they were to matching that ideal. Results included a range from highly secure to insecure.
The interesting thing with attachment and jealousy is that we don’t necessarily perceive jealousy as bad,” Murphy says. “We would expect secure children to have a moderate amount of jealousy because they should value that relationship enough to want to protect it if it is perceived to be a serious threat. It’s an adaptive quality to have that emotion. We would expect that some insecure kids, specifically ambivalent kids who react strongly when they’re upset, would demonstrate high levels of jealousy. There are others, whom we call avoidant kids, who might display low levels of jealousy either because they are less invested in the relationship or because they tend to mask their emotional responses.”
Murphy’s work on attachment and jealousy is about to be submitted for review for publication, on the heels of another paper just published in Merrill-Palmer Quarterly that examines attachment’s influence on children’s recall of events from a storybook. A third paper, premised on the hypothesis that anxious parents are more likely to be helicopter parents, will be written for publication this summer.