Note:  Mothers As Attachment Q-set Observers

I am often asked about using mothers or other caregivers as observers in research with the Attachment Q-set.  The following is the text of a reply to a 9/98 inquiry. 

The use of mothers as observers has been discussed in an article from Doug Teti's lab.

Teti, D. M., & McGourty (1996), Child Development, 67, 597-605, Using mothers vs. trained observers in assessing children's secure base behavior:  Theoretical and methodological considerations. The bottom line is that if you must use parents it is important to provide some support.  It is ideal to have them become familiar with the items by doing a quick 3 pile sort just to make sure they read the items.  You might sit with the mother and have them mention the types of behavior that makes her place an item high, middle, or low.  If she is not interpreting the item correctly, provide some feedback.

After this orientation, have the mom observe the child for 2-3 days and then do a full sort.  Again, it is best to sit with her, ask for example behaviors for items placed away from the middle, and correct misinterpretations.  All in all, I don't find this much easier than making the observations myself.  In fact, it becomes quite tedious.

These are ideal procedures.  Presumably one has to find a reasonable balance between effort and validity.  Compromises are possible.

I strongly prefer to make the observations myself.  This is what I had in mind in developing the Q-set and I am embarrassed to say I was surprised when most of the people who contacted me wanted to have mothers do the sorting.  My impression is that most mothers don't monitor the secure base phenomenon in detail.  They focus on safety, needs, and indirect indicators of secure base behavior such as affective state, exploration/play, and affective sharing.  The q-set, for better or worse, assumes a more focused and detailed perspective.  I now think our early success with mothers depended more than we recognized on their high motivation as participants in an ongoing longitudinal study and on the support we provided.

I might mention that in using mothers we have noticed that some mothers of (to us) very secure infants give low security scores.  When we talk to them about their scoring, they seem very aware of the infant's behavior and not at all defensive. They just notice the rough edges and see areas in which they can imagine improvement.  We also see the occasional mother of an obviously insecure child giving a very high score.  When we try to discuss their scoring they seem very defensive. If mothers are inattentive during sorting, they are likely to produce moderate to moderately low scores. It may be that such cases account for the majority of the problems with mothers' sorts.

We have used mothers' reports occasionally to identify groups of more secure vs. less secure infants or toddlers.  In group comparisons, some subjects in each group are over-scored and some are under-scored.  The group means are not affected and the loss of power due to greater within groups variance can be made up by increasing the sample size.  For correlational studies, we stick with direct observations.  Here, each subject's score needs to be as accurate as possible.  If one subject is over-scored it reduces the correlation; if another is underscored it reduces the correlation more.  There is no compensation.  So you end up with the wrong correlation (too low) and reduced power.  You can recover power by adding more subjects but the correlation remains an underestimate of the true value.  If you are interested in correlations, I would avoid mothers.  Sometimes the solution is to do several small scale studies with trained observers rather than one large on with mothers.

Keep in mind that in many designs using mothers will confound the source of the q-sort descriptions (and thus possibly the description of the child) with mother characteristics). For example, in a study of clinic vs. non-clinic children, apparent differences between groups of children might actually have arisen because the two sets of mothers see child behavior differently or use the q-set differently.  You would want to avoid using mothers as sorters in such cases.

If you decide to use mothers as observers, it makes sense to change the wording to the first person and "my child".  I would not, however, suggest simplifying the items or reducing the number of items.  Joan Stevenson-Hinde made a good attempt at this early in the q-set's history and the revised set never produced much more than trends for her or others who used it (e.g. Jay Belsky and I think also Marinus van IJzendoorn, among others).

Another suggestion.  If you feel you must use mothers as observers, you may want to have trained observers for a subset so you can report mother observer agreement and perhaps modify your procedure as soon as you detect problems.


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