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Insecure parental attachment linked to high social costs

Researchers from King’s College London have, for the first time, calculated the significant social costs associated with young people who don’t have a secure attachment to their parents.

Teenage boy

The researchers, from the National Academy for Parenting Research at the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience, say there is a strong case for widespread availability of parenting classes to improve parent-child relationships and reduce social costs.

The study involved 174 young people aged followed from age nine to seventeen. Of those, 85 were drawn from schools where they were rated as having moderate antisocial behaviour while 89 were referred by mental health services as having high levels of antisocial behaviour.

Each young person was interviewed in detail to assess how they felt about their parental relationships. If they trusted their parent to provide emotional support they were designated as having a secure attachment, whereas if they dismissed their parent as not there for them they were designated as having an insecure attachment.

The researchers found young people with insecure attachments to their mothers cost a third more than those with secure attachments, an average difference of £3,500 per year. The cost difference for insecure attachments to fathers was much larger, at £12,700 per year. The increased social costs were due to more meetings at school, more referrals to social services, and more appointments with NHS Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services.

Lead researcher Professor Stephen Scott said: ‘Knowing that your parent or caregiver will be there for you in times of emotional need is a core aspect of feeling loved. While it is well known that antisocial young people cost society more as they become adults, we have shown that insecure attachment adds a cost in its own right, independently of the costs of antisocial behaviour.’

Conduct disorders in young people, characterised by persistent antisocial behaviour, affect around 5% of the population and carry a five- to ten-fold increased risk in adulthood of violent offending, heavy drug misuse, teenage parenthood, leaving school with no qualifications and reliance on state benefits. In the UK, the cost in adulthood for typical conduct disorder cases has been estimated at £260,000 per person.

It has been proven that intervening early can prevent disorders in adulthood, and that there is a robust association between children with insecure attachment to their parents and antisocial behaviour. In previous studies, the researchers found that secure attachment in adolescence is laid down through parenting practices earlier in childhood.

Professor Scott says: ‘We have already shown that parenting classes can reduce antisocial behaviour and improve school attainment by encouraging caregiving that leads to secure attachments. Parenting classes should be offered on a much larger scale, recognising that the quality of parent-child relationship is not just about individual psychological wellbeing but also has greater social and financial implications.’

The study is published in The Journal of Child Psychology & Psychiatry and is funded by The Healthcare Foundation.