Children classified as controlling at age six


Findings show that infants classified as disorganized are most likely to be classified as “controlling” (ie, role-reversed) in laboratory reunions in middle childhood. The disorganized/controlling classification was found to be more common than other classifications among clinic children with conduct disorders, maltreated children, and children of depressed mothers. These findings suggest that the controlling classification may provide a tool for understanding some clinical disorders in childhood from an attachment perspective.

Mental Representations of Attachment

During the course of development, individuals are believed to construct mental representations of relationships. These representations consist both of expectations about the self and others derived from experience and unconscious rules for processing attachment-related information and memories. Mental representations of attachment cannot be accessed directly, but they can be inferred from behaviour and thought.

During development, internal representations become more stable, elaborate, and accessible to symbolic representation. By the end of early childhood, representations of the family in language and play should mirror the child’s representation of attachment relationships and should predict the quality of attachment behaviour towards the parent.


A research assistant escorts mother and child into the playroom. Mother and child are asked to select a wordless story book to “read” together. After reading, the child remains in the playroom with an adult companion and the mother is escorted to an adjacent room for an interview. The companion then begins the attachment doll-play task. Following several other brief tasks, a selection of previously hidden toys are unveiled for the child to play with until the mother’s return, approximately 1 hour later.

Measures – separation-reunion story completion task

In this task, the adult companion introduces a neutral story and then moves the child to an attachment-related separation-reunion story. The child completes the story using a set of dolls and a simplified doll house. Separation: the mother and father leave for an overnight trip and a babysitter stays with the children. Reunion: the babysitter sees the parents as they return the following morning and announces their return to the children. The companion introduces the story with a short script and encourages the child to enact the story completion by saying, “Show me what happened next.” Open-ended questions and prompts are given as necessary to encourage the child to play. The child is encouraged to select a doll to represent the “self” and to construct a pretend family.

Attachment behaviour classifications

The first 5 minutes of playroom reunion with the mother upon her return is used for attachment classification. Children judged “secure” respond to the mother’s return in a confidant, relaxed, and open manner. Children judged “avoidant” maintain a neutral coolness, including avoidance of interaction with the parent. Children judged “anxious-ambivalent” exhibit exaggerated cute of “babyish” behaviour and subtle signs of anger. Children judged “anxious-controlling” exhibit signs of role-reversal with the mother, acting either in a punitive (rejecting or humiliating) or caretaking (cheering-up or reassuring) manner towards her.

Results using the 6-year attachment doll-play classification system

Classifications are made from careful study of written transcripts of the child’s action and narrative in response to the separation and reunion story completion task. Both the content and narrative structure of the child’s doll-play are considered in arriving at a classification. Special attention is paid to story themes and their relation to one another and to child behaviour that interrupts or prevents play.

Group 1: Confident (Secure). The stories of children classified into this group are characterized by a fundamental confidence in caregivers or the self. Two major story themes are represented. The first theme is best described as one of “danger and rescue.” Children introduce dangerous or frightening events originating from outside the family, usually during separation. For example, robbers come to the house, the house catches on fire, the children are lost, or there are frightening noises. A distinguishing feature of this group is that the situation is resolved (safety is achieved) by the end of reunion. Often help is achieved with the help of competent and trustworthy caregivers or authorities. Some children depict themselves as competent and take the initiative to call upon adults or they successfully keep the danger under control until the adult arrives.

The second type of story in this group takes a different form. Instead of danger and rescue, the story indicates a confident, comfortable autonomy. For example, the child makes her own elaborate lunch; the child enjoys playing with toys on her own.

Integration is evident in these stories on the level of both content and narrative structure. Negative events are resolved and family reunions are complete. Commonly there is both pleasure in reunion and explicit acknowledgement that a separation occurred.

Group 2: Frightened (Disorganized/Controlling). The stories of children placed in this group demonstrates that fears about the caregiver or the self are out of control and potentially destructive. Two types of stories are found. Like confident children, some frightened children enact themes of danger. Dangerous events are unresolved, however, and lead to chaos and disintegration of the self and/or the family. For example, the house is destroyed by a severe earthquake or toys fly around the house, wildly out of control. The parents’ behaviour or that of other adults is often frightening or abusive. The children frequently are depicted as helpless to get assistance from others to control their behaviour or the events around them. In some instances, the child’s only recourse is to keep secrets or to hide. The narrative structure of these stories can best be described as chaotic and flooded. Catastrophe, sometimes multiple catastrophes, often arises without warning; dangerous people or events are vanquished only to surface again and again. Objects float and have magical, malignant powers; punishments are abusive and unrelenting.

The doll-play of the second group of frightened children was markedly different from the above. Stories in the second group were markedly constricted, and the children themselves appeared to be inhibited and frightened. The children were extremely uncomfortable with the task and did not want to enact the story. Some of these children, after repeated prompts, or following a spontaneous disaster (eg, the dollhouse tips) enacted themes of chaos and disintegration.

Group 3: Casual (Avoidant). The stories of children classified into this group have a markedly different quality from those of confident or frightened children. Fears about separation are not expressed directly but are evident in the form of avoidance of both separation and reunion. The self in the story characteristically appears to deny the experience of separation anxiety by negating, cancelling or “undoing” separation itself. For example, the child doll tries to accompany the parents on their trip; the child or babysitter calls the parents while they are away; or the parents call to deliver a message. These events are inserted casually into the story, without explanation. The reunions of these children are characterized by non-integration of the family members. Typically the child’s self-doll watches TV or goes to bed just before or immediately upon the parents’ return. The impression given is one of casual disinterest in the parents’ return.

The narrative structure of these stories is based on a stereotypical depiction of household and babysitting activities. Some of the stories have an empty, affectless quality.

Group 4: Busy (Anxious-Ambivalent). The stories of children classified into this group also differ greatly from those of confident or frightened children. Like casual children, fears about separation are not expressed directly. In these scenarios however, fears and other negative feelings are reversed or are displaced onto characters other than the self (eg, the baby of the family, other siblings, pets, or objects). The stories feature parties or other fun activities, caregiving and comforting responses to physical injury. The overall quality of the stories is one of busy activity and a happy mood.

The reunion stories in this group are characterized by delay and distraction. In some cases, family integration is begun but never thoroughly completed because of obsessive and often irrelevant actions of the child or other characters. In other cases, the initial family greeting and reunion are delayed. For example, the child first sweeps the floor before greeting the parents with a hug and kiss.

The narrative structure of these stories can best be described as digressive. The story line, if one is detectable, is constantly interrupted by distracting, time-consuming or irrelevant activities. For example, the children or babysitter arrange dishes and food on the dinner table, sweep, hum or sing or prepare with endless detail for a birthday party.

Discussion – disorganization at the level of representation

The classificatory system used in doll-play emphasizes relatively unstructured symbolic play in relation to separation and reunion scenarios rather than verbal responses. Children classified as controlling in response to laboratory reunion with the mother created scenarios of disaster or were markedly inhibited in their play. These response patterns appear to parallel those of abused children and adult victims of trauma.

Internal representations do not simply mirror experience they also reveal the individual’s strategies for processing attachment-related information. Secure 6-year-olds transformed their fears of separation during fantasy play by inventing “fairy tales” with happy endings. These stories required the use of fairly sophisticated cognitive strategies that allowed them to integrate their fears with a successful resolution. Avoidant and ambivalent children appeared to defend against separation anxiety during their play through the use of strategies that allowed them to exclude certain kinds of information from their narratives, and presumably from consciousness as well. Following Bowlby, it could be said that avoidant children used deactivating strategies, i.e., they “immobilized” the attachment system by excluding thoughts and feelings that normally arouse the system. For example, they denied separation and avoided reunion. The ambivalent children dwelt on themes of caregiving, nurturance and interpersonal closeness but, as Bowlby has pointed out, appeared cognitively to disconnect feelings of sadness, anger or anxiety “from the situation that elicited it”. For example, they identified some other person (or object) rather than the self as needing care; they became distracted or preoccupied with tangential elements of the story, or they changed negative affect to positive.

In contrast to the other groups, the disorganized/controlling children seemed unable either to resolve or to defend against separation anxiety. Rather, these fears disrupted their doll-play by flooding the content in a chaotic and primitive way, or were inflexibly contained through a brittle strategy of inhibition of play.

Disorganization at the representational level is consistent with models of segregated or unintegrated systems of representation. The abrupt shift from constricted to chaotic doll-play shown by some caregiving children is in line with Bowlby’s suggestion that a “system which is parallel and segregated from consciousness” suddenly becomes disinhibited. The narrative flow in the doll-play of some punitive children also suggested segregation of information. For example, fantastic disasters frequently arose without warning. Further, children hastily gave post hoc explanations for these as though they themselves were surprised and disturbed by the direction the story had taken. The disorganized, non-adaptive quality of the doll-play of the controlling 6-year-olds suggests that disorganized attachment behaviour may emerge when feelings about the mother that normally are unintegrated become activated upon reunion. The authors see controlling behaviour at age 6 years as a brittle behavioural strategy on the part of the child to control the parent who is the source of these unintegrated fears and thereby to regulate his/her own internal state and behaviour.

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Written by Paul Renn

I am a relational psychoanalytic psychotherapist and author in private practice in central and south west London (see below in 'Extra Information' for details of my practice addresses). I am accredited by the United Kingdom Council for Psychotherapy (UKCP). I work with individuals, offer couples counselling and also supervise counsellors and psychotherapists. I also work as a life coach.… Read more

Written by Paul Renn

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