Psychology Publications


Becoming Sensitive to Sensitivity: Lessons Learned from the Development of the Maternal Behavior Q‑Sort

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Book Chapter

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Mary Ainsworth conceived of sensitivity as a caregiver’s ability to perceive, correctly interpret, and respond effectively to a child’s signals of his or her desires and needs. Caregiver sensitivity figures critically in the two key hypotheses associated with attachment theory’s portrayal of social and emotional development in humans. Firstly, sensitivity in interaction with the caregiver during the first year of life is held to be the primary determinant of the quality of the attachment relationship, the foundation for future social and emotional development. Secondly, the caregiver’s own cognitive representations of her childhood experiences of being parented are believed to shape the quality of her sensitivity in interaction with her child. Given this central place in a trans‑generational model of the transmission of adaptive and maladaptive features of parenting, the reliable and meaningful measurement of caregiver sensitivity is a priority for scholar and practitioner alike. The achievement of this objective has proven to be elusive. Early attempts failed to provide measures of sensitivity that replicated early work linking it to the quality of the attachment relationship. This chapter focuses on the important insights regarding the nature of early mother-­infant interaction and its assessment that can be drawn from this struggle to develop an effective assessment instrument. The Maternal Behaviour Q‑sort--combining the rigors of q-sort methodology with a focus on the conditions under which mothers and infants are observed--has proven to provide a robust assay of the quality of maternal interactive behaviour based on both real‐time observations and video records. The instrument promises to be a valuable tool for those interested in meaningfully measuring caregiver sensitivity to support both clinical assessment and outcome-based interventions.


Published as a book chapter in: Maternal Sensitivity: A Scientific Foundation for Practice. Deborah Winders Davis and M. Cynthia Logsdon. (Eds.).
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