Considering Parental Mortality: The Role of Adult's Attachment Style
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Very little research has studied the common challenge in adulthood of coming to terms with the eventual mortality of one’s parents as they age and experience illness. The present work begins to explore this emotional adjustment and draws on Attachment Theory and the study of how people cope with their own mortality (Terror Management Theory) to develop hypotheses about potential responses of the adult child. Feelings of vigilance and thoughts or behavioural predispositions toward proximity-seeking, disengagement, and control are considered. I hypothesized specific differences in these responses based on the tendency for those high in attachment anxiety to ‘hyperactivate’ attachment-related thoughts and for those high in attachment avoidance to ‘deactivate’ these thoughts. Study 1 used self-report measures in a community sample of adults for whom a parent had experienced a significant illness. Participants high in either attachment anxiety or attachment avoidance were less likely to seek proximity to ill parents than those low on these attachment dimensions. Those high in attachment avoidance were also less likely to experience feelings of vigilance for signs of illness in their parents and to want to assert control over their parents’ health care relative to those who were low in attachment avoidance. These findings were consistent with hypotheses based on attachment avoidance but opposite to hypotheses based on attachment anxiety. Variation in responses to an ill parent was also found depending on the age of participants and their parents, the severity of the parents’ illness and their health care behaviours, and whether the adult served as a caregiver for their parent. Using a word-completion task, Study 2 assessed whether themes of proximity, disengagement, and control were cognitively accessible following imaginal induction of a parents’ mortality, participants’ own mortality, or an experience of physical pain. The pattern of results did not support hypothesized differences in reaction times based on dimensions of attachment anxiety and avoidance. Predicted differences based on which induction was completed were also not found. Self-report responses replicated findings from Study 1 such that participants high in attachment anxiety were less likely to want to seek proximity to ill parents when thinking about their mortality than those low in attachment anxiety, and that those high in attachment avoidance were less likely to feel vigilant and to want to seek proximity or to assert control over their parent relative to those who scored low on measures of attachment avoidance. The manner in which adults respond to being confronted with their parents’ mortality has significant implications for their own emotional well-being as well as for the emotional and physical well-being of their parent. Given that adults often become caregivers for their ill and aging parents, this area of study warrants further research.