Miriam Steele: Breaking Cycles of Neglect Using Attachment Research

“I never get to see myself from the outside, I’m always judging myself from the inside,” reports a parent participating in a New School-Albert Einstein Medical Center clinical research collaboration directed by New School for Social Research psychologist Miriam Steele and her colleagues. Steele suggests that stepping outside of the interaction prompts reflective functioning, a theoretical framework she developed with her collaborator and husband Howard Steele over a decades-long examination of parent-child attachment. They have used the lens of attachment research to examine everything from the intergenerational links in parent-child relationships, intervention approaches to address child maltreatment, adoption, and the development of body image. She describes her work as bridging “the world of psychoanalytic thinking and clinical practice with contemporary research in child development.” In the course of our recent conversation it became clear that, for Steele, to research is to learn, to teach, and to help people – and to discover the next big question.

Group Attachment-Based Intervention

Steele’s focus is a psychological intervention called Group Attachment-Based Intervention (GABI), and she assesses its impact in a randomly controlled trial, federally funded by the Human Resources Services Administration.  The research team – comprised of faculty and graduate students at NSSR, as well as clinicians and researchers from Albert Einstein College of Medicine – brings together parents and young children from the Bronx for a thrice-weekly session of a group-based clinical treatment. As described in her co-authored article, Looking from the outside in: the use of video in attachment-based interventions (Attachment & Human Development, 2014), GABI is designed “to reach parents with histories of multiple adverse childhood experiences and ongoing exposure to poverty, domestic and neighborhood violence and risk of child maltreatment.”  This intervention grew out of a community-based intervention, setting it apart from interventions conceptualized in an academic setting and then delivered to patients.

The project started with one fundamental assertion, said Steele: “We know from neurobiology that well-nurtured brains look different from those that are not. That’s been well documented. The question is, how can we bring about change ?” Steele thinks that such a transformation in a parent could be brought on in part by an important aspect of the intervention: a parent watching video footage of her interactions with her child and being asked to reflect on what she sees while also hearing the reflections from her peers in the group.

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