Emotional Availability

Observation Time, Context, and Filming

OBSERVATION TIME        

For the assessment of emotional availability, at least 20 min is ideal. Shorter sessions have been used (even 3 or 5 min) and with meaningful results in many cases. (Kogan & Carter, 1996; Easterbrooks, Biesecker, & Lyons-Ruth, 2000). But, if one is planning a free play or semi-structured play, then 20 min is important to have in the plan. As sessions get shorter, the judgment of emotional availability becomes not only more difficult but actually more time-consuming. That is, while an hour of observation may be coded in real time, a 10-min observation is also coded in an hour, due to the repeated viewings that are necessary to arrive at the judgment of emotional availability.  

CONTEXT

Meaningful results with a very narrow observational period may best be achieved when a stressful context is used, e.g., the still-face situation or a separation-reunion context. Kogan and Carter used the still-face situation, while Easterbrooks et al. used a separation-reunion context.   These scales have been used in naturalistic and semi-structured home situations and semistructured and structured laboratory situations. For some scales, particularly nonhostility and perhaps to an extent nonintrusiveness, stressful situations (which might be a typical stress context or an extended period of observation) can be useful. Longer observations and stressful contexts might challenge relationships enough to highlight these two qualities in a relationship. Our experience, as well as literature search (review articles cited at the end of the manual) indicate that highly structured situations where the adult is given very specific instructions may lead to the evaluation of greater (i.e., inflated view of) emotional availability than situations that are unstructured or semi-structured.  Further, stating that you should ‘be with’ your child, rather than ‘play’ with your child seems to elicit the most natural context of interaction. For ideas on specific contexts, please also see the tables in recent review articles, which summarize EA studies.   Although the scales were developed in the US, they have been utilized widely in  international contexts. The reason for this applicability may be that emotional connection is at the heart of relationships and that this is a universal language. Certain behaviors have never been “excused” because these behaviors are a part of a particular culture (e.g., shaming of children may be common in some cultures but this practice is not excused because of its prevalence). The observer evaluates all interactions in exactly the same way. A similar rationale is used when evaluating males and females in interaction with their own or others’ children.   Although the scales were developed for dyadic interactions, they have now been utilized in group contexts, particularly child care. Further, the system has been utilized with fathers, conceptualized for children with varied disabilities, and is being utilized in foster-care/adoptive homes, as well as many other additional contexts (e.g., Biringen et al., 2014; Biringen et al., 2022).   

FILMING

One needs to make sure that the face of each member of the targeted relationship is clearly visible—not too far so faces are small and not so close that the context is unclear. Interactants can move around, but at some points, the filmer needs to make sure to get some close ups. The best practice is to provide sufficient instruction to the adult so that interruptions do not occur or rarely occur. In other words, it is best for the filmer not to intrude into the interaction, unless absolutely necessary. It is vital that the filmer send out instructions so that the family, if being filmed at home, does not set up a context near a light source. If the filmer is filming into an open or only lightly shaded window, the film will be quite dark and usually not codeable. As much as possible, the members of the relationship should be in the en face position with the camera, rather than only profiles (which make it challenging to see facial expressions). Hair or scarves that block the face should be adjusted prior to the filming context.