Emotional availability (EA) refers to the ability of two people to share a healthy emotional connection, and it thus elucidates the emotional and dyadic quality of relationships. It expands upon the behaviors associated with attachment by including the dyadic, emotional, and structural characteristics of a relationship. The dyadic quality of EA considers the perspectives of both the adult and child, rather than prescribing specific behaviors that may be influenced by cultural biases. This characteristic allows it to be observed and measured in any context or culture. Additionally, because EA considers the emotional climate of the relationship, it offers richer information about the relationship. The EA framework also accounts for the adult’s ability to provide structure within the relationship by guiding the child’s learning and supporting his or her autonomy. Furthermore, EA can be observed across a wide range of child ages, from birth to age 14 (Biringen and Easterbrooks, 2012). Theoretically, the system can also be used beyond this age period.
Although the term “emotional availability” has been used in the field of psychological research since the 1970s (Mahler et al., 1975), a validated measure of the construct was only developed in the last 20 years. The EA assessment, developed by Biringen et al. (1998) and Biringen (2008), consists of six scales, four of which measure the adult’s emotions and behaviors, and two of which measure the child side of the interaction. The adult dimensions are sensitivity, structuring, non-intrusiveness, and non-hostility. The child dimensions are responsiveness and involvement. Each dimension is measured using a Likert-type continuous scale that assigns a score between 1 and 7. Assessing the perspective of both the adult and the child is beneficial, both to reflect that adult–child relationships are bidirectional, as well as to capture any possible differences between the adult and child.
Sensitivity consists of the behaviors and emotions used by an adult to create and maintain a positive, healthy emotional connection with the child. Recent research in neuroscience indicates that infants of sensitive mothers (using the EA system) are more responsive to happy than neutral faces (Taylor-Colls and Fearon, 2015). This finding is consistent with the emphasis of the EA system not only on response to stress but also to enjoyable times.
Structuring refers to the capacity of an adult to support the child’s learning and guide him or her toward a higher level of understanding. An optimally structuring adult not only teaches and helps the child, but also permits a degree of autonomy so that the child can learn independently. In order to be successful, the adult must meet the child at his or her current level of understanding and use both verbal and non-verbal strategies to guide the child.