For decades, we have studied the intergenerational transmission of trauma and neglect through an attachment lens, focusing on how parents’ attachment histories influence their current relationships and parenting practices and how those tend to impact their children.
In our research, we found there is a high correlation between the experiences parents had in their childhoods and the child’s patterns of attachment. Parents who experienced childhood neglect or abuse and developed anxious, avoidant or unresolved attachment styles to cope, tend to pass their insecure attachment onto their children, which impacts their emotions, behaviors and relationships into adulthood.
A recent National Institutes of Mental Health-funded study sheds further light on – and supports the attachment research. In their study, Jessica Uy, Ph.D., of the University of California Los Angeles, and colleagues discovered that when mothers experience adversity in their childhood, it can negatively impact their mental health during and after pregnancy, which in turn, can affect their children’s brain development and mental health.
Mothers in the study who had experienced neglect or abuse as children reported having higher levels of depression and anxiety both during pregnancy and after birth. In turn, when their children were surveyed between the ages of 7 and 8, researchers found that they had “more feelings of anxiety and depression and were more socially withdrawn than their counterparts. Maternal experiences of childhood neglect were also associated with their children reporting more anxiety-related performance fears, physical symptoms, and restlessness.”
Through MRIs of the children in the study, “researchers also found a link between maternal mental health and their children’s brain activity. Children of mothers who experienced worse mental health after birth showed weaker connectivity between two parts of the brain (the amygdala and prefrontal cortex)—a connection critical for the regulation and processing of emotion.”
The authors of the NIMH-funded study suggest that increased intervention and support for mothers during pregnancy and after birth would be one way to disrupt this intergenerational transmission of the mother’s mental health challenges to their child.
INTERGENERATIONAL TRANSMISSION AND ATTACHMENT
From working with families for almost 50 years, we know that the period during pregnancy and after birth are critical to the attachment relationship an infant forms with their primary caregivers and to their early childhood development.
Further, we know that when parents experienced suboptimal care as children (e.g. rejection, abandonment, abuse), resulting in the undermining of a sense of security, self-regulation difficulties and negative core beliefs. Interactions with their own children reactivate or trigger early trauma and attachment-related distress. Parents with dismissing and avoidant attachment styles use deactivating strategies to avoid thoughts and feelings related to early trauma. That is, they deny emotional needs and avoid closeness to prevent anticipated rejection, abuse and pain. Their difficulties with attachment cause considerable problems with parenting.
Parents who have troubled unresolved attachment histories often do not relate to their infants and young children in a genuine and meaningful way, but rather they script their children into some past drama from their family of origin. Parents may have conscious or unconscious scenarios from childhood that they repeat or reenact with their own children (“replicative script”). For example, abuse or neglect from childhood is repeated in the next generation. Conversely, parents may react to uncomfortable childhood experiences by attempting to be different with their own children (“corrective script”). A parent who was abandoned in childhood, for example, may become an overindulgent and overprotective parent with their own children.
In projecting their negative histories onto their child, parents who experienced trauma or neglect in childhood are only selectively attuned to their child. Their child is not perceived as a separate and unique being, but becomes molded to fit the parent’s emotions and behavior. This not only prevents the child from forming healthy attachments, but also hinders the child’s ability to learn to manage their emotions and damages their emerging sense of self.
Therefore, the findings of the NIMH-funded study concerning intergenerational transmission, aren’t surprising. Infants require love, nurturing and attunement from their primary caregivers to form secure attachment and experience healthy brain development. This, in turn, influences their emotional and physical well-being as they grow older. However, parents, with adverse childhood experiences, who are struggling with their own attachment issues, tend to have difficulty fulfilling those basic needs.