How Can We Improve Attachment Between Mothers and Children From One Generation to the Next?

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Mother and baby playing.

Unresolved trauma in mothers: Intergenerational effects and the role of reorganization” (abstract). Udita Iyengar, Sohye Kim, Shella Martinez, Peter Fonagy, and Lane Strathearn. Frontiers in Psychology, Vol. 5 (September 2014).

What it’s about: Researcher Udita Iyengar and her colleagues wanted to know whether a new mother dealing with past trauma would be able to develop an attachment to her child. If not, could being in the process of addressing her own issues help her bond with her child?

The researchers interviewed 67 first-time mothers. Forty-seven of the mothers took the Adult Attachment Interview while they were pregnant and then when their children were 11 months old. The interview aims to help adults improve their ability to bond with other people.

The 20 remaining moms were in the control group and were not interviewed.

The researchers assessed infants' bond with their moms using an assessment called the Strange Situation Procedure.

Why read it: Prior studies show that mothers who are dealing with past trauma can't respond sensitively to their children's distress. According to Iyengar and her team, a mother's difficulty responding prevents attachment and leads to intergenerational trauma. Prior studies have shown that healing from trauma helps mothers raise children who feel secure and attached to the people around them. To the authors’ knowledge, this is the first study to look at whether being on the road to healing is enough to help a mom bond with her child.

Biggest takeaways from the research: The Adulthood Attachment Interview is a 1.5-2 hour-long conversation about childhood relationships with caregivers, and ways to think differently about past and present experiences. Iyengar and her colleagues chose a modified version of the interview that also includes questions about traumatic experiences and losses. Here are a few things the researchers learned:

  • All the mothers in the study who were dealing with past trauma had trouble bonding with others, compared to 25 percent of mothers without unresolved trauma.
  • Over 75 percent of the mothers with unresolved trauma had insecurely attached infants, compared to 45 percent of mothers without unresolved trauma.

Iyengar and her associates also found that being in the process of dealing with past trauma can help mothers form secure bonds with their children, despite the mothers themselves having difficulty attaching to others around them. 

Of the mothers dealing with unresolved trauma, all four in the interview group had children who could bond with others. Mothers who were not in the process of healing did not have children with secure bonds.

The researchers recommend that future studies use larger samples to see how Adult Attachment Interview might reduce intergenerational trauma.

Additional references: Look for more articles about childhood attachment, unresolved trauma and trauma-informed care in NCFY’s research library

For details about what "reorganization," or addressing past trauma, looks like, download supplementary material from the study.

Publications discussed here do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Clearinghouse on Families and Youth, the Family and Youth Services Bureau, or the Administration for Children and Families.

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