Intergenerational Trauma May Disrupt Attachment

Article excerpt

SAN DIEGO -- People who have been traumatized may unintentionally traumatize their own children--sometimes in subtle and unexpected ways, Dr. Mary Main reported at a conference on treating emotional trauma sponsored by the University of California, San Diego.

One of the earliest manifestations of this intergenerational trauma is disruption of the normal attachment that takes place during the first year of life, she said.

Drawing on John Bowlby's theory that attachment is a distinctive behavioral system in its own right, Dr. Main said that early mistreatment perturbs that system because an infant is dependent yet frightened of the traumatizing caregiver, leading to a collapse of normal behavioral and attentional strategies. The result is what Dr. Main and her colleagues have termed disorganized/disoriented (D) forms of attachment, which can be observed in older children and adults as well as infants.

Usually the child displays this behavior with only one parent, while attachment to the other parent remains normal. Disorganized attachment "predicts disruptive or aggressive and dissociative disorders in childhood and adolescence," said Dr. Main, professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley.

"Among adults, unresolved or disorganized attachment status, as identified [using] the Adult Attachment Interview, appears frequently in psychiatric and clinical populations in contrast to low-risk populations," she said. However, bouts of D behavior in infants are brief and easy to miss. Disorganized children also were more likely to engage in role reversal with the parent, taking on a controlling or care-giving role as early as age 6 years.

In a small study of four babies who exhibited D behavior, Dr. Main and her associates found that at least one parent of each child had sustained a major and unresolved loss at some point. …