Academic journal article The Psychoanalytical Study of the Child

Trauma, Mothering, and Intergenerational Transmission: A Synthesis of Behavioral and Oxytocin Research

Academic journal article The Psychoanalytical Study of the Child

Trauma, Mothering, and Intergenerational Transmission: A Synthesis of Behavioral and Oxytocin Research

Article excerpt

Four decades ago, the now well-known metaphor "ghosts in the nursery" (Fraiberg, Adelson, and Shapiro 1975) was coined, vividly capturing the hypothesis that the mother's past trauma-if not accessed, processed, and resolved-will "intrude into" the mother-infant relationship, repeating the tragedies in the dyad. This evocative description anticipated a complex but solid body of literature on the intergenerational repetition of traumatic experience (Madigan, Bakermans-Kranenburg, et al. 2006; Lieberman et al. 2011; Bowers and Yehuda 2016). Maternal trauma history, or more precisely its psychobiological effects, generates vulnerability in the child, which translates into increased likelihood of traumatic parenting on the part of the maltreated child, now fully grown. This phenomenon is most clearly seen in dramatically high rates of child abuse inflicted at the hands of mothers who were themselves once abused (Dixon, Hamilton-Giachritsis, and Browne 2005; Lieberman et al. 2011). A decade of close empirical scrutiny has shown comparable, albeit more subtle, findings in the homes of traumatized but nonmaltreating mothers: traumatized mothers, even nonmaltreating ones, have been shown to beget frightened children. This comes from a long line of prospective longitudinal and cross-sectional studies (Hesse and Main 1999; Lyons-Ruth and Block 1996) of mother-infant dyads that have repeatedly noted infants' frightened and alarmed behaviors (e.g., immobilized behavior and dazed appearance) while in the presence of their traumatized mothers.

During the past decade, studies have expanded from behavioral (Madigan, BakermansKranenburg, et al. 2006) to neurobiological (Kim, Fonagy, Allen, and Strathearn 2014), genetic (Bokhorst et al. 2003; Fearon et al. 2006), and epigenetic levels (Van Ijzendoorn and Bakermans-Kranenburg 2006; Yehuda and Bierer 2008) in search of the correlates of and contributors to the observed intergenerational transmission. To this day, central questions remain of critical interest to researchers and clinicians alike. How does maternal trauma modify caregiving and how does this altered caregiving disrupt the normative development of children? What does research reveal about bringing the intergenerational pattern to a halt? What steps can be taken to help these mothers break the cycle and protect them from becoming their own mothers, as they themselves often fear?

In this paper, we review the data that are currently available to address the foregoing questions. In doing so, we highlight the possible role of the oxytocin (OT) system in mediating this intergenerational transmission of trauma. The OT system has emerged as a key system contributing to social affiliation and bond formation in a number of species, and has received extensive attention over the past few decades from the scientific community and the general public for its role in both maternal behavior and regulation of stress and fear (Campbell 2010; Meyer-Lindenberg et al. 2011). In the following sections, we first define and conceptualize maternal trauma. Second, we provide an overview of the OT system. Third, we examine how maternal trauma could affect the mother, motherinfant attachment, and the infant. We do so by first summarizing recent advances in the mother-infant behavioral literature before discussing corresponding neurobiology in the respective literature on OT. Finally, we conclude by synthesizing this literature with regard to disrupting the cycle of intergenerational transmission, suggesting clinical interventions and pointing to new avenues for research.

Maternal trauma

This paper focuses on attachment trauma, the kind of trauma that takes place in the context of attachment relationships and undermines one's capacity to develop and maintain future attachment relationships. At its core, trauma thwarts the very core functions of attachment relationships, secure base and safe haven (Bowlby [1969] 1982), and thereby weakens the early and most basic foundation of emotion regulation (Fonagy and Target 1997). …

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