Attachment and the intergenerational transmission of trauma

Photo: Mother holding a baby as her other children run to greet her.

I have blogged about the connection between love and psychotherapy, and the topic is up again for me after a recent sensorimotor training. In part, the training focused on the relationship between early life attachment, character development, and later life patterns of relating. The gifted (and seemingly indefatigable) Dr. Janina Fisher led the training, tossing out enlightening gems amidst an already insightful curriculum. (I recommend attending any training she offers.) Dr. Fisher relayed how childhood maltreatment may not be the only way a person develops a disorganized/disorienting attachment style, which historically has been the hallmark of a childhood history of abuse. It could also occur as a result of being parented by a caregiver who has PTSD. Thus, I would add, developing this attachment style may be one way the intergenerational transmission of trauma occurs.

According to attachment theory, all of us develop a style for relating to the people we love (which I’ll call our “love objects”). Some of us are blessed with the conditions that lead to a secure attachment style — supposedly about two-thirds of the population. (I sometimes doubt this figure, and think it’s too high, but perhaps my view is skewed by practicing psychotherapy and the opportunity to hear about what troubles so many of us: relationships!) The other third of us tend to either be “preoccupied” with our love objects; or in contrast, are easily overwhelmed by them and prefer some emotional distance (so-called “avoidant” style). Within this third also includes attempts to attach amidst childhood maltreatment. And a disorganized/disorienting style is thought to emerge as a response to having caregivers who are either frightened (such as a parent enduring domestic violence) or frightening (a violent caregiver).

For the abused child, the frightened or frightening caregiver is both longed for and a source of threat. The child both wants to attach to the caregiver as well as escape from the fear he or she causes, which interferes with the two primary functions of attachment:

  1. creating a safe base for the child to return to when exploration feels threatening or emotionally overwhelming, and
  2. teaching the child how to regulate emotions, especially when the child feels threatened or overwhelmed.

When the caregiver is frightened or frightening, the child is left to deal on her own with overpowering emotions. Such conditions, especially when chronic, can lead to later difficulties connecting with ‘love objects’ as well as problems with emotional regulation — and having the capacity to emotionally regulate is one of the best ways to protect against developing a mental disorder.

But as Dr. Fisher pointed out, childhood abuse is not a necessary precursor for a disorganized/disoriented attachment style. Caregivers with PTSD or substance abuse issues can have the same impact on a child’s budding attachment style as violence in the home. Consider these characteristics of a “frightened” caregiver:

  • Backing away
  • Frightened voice
  • Dazed expression
  • Exaggerated startle
  • Withdrawn
  • Nonresponsive

Although usually associated with a caregiver victimized by domestic violence, these behaviors are also seen in people with PTSD.

Or consider these traits of “frightening” caregivers:

  • Looming
  • Sudden movements
  • Attack postures
  • Mocking, teasing
  • Intrusiveness
  • Emotionally reactive
  • Loud, startling noises

Whereas these behaviors sketch a violent parent, they also give the picture of an inebriated, nonviolent alcoholic. Substance abuse is also highly correlated with histories of trauma.

Increasingly, research and clinical experience points to the significance of early attachment for healthy relationships and mental health. Fortunately, secure attachment can be earned through later healthy relationships (perhaps one of the best uses of psychotherapy). Thus, none of us are necessarily stuck with unhealthy attachment styles resulting from early life conditions out of our control.

Yet, I am personally unsatisfied with relying on a corrective approach to mental health problems that could be avoided by greater sensitivity to a child’s development. And while certainly creating supportive conditions for healthy attachments involves addressing the needs of the very young, it also requires supporting their caregivers. Too many parents also suffer from trauma’s long-lasting impact, and often unintentionally, pass it on to the next generation.


Wallin, David J. 2007. Attachment in Psychotherapy. New York: The Guilford Press.

© 2012 Laura K Kerr, PhD. All rights reserved (applies to writing and photography).


    • Laura K Kerr says:

      Not knowing how deep you plan to go into your history, but wanted to share a book title anyway: “Genograms: Assessment and Intervention,” by Monica McGoldrick et al. If you can get a copy at a library, it’s worth a look at the middle section to see some creative and illuminating ways of looking at family histories, including trauma histories.

  1. Scott Lederman says:

    As a retired Educator ( over thirty years working with Special Needs students) and now a parent educator I see the connection so clearly as many of our parents continue the cycle of trauma. In our support groups we do mindful meditation and begin to consider how we want to interact with our children instead of reacting to them. Even as a parent of 7 and 2 grand kids ( another on the way!!) I see my constant struggle of being overwhelmed by parenting and avoiding, especially since I was divorced many years ago and the kids were young at the time. Now in my own journey I agree that my own “frightened” responses to my own upbringing has translated by a lifetime of avoidance. But at the same time, driven by love for my children I fought through, sometimes winning sometimes losing and then asking for forgiveness, and now have a great kids all finding their way in life.
    I share this because I am a success, even though I still have the many voices of condemnation arise at the smallest mistake. Mindfulness and ACT has given me the tools to go forward in a loving way. Being gentle with myself and others.
    We need more work recognizing that until we reach out and help parents crushed by their own childhood trauma, the cycle will continue. My wife, a school nurse in a Special Education setting is now working with the children of the students we had years ago. The tragedy is that many of these fathers are either dead or in prison.

    • Laura K Kerr says:

      Scott, thanks so much for sharing your inspiring commitment to growth and healing. Lately I have been wondering how far any of us can heal from adverse childhood experiences without also helping others heal. It seems like a necessary part of the journey, and so needed in these troubled times.

      As you point out, knowing your own attachment style is so important. It can help us be easier on ourselves (hopefully less judgmental) as well as know how to anticipate relationship dynamics that will be difficult, and even learn healthier ways to deal with them.

      I wrote a post, “Let There Be Love,” which includes a link to a questionnaire for determining your attachment style. Maybe some of your parents would find it interesting:

      Thank you for your insights.

  2. Peter Schröder says:

    In my own therapeutic and spiritual work I have come to recognize the effects of generational transmission of trauma from my mother. She grew up in Königsberg which was taken by the Russians at the end of WWII. She was 11 when she lost her entire family and became an orphan in 1945. She had no opportunity to process that trauma and, I suppose(!), ended up passing it on to me (and me accepting it). I say that because at the very most core there is this one sense “Please, let me be safe.” All flows from that one place and I have come to recognize it as her experience. An interesting meditation as I am now raising my son (2 years old) and wish not to pass this ancestral work on to him, but make it end with myself (I know I won’t do a perfect job at this of course, but I am committed to it no less). An interesting process, this intergenerational transmission. (There is a book in German about this called “the children of the children of war” as it seems I am not the only one who feels the effects of this trauma.)

    • Laura K Kerr says:

      Peter, Thank you for sharing of your mother’s very tragic childhood and how you have developed your unique sense of self through acknowledging her traumatized parts and their impact on you. I honor your concern for passing on to your son unconscious, and potentially traumatic, preoccupations. From what you write, I imagine he will witness in you a capacity to both have one’s experiences and to mindfully observe them, and thus the foundation for being truly free (or as free as any of us can be). What a gift that is! Perhaps this is how peaceful societies takes root, as well as less fearful children.

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