Mother's Past Trauma Affects Attachment to Child, Researcher Finds

October 29, 2007 - News Release

Mothers with unresolved issues related to childhood trauma often struggle to develop an effective attachment to their own children, a U of G psychology professor has found.

Prof. Heidi Bailey said this is worrisome because it leaves the affected children without a sense of security and can lead to behavioural problems down the road.

"It's stressful for children to grow up without having a consistent and engaging relationship with their mother, and it can have a negative impact on a child's emotional development," said Bailey. "In this way, children experience the second-generation effect of their mother's own childhood trauma experiences."

In a study involving 99 teenaged mothers with infants, Bailey and a team of researchers found that the women who had endured childhood trauma due to neglect, loss of a loved one or some form of abuse and had yet to deal with this trauma also frequently struggled to develop an engaging or emotionally supportive relationship with their babies.

As part of the study, which was published recently in Development and Psychopathology, researchers first interviewed the mothers to determine who had endured childhood trauma and had not resolved their experiences. Bailey said they chose to focus on mothers between the ages of 15 and 19 because they are a group at a higher social risk.

"Although there are teenage mothers who function well, as a group they more frequently report childhood abuse or neglect, and they have had less time to work through such experiences," she said. "They are also at an increased risk for insensitive and unresponsive parenting."

The researchers then observed how the mothers interacted with their 12-month-old infants at home and in a lab setting.

At home, the children of mothers with unresolved issues would often play by themselves.

"In some families, there was no evidence of a close relationship between mother and child," said Bailey. "It was like the mother and child were living separate lives. The mother was emotionally unavailable and disengaged, and the child was sad and withdrawn."

She said these children would often seek attention from visitors rather than from their own mother.

In the lab, Bailey observed how the children responded when their mothers left them alone in a room and then returned moments later. The children who had close relationships with their mothers greeted their mothers with happiness when they returned, and if they were upset, the children asked to be picked up and comforted.

"It's a good sign when children clearly ask for comfort from their parents when they need it."

But the children of mothers with unresolved issues often appeared to struggle with asking their mothers for help, said Bailey.

When the mother returned, these children often looked disoriented or fearful and tried unsuccessfully to hold their feelings inside. If they did try to ask their mothers for help, they did so in vague and confusing ways, she said. A child might start to walk towards the mother and then stop or reach out his or her arms up to be picked up, but then once in the mother's arms, the child would try to avoid contact by turning away.

"Mothers who have unresolved issues often are more emotionally stressed, and these children can feel that their mothers are stressed and less able to comfort them. So instead of going to their mother for comfort when they're feeling vulnerable, these children try to keep their feelings inside but fail to cope with them. This can be harmful because these children aren’t learning how to cope with stress."

In addition, children who don't experience a close emotional connection with a parent tend to have more difficulty trusting others and establishing close relationships as adults, she added.

Bailey emphasizes that it is possible for mothers who have had difficult childhoods to have healthy relationships with their children, but support needs to be in place for these mothers to resolve any issues they may have to overcome.

"Most of these women want the best for their child, but they are facing obstacles that most of us would find incredibly difficult. As a society, we need to help mothers who haven't had a chance to cope with their own difficult experiences. It's our responsibility to provide them with the support they need so that it doesn't affect their children."

Prof. Heidi Bailey
Department of Psychology
519-824-4120, Ext. 56399

For media questions, contact Communications and Public Affairs: Lori Bona Hunt, 519-824-4120, Ext. 53338, or Deirdre Healey, 519-824-4120, Ext. 56982.

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