Entropy Rules

Family Socialization:

Child Trauma Transference In Relationships

    Intergenerational transmission has been defined as "the process through which, purposively or unintendedly, an earlier generation psychologically influences parenting attitudes and behavior of the next generation" (Van IJzendoorn, 1992, p. 76). It refers to the process of "socializing the socializer," as experiences with primary caregivers shape key neurobiological architecture and cognitive, affective, and behavioral tendencies that will in turn go on to socialize the next generation (Van IJzendoorn, 1992, p. 76). Adult attachment theory suggest autonomous parents tend to raise secure children; dismissive parents tend to raise avoidant children; preoccupied parents tend to raise resistant children, and unresolved parents tend to raise disorganized children (Van Ijzendoorn, 1992; Main, Kaplan, & Cassidy, 1985; Main & Goldwyn, 1984; Ainsworth & Eichberg, 1993; Grossmann, Fremmer-Bombik, Rudolph, & Grossmann, 1988). While not all survivors of child maltreatment go on to maltreat their own children, maltreatment in childhood remains a significant risk factor in a parent's propensity to maltreat the next generation (Egeland, Bosquet, & Chung, 2002; Berlin et al., 2011; Renner & Slack, 2006). Evidence suggests that survivors of child maltreatment are more likely to abuse their own children compared to people who were not abused as children (Rogosch, Cicchetti, Shields, & Toth, 1995). Survivors of child maltreatment show problematic trends in their own parenting, such as less effective parenting (Cole, Woolger, Power, & Smith, 1992) and more parenting negativity and less nurturance (Burkett, 1991). Attachment styles associated with unresolved traumatic maltreatment have been found to be transmitted intergenerationally (Main, Hesse, & Kaplan, 2005; Sroufe et al., 2005).
    What are the mechanisms of intergenerational transmission? It has been suggested that social learning can account for the intergenerational transmission of maltreating parenting style (Putallaz et al., 1998). First, parents serve as social role models, which children may come to emulate through observation. Secondly, the child's interactions with the parents shape their explicit and implicit cognitive, affective, and behavioral tendencies. For example, in one study of adolescent behavior it was found that both parenting behavior and perceptions of parents mediated the intergenerational transmission of antisocial behavior, a neurobiobehavioral profile linked to maltreatment, suggesting that both implicit and explicit processes are at play in intergenerational transmission (Dogan, Conger, Kim, & Masyn, 2007). Antisocial parents are more likely to use inept parenting practices characterized by neglect, hostility, and harsh, inconsistent discipline, strategies that may often be characterized as maltreatment (Patterson & Capaldi, 1991). Third, in addition to serving as relationship role models, parents have the opportunity to provide direct social emotional coaching that can influence later social competence (Berlin et al., 2008). However, maltreating parents are particularly unlikely to engage in this last process of transmission (Crittenden, 1984; Van IJzendoorn, 1992).
    Specific parenting styles have been shown to be reproduced in following generations. For example, rejecting parental behavior has been shown to be reproduced in future generations, with depressive affect identified as an important mediator (Whitbeck et al., 1992). Angry, aggressive parenting behavior has also been shown to be reproducible across generations. This link has been explained by social learning perspectives, stating that the association between aggressive parenting from one generation to the next is mediated by the aggressive tendencies replicated in the maltreated child (Conger et al., 2009; Conger, Neppl, Kim, & Scaramella, 2002; Hops, Davis, Leve, & Sheeber, 2003). Consequences such as aggressive tendencies affect parent functioning in such a way that adult survivors of child maltreatment are likely to be excessively sensitive to threat and emotionally reactive. Combined with difficulties regulating emotions, impulsive, aggressive behaviors may arise in response to attachment related interactions with their children (Siegel & Hartzell, 2014). For example, Delker, Noll, Kim, and Fisher (2014) conducted a prospective longitudinal study of abused mothers and found that maternal abuse history indirectly predicted pre-teen's self-regulation difficulties. This effect was mediated by maternal controlling behavior, including psychological aggression and physical aggression, as well as non aggressive controlling strategies. Thus, controlling parenting behavior is one route through which the development of the child's self-regulation capacities may be sabotaged and lead to self-regulation difficulties that likely persist into parenthood.
    Another study supported the idea that the intergenerational transmission of child maltreatment is closely linked to stunted social emotional competence. In a longitudinal sample, Raby et al. (2015) found that, in contrast to maltreated children, those who received sensitive maternal care in the first 3 years of life were more supportive parents when they became parents. This association was mediated by competence in relationships with peers and romantic partners across development. Sensitive parenting in infancy and early childhood predicted higher teacher-rated peer competence, which in turn predicted better romantic functioning in young adulthood, and in turn predicted supportive parenting in adulthood. This illustrates a thread of social competency originating in the parent-child relationship affecting relationships all the way into parenting the next generation (Raby et al., 2015). Fortunately, it has also been suggested that problematic attachment representations can be restructured through healthy relationships such as those that occur in therapy or in secure, healthy intimate relationships (Van Ijzendoorn, 1992).
    In summary, attachment status and parenting style are often transmitted across generations (Dogan et al., 2007; Main & Hesse, 2005). More often than not, parenting and attachment styles are consistent across generation, and are thought to be transmitted via direct and indirect social learning (e.g., Dogan et al., 2007), as well as through direct effects of parenting behavior on development (e.g., Delker et al., 2014).


⇲ About The Author

Robin Hertz, MA is currently in the process of completing a PhD in Clinical Psychology at the University of Oregon.

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