Entropy Rules

Potential Of Mindful Living:

To Interrupt Childhood Maltreatment

    The experience of child maltreatment (including physical, sexual, verbal, and emotional abuse, as well as physical and emotional neglect) is detrimental to human development, leading to deficits in neural connectivity and executive functioning, physical and mental health problems, and impaired socio-emotional development and functioning. Importantly, adult survivors of child maltreatment are at higher risk of perpetuating child maltreatment as they parent their own children. Mindfulness, the process of paying attention to the present moment on purpose and without judgment, and meditation have been associated with enhanced functioning in the same domains affected by child maltreatment. This integrated empirical and theoretical review discusses findings from diverse literatures that together help explain how mindfulness and meditation can target the physical and psychological challenges faced by adult survivors of child maltreatment. With practice, mindfulness may empower adult survivors of child maltreatment to interrupt the intergenerational transmission of child maltreatment.


    Humans are born vulnerable, lacking the basic motor and cognitive skills necessary to survive independently. Babies depend on their caregivers for survival, and possess an innate drive to form an attachment to a primary caregiver (Bowlby, 1958, 1969/1984). The attachment system is a biobehavioral system innate to humans that functions to create and maintain this attachment bond through predictable attachment behaviors. In the earliest years of life, the primary goal of attachment behavior is to maintain physical proximity with a capable and responsive caregiver. As the child grows and develops skills, such as the ability to communicate verbally, the attachment relationship becomes a "goal-corrected partnership", where the objective is to maintain the availability of, if not the actual physical proximity of, a primary caregiver (Cassidy, 2008; Siegel & Hartzell, 2014).
    Parents, in turn, possess an innate, complimentary behavioral caregiving system (Bowlby, 1984). Certain factors can render the parent temporarily physically, emotionally, or psychologically unavailable to the child, limiting the quality of caregiving a parent can provide (e.g., Bowlby, 1958; Siegel & Hartzell, 2014). All parents have times when they must attend to other needs and intentions, such as the need to work for income, which may temporarily interfere with their availability to the child. However, a categorically different example of parental unavailability occurs when the parent is physically available to the child, but emotionally and psychologically unavailable or misattuned (e.g., Bailey, Moran, Pederson & Bento, 2007; Ehrensaft, Knous-Westfall, Cohen, & Chen, 2015) A key factor that influences parents' availability and attunement to their children is the relationship that they had with their own caregivers when they were children, the early life experiences that shape the parents physiological and psychological tendencies (e.g., Siegel & Hartzell, 2014). Unavailability and misattunement may be more likely when the parent has an unresolved childhood history of traumatic maltreatment (e. g., Hesse, Main, Abrams, & Rifkin, 2003; Kelly, Slade, & Grienenberger, 2005; Raby et al., 2015; Siegel & Hartzell, 2014). Child maltreatment exists on a continuum that includes verbal abuse, emotional abuse and neglect (e.g., maternal rejection, harsh discipline), physical neglect, and physical and sexual abuse. Maltreatment is associated with factors such as living with a primary caregiver with severe mental illness or substance abuse disorder (Shonkoff et al., 2012).


    Mindfulness, a quality of attention characterized by intentional, nonjudgmental receptivity to experience, has been associated with improved physical and psychological health and healthier relationships (e.g., Chambers, Gullone, & Allen, 2009; Gu, Strauss, Bond, & Cavanagh, 2016; Pepping, Duvenage, Cronin, & Lyons, 2016). Intentional cultivation of mindfulness may help address many of the harmful impacts of child maltreatment in adult survivors (e.g., Hanley, Garland, & Tedeschi, 2016; McDonald et al., 2016; Siegel & Hartzell, 2014). Some scientists have already begun to investigate ways in which the cultivation of mindfulness may be particularly useful for promoting positive parenting (e.g., Duncan, Coatsworth, & Greenberg, 2009). The following integrative theoretical and empirical review explores the healing potential of mindfulness in helping parents with a history of maltreatment to be more effective parents, thus interrupting the cycle of intergenerational transmission of child maltreatment. Part I of this manuscript focuses on how experiences of child maltreatment shape the physiology, cognition, and behavior of the developing person, with an emphasis on how maltreatment impacts neurobiological, cognitive, affective, and behavioral components that underlie parenting capacities. Part II explores ways in which mindfulness can serve to decrease problematic maltreatment sequelae while bolstering resilience factors and supporting the development of new skills. Part III concludes with a consideration of the mindful parenting movement, and evaluates whether mindful parenting may be a viable framework for addressing the important problem of how to interrupt the intergenerational transmission of child maltreatment.

⇲ About The Author

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