Is there an intergenerational transmission of attachment?

Eksamensoppgave PSYC1210 Sara Marjanovic


Babies enter the world with a vital mission to ensure that one is being looked after and cared for. Being in proximity to a loving, warm and protective caregiver is crucial for the survival and wellbeing of a new life. Attachment is the invisible emotional bond that keeps individuals close to each other through space and time (Ainsworth & Bell, 1970). Mary Ainsworth revolutionized the field of attachment when she created a system to assess and measure attachment security in infants. Based on the Strange Situation Procedure (SSP), Ainsworth proposed three attachment styles for infants; insecure avoidant (type A), secure (type B) and insecure resistant (type C) (Ainsworth & Bell, 1970). The model Ainsworth created has allowed psychologists to discover transgenerational patterns of attachment styles.

This essay is going to take a deeper look into the intergenerational transmission of attachment with maternal sensitivity as a main focus, followed by a discussion of unresolved trauma and the role of reorganization in the transmission of attachment from mother to child.

Type B attachment transmission and maternal sensitivity

The secure attachment style, or Type B, has been linked to better self-esteem, lower feelings of shame, less anxiety in relationships and a more positive outlook on the world (Ainsworth & Bell, 1970). It seems to be that one’s internal working model of attachment, the way we view ourselves, our attachment figures and relationships have important implications on well-being from early childhood, throughout adolescence, and even into old age (Bodner & Cohen-Fridel, 2010). Infants with Type B patterns have more trusting and positive relationships with their caregivers. According to the Infant Strange Situation Procedure, the securely attached children will easily let themselves be soothed after a caregiver has left and then returned (Ainsworth & Bell, 1970).

Several studies point to a significant match of secure attachment between mother and infant. A meta-analysis from 1995 including 13 different studies and 661 mother-infant dyads found a 75 % match of secure/insecure attachment classifications (van IJzendoorn, 1995). A Finnish study from 2010 conducted on grandmother-mother-child, even though small, found data suggesting continuity across three generations (Hautamäki et al., 2010).

How can the high correlation between mothers and infants attachment styles be explained? Among important factors like socioeconomic status, family stability and living conditions, sensitive responsiveness, the degree to which a caregiver appropriately and predictably responds to their infant’s needs, stands out as an important predictor of attachment development (Shah et al., 2010). The children who experience from an early age that their primary caregiver will respond to their needs predictably, stand a stronger chance of adapting a secure, trusting attachment style as adults. When these adults then become parents, they will likely implement their secure inner working model into their parenting style, and so their children are more likely to adopt a secure attachment style as well. However, the strongest correlation in mother-child dyads has been found with the Type B attachment pattern. When looking into the transmission of the two insecure attachment styles (Type A and C), the picture tends to get a bit more complicated (Shah et al., 2010).  

Reversed matching and insecure attachment styles

When researchers look at the three attachment styles, Type A, Type B and Type C, as a whole, mother-infant correlations seem to decrease significantly. These findings indicate that there may be other mechanisms besides direct transgenerational replication that is taking place in the transmission of attachment styles (Shah et al., 2010).

The same studies that found a relatively high degree of intergenerational continuity for the secure attachment style, also found reversed transmission patterns for the anxious attachment styles. This type of reversed matching is also described in the literature as meshing. Children with Type A parents were more likely to develop a Type C attachment style and vice versa (Shah et al., 2010). Data suggesting inverted matching patterns have also been replicated in triad-studies which showed ACA and CAC meshing across three generations (Hautamäki et al., 2010).

Why does secure attachment transmission and anxious attachment transmission seem to manifest in such different ways?

To understand the mechanisms behind intergenerational matching and meshing in the context of attachment, it might be helpful to view attachment styles as strategies. The American psychologist Patricia Crittenden developed a model based on the work of Mary Ainsworth, in which attachment patterns are described as self-protective strategies. She proposed that when infants experience relational danger like inconsistent responsiveness, these individuals will develop information processing strategies in order to adapt to their family environment. These cognitive adaptations and information processing mechanisms then manifest as attachment styles (Crittenden, 2006). Looking at intergenerational transmission from the perspective of survival and adaptation, it makes sense that the anxious attachment styles will transmit in a responsive pattern.

An insecure avoidant mother will typically have a tendency to intermittently respond to her infant’s negative affect. Children of Type A mothers then might develop a Type C strategy, which typically includes exaggerated emotional affect, to ensure that the Type A caregiver will respond (Marriott & Kelley, 2016–now).
On the other hand, a child with an insecure resistant parent might experience that negative affect is discouraged by the primary caregiver and that withholding negative feelings is the emotional display rule. The child of a Type C mother might end up developing a Type A strategy to avoid frightening negative behaviour in their primary caregiver (Marriott & Kelley, 2016–now).

However, in every study conducted on the intergenerational relationship between attachment styles there are cases of securely attached children with insecurely attached mothers. There are also children who, despite having securely attached mothers, end up being insecurely attached themselves.

Reversed attachment transmission is most commonly seen in mother-infant relationships where the mother scores with a high-subscript attachment classification, meaning she has a strong tendency towards one of the strategies (Hautamäki et al., 2010). Crittenden’s model shows the different strategies on a continuum where the extremities on both sides are seen as potentially maladaptive (Crittenden, 2006). Strong tendencies towards either of the insecure strategies are linked to low or unstable responsiveness and possible unresolved relational trauma (Iyengar et al., 2014).

Unresolved trauma in mothers and the role of reorganization

Several studies have looked into the relationship between unresolved trauma and maternal responsiveness. Unresolved trauma and parenting styles, along with attachment styles, show patterns of transgenerational transmission (Belsky et al., 2009). Unresolved trauma may impair the mother’s parental sensitivity and therefore increase the risk of her child developing an insecure attachment style (Iyengar et al., 2014). Some research even shows that heavily traumatized mothers may have compromised activation of brain structures that are involved in emotional processing, and therefore struggle to interpret their infant’s communicative signals (Kim et al., 2014). These findings tend to paint a slightly deterministic view of the intergenerational transmission of attachment. However, newer findings suggest that there are ways to break the cycle of intergenerational transmission of trauma and insecure attachment.

A study from 2014 discovered the effects of reorganization in mothers with trauma. Mothers who tended to trivialize the seriousness of their trauma as well as the ones who had a hard time letting go of painful childhood experiences were much more likely to have children with insecure attachment patterns. Mothers who had undergone the process of trying to understand their childhood trauma and therefore also moved towards a more secure attachment style, were much more likely to have children with secure attachment styles themselves (Iyengar et al., 2014). It is important to mention that the sample size of this particular study was relatively small and that further research on this topic is needed. But there seems to be some evidence pointing to the idea that the act of reorganization or changing one’s internal working model of attachment may have positive effects on breaking the transgenerational transmission of trauma and anxious attachment styles. These findings may have clinical implications in the future, where therapy and other inventory practices can be used as tools for mothers with unresolved trauma wishing to break the cycle of intergenerational transmission of trauma and anxious attachment styles.


In summary, many studies have come to the same conclusion, suggesting there is an intergenerational transmission of attachment styles, and that maternal sensitivity seems to have a key role in this phenomenon. Several studies point to a strong intergenerational correlation of the secure attachment style, and an inverted transmission pattern for the anxious attachment styles. This may indicate a strategy-based development for the latter one. The coping mechanisms developed in infancy might later manifest as attachment styles in children with Type A or Type C parents. While research points to a responsive relationship between the two anxious attachment styles, newer findings suggest that reorganization towards a secure attachment style in insecurely attached mothers, increases the probability of their children developing a secure attachment style as well. The knowledge we now have about intergenerational transmission of secure and insecure attachment, as well as the role of maternal sensitivity, can allow future parents to better accommodate attachment strategy development in their children.

Sara Marjanovic går 3.  semester på profesjonsstudiet i psykologi

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