Considerable evidence suggests that an individual’s relationship history is an important variable determining parental behavior . A child’s attachment style is also consistent with future parenting characteristics and parental attachment style . In other words, we tend to raise our children similarly to the way we were raised. This does not mean that maltreated children inevitably maltreat their children in the same way, but the risk of doing so is disturbing. What can be repeated, down through the generations, are attachment styles that become organizing themes of relationships.
Children’s brains are still forming. The release of powerful neurohormones, particularly during critical and sensitive moments in development, is thought to have such a profound impact on the developing brain that the brain may organize itself around the traumatic event. Sustained or frequent activation of the hormonal systems that respond to stress can have serious developmental consequences, some of which may last well past the time of stress exposure. For example, when children experience toxic stress, their cortisol levels remain elevated for prolonged periods of time. Both animal and human studies show that long-term elevations in cortisol levels can alter the function of a number of neural systems, and even change the architecture of regions in the brain that are essential for learning and memory (p.3) .
We are only beginning to understand how the effects of chronic stress set the stage for long-term physical as well as emotional and social problems [15-16]. Epigenetic research is demonstrating that environmental factors, including exposure to toxic stress, may influence gene expression and thereby extend the effects of stress through the generations. “Animal studies have shown that the quality of the mother-infant relationship can influence gene expression in areas of the brain that regulate social and emotional function and can even lead to changes in brain structure. The nature of the relationship also can have long-term influences (into adulthood) on how the body copes with stress, both physically and emotionally” (p.3) .
Excerpt from Bloom, S. L. and Farragher, B. (2010). Destroying Sanctuary: The Crisis in Human Service Delivery.
Mary Ainsworth and her colleagues have taken advantage of normal stranger anxiety to discover the different ways in which children attach to their caregivers (Ainsworth et al. 1978). The typical patterns of normal attachment are well-organized and consistent over time with that particular caregiver although the pattern may be quite different with a different caretaker. Longitudinal research has begun to show that these patterns of attachment are predictive of a child’s behavior in school, at home, and in social situations to at least to the tenth year. A child’s attachment style is also consistent with parenting characteristics and parental attachment style .
The attachment style of the greatest concern related to a past history of trauma has been called the disorganized/disoriented attachment . This style is characterized by a lack of coherent strategy of relating to the caregiver. The behavior of these children is inconsistent and contradictory without the usual sequencing of behavior and with the addition of quite unusual behaviors such as freezing and hand flapping. These children appear to be caught in dilemma - their attachment figure is also the source of fear. They respond to this conflict with mental, emotional, and behavioral disorganization and confusion. This style of attachment has been found to be highly correlated with parents who have unresolved traumatic loss in their own backgrounds. The parent’s state of continuing fear and the behavioral components of this fear state frighten the child .
This last disturbed attachment relationship paves the way for what we call “trauma-bonding” and is probably how the multigenerational transmission of traumatic experience actually happens. Considerable evidence suggests that an individual’s relationship history is an important variable determining parental behavior . In other words, we tend to raise our children similarly to the way we were raised. This does not mean that maltreated children inevitably maltreat their children in the same way. Only a relatively small percentage do. But what can be repeated, down through the generations, are attachment styles that become organizing themes of relationships.
Excerpt from Creating Sanctuary: Toward the Evolution of Sane Societies.
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