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Intergenerational Transmission of Attachment


Intergenerational Transmission of Attachment

September 12, 2021

Last week my blog post explored the historical underpinnings of attachment theory.  John Bowlby, the father of attachment theory, spearheaded research that has led to numerous subsequent studies exploring the impact of the earliest relationship between the infant and her mother.  In addition to the vitality of initial care and connection, what shapes our attachments to human beings?  Does familial history predict attachment styles of future generations?

Mary Main (1995) and her colleagues were particularly interested in examining attachment phenomena across familial generations.  They explored the relationship between a parent’s early attachment style and her infant’s attachment experience measured by the Strange Situation.  The development of the Adult Attachment Interview took place at this time, a tool aimed to help determine “retrospectively the nature of the parent’s own early attachment experiences, assuming that the better the experiences of the parent, the more secure the parent, the more securely attached the child would be” (Mitchell, 2000, p. 85).  To their surprise, the results revealed that “what was important was not whether the parent has been deprived or nurtured as a child, but the degree of coherence versus incoherence in the parent’s subsequent memory of her childhood” (Mitchell, 2000, p. 85).  The organization of a mother’s narrative and how it has been processed over the years was found to be the most crucial predictor of attachment style, rather than actual lived experiences and behaviors (e.g., Main, 1995; Main & Solomon, 1986; Mitchell, 2000; Siegel & Hartzell, 2003).

Bowlby (1973) speculated that the psychic culture in which an infant is raised and specifically by whom has far greater effects than inherited genetic material.  The ways in which a mother considers her own historical relationship with her primary caregiver is central to the development of her own child’s attachment (Ainsworth & Bowlby, 1991; Main, 1990).  Bowlby posited that “the inheritance of mental health and mental ill health through the medium of family microculture… may well be far more important than is their inheritance through the medium of genes” (Bowlby, 1973, pp. 322-323).

Bretherton (1990) linked the intergenerational transmission of relationship patterns with the concept of internal working models.  Defensively constructed working models, for example, result in challenged attachment patterns which leave little room for consistency in closeness and personal intimacy.  An autobiographical account of one’s attachment processes over time may reveal defensive phenomena that have been split off or unrecognized as such, unconsciously being funneled to her evolving infant (Stern, 2005).  Bretherton (1990) concluded, however, that if a parent has been able to construct a new working model of self in a supportive attachment relationship, the infant will not experience a reenactment of the parent’s unhappy childhood relations.  “On the basis of open and adequate reciprocal communication, such an infant will develop a secure attachment despite the fact that the parent has not experienced secure relations in childhood herself” (p. 249).

Belsky (2005) drew upon research studies that primarily focused on developmental processes to illuminate the intergenerational transmission of attachment.  Illustrated by numerous studies employing the Adult Attachment Interview and the Strange Situation, Belsky (2005) concluded that the process of intergenerational transmission is experiential in nature.  Belsky (2005) underscored the principle contributors of these phenomena: (a) the quality of parenting experienced by the child is a strong predictor of attachment style; (b) attachment security or insecurity established during infancy is relatively stable over time; and (c) attachment style experienced in adulthood shapes subsequent parenting behavior, and thereby facilitates security/insecurity in her offspring.

Belsky (2005) described multiple studies conducted with twins which exemplify “the disproportionate role of environmental factors in shaping attachment security” (p. 184).  For example, in a large Strange Situation study of 150 pairs of infant twins, the researchers found that biological inheritance did not play a part in attachment-related classifications.  Instead, the twin study highlighted the centrality of the shared environment and how their experience of mother was in fact the singular predictive element of the attachment system.  The mother’s understanding of her own unique attachment trajectory is inextricably connected to how her children will come to make meaning of their environs and ultimately how the child will attach.

Doyle, Markiewicz, Brendgen, Lieberman, and Voss (2000) studied attachment security in over 200 children through the lens of their parents’ reports of their own attachment style as well as their marital adjustment.  Structural equation modeling indicated that “mothers’ anxious attachment style uniquely predicted children’s insecure attachment to both mother and father.  Child-mother attachment was associated uniquely with perceived global self-worth and physical appearance for both younger (9-12 years) and older (13-14 years) children” (p. 514).  This study highlighted that although there is an intergenerational piece to attachment style, marital adjustment and security are equally predictive of a child’s attachment orientation.

Doyle et al. (2000) pointed out that because “the development of a global self-worth is the hallmark of middle childhood,” parental marital satisfaction or lack thereof has profound effects on the development of the child’s self-concept (p. 515).  Hence, if a child is repeatedly exposed to parental marital disharmony, concepts of relationships in general will be affected as the child takes in ongoing strife and relational confusion.  The findings of this study suggested that a “secure working model of relations with parents may have pervasive positive correlates in other domains” (p. 531).


Ainsworth, M. D. & Bowlby, J. (1991). An ethological approach to personality development. American Psychologist, 46(6), 333-341.

Belsky, J. (2005). The developmental and evolutionary psychology of intergenerational transmission of attachment. In C. S. Carter, L. Ahnert, K. E. Grossman, S. B. Hardy, M. E. Lamb, S. W. Porges, & N. Sachser (Eds.), Attachment and bonding: A new synthesis (pp. 169-198). Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Bowlby, J. (1973). Separation, anxiety and anger: Volume 2. New York: Basic Books.

Bretherton, I. (1990). Communication patterns, internal working models, and the intergenerational transmission of attachment relationships. Infant Mental Health Journal, 11(3), 237-251.

Doyle, A. B., Markiewicz, D., Brendgen, M. Lieberman, M., & Voss, K. (2000). Child attachment security and self-concept: Associations with mother and father attachment style and marital quality. Merrill-Palmer Quarterly, 46(3), 514-540.

Main, M. (1990). Parental aversion to infant-initiated contact is correlated with the parent’s own rejection during childhood: The effects of experience on signals of security with respect to attachment. In K.E. Barnard & T. B. Brazelton (Eds.), Touch: The foundation of experience (pp. 461-495). Madison, CT: International University Press.

Main, M. (1995). Recent studies in attachment: Overview with selected implications for clinical social work. In S. Goldberg, R. Muir, & J. Kerr (Eds.), Attachment theory (pp. 407-474). Hillsdale, NJ: The Analytic Press.

Main, M. & Solomon, J. (1986). Discovery of an insecure-disorganized/disoriented attachment pattern. In T. B. Brazelton & M. W. Yogman (Eds.), Affective development in infancy (pp. 95-124). Norwood, NJ: Ablex.

Mitchell, S. (2000). Relationality: From attachment to intersubjectivity. Hillsdale, NJ: The Analytic Press.

Siegel, D. J. & Hartzell, M. (2003). Parenting from the inside out: How a deeper understanding can help you raise children who thrive. New York: Penguin Books.

Stern, D. N. (2005). The psychic landscape of mothers. In S. F. Brown (Ed.), What do mothers want? Hillsdale, NJ: The Analytic Press.

Jessica Zucker, Ph.D. Bio

Dr. Zucker specializes in women’s health, postpartum mood disorders, and early parent-child bonding.

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