The Intergenerational Transmission of Affect

Attachment theory may be considered a theory of emotion regulation. The mechanism of transmitting attachment organization and, thereby, a characteristic style of regulating affect, lies in the particular quality of the person’s early care-giving experience. Subtle fine-grain interactive micro-behaviours are related to attachment and to the transmission of emotion from one generation to the next. Such micro-behaviours operate at the level of implicit relational knowing and include the co-ordination of gaze direction, vocal inflections, body posture, touch, and facial expressions. Attachment security in the first year of life is predicted by the security of the primary caregiver’s attachment organization and level of mentalization or reflective functioning.

Reflective functioning refers to the caregiver’s capacity to reflect on the current mental state of the child and upon her own mental states as these pertain to her relationship with her child. Findings show that secure attachment organization and a high level of reflective functioning in the caregiver predict secure attachment in the child. By contrast, a vicious cycle is created by misattuned care-giving and attachment trauma, which creates insecure attachment by hyper-activating the attachment system and shutting down the capacity to mentalize. Thus, defensive strategies and non conscious implicit procedures developed in childhood in response to such trauma become aspects of character and relating that persist precisely because they are automatic and outside awareness. Stressful interpersonal events in later life associated with early loss, rejection and abandonment activate the attachment and fear behavioural systems and again compromise the capacity to reflect on traumatic experience.

The infant, then, perceives and remembers the caregiver’s repetitive subtle behaviours in the form of procedural memories or pre-symbolic interactional expectancies. This pre-verbal intersubjective process ‘instructs’ the child into the logic of being and relating and is experienced as a phenomenological form of knowledge conceptualized as unformulated experience. Thus, the cumulative impact of parent-child interactions that are consistently matched or mismatched creates a structuring effect on the infant for good or ill. These repeated patterns of interaction build the perceptual, affective and cognitive internal working models of attachment that are used to construct subsequent life experience. In later life the person generalises these interactional expectancies to other interpersonal contexts.

The Adult Attachment Interview (AAI) is of relevance to this debate. The AAI assesses and classifies adult mental representations of childhood attachment experiences and was designed to operationalize Bowlby’s construct of the internal working model as a “state of mind with respect to attachment”. Such mental states are expressed in different discourse patterns about early relationships. These discrete narrative styles reveal differences in the person’s access to attachment memories and his or her ability to coherently discuss past attachment experiences. Four patterns of adult discourse in the AAI have been observed: secure-autonomous, dismissing, preoccupied and unresolved. As the following illustrates, the caregiver’s AAI classification has been linked to the child’s predominant pattern of attachment.

Secure-Autonomous Caregivers: A meta-analysis of research findings show that caregivers who have a secure-autonomous adult attachment state of mind are capable of a wide range of emotional experience and expression and thus are skilled emotion regulators. This means that they are able to observe their child’s distress without becoming overly aroused because of experiencing vicarious personal distress associated with their own attachment histories. This leaves the secure caregiver free to respond to the infant’s emotional distress in a flexible and appropriate manner, thereby repairing normal interactive ruptures to the attachment bond in a relatively consistent way. The child, in turn, develops a matching secure pattern of attachment organization and a free and flexible style of emotion regulation. The provision of secure base/safe haven emotional functioning by the parent facilitates the child’s exploration of his or her external environment and inner world of emotional experience. Research has demonstrated that secure attachment established in childhood perseveres and extends into adulthood.

Dismissing Caregivers: In contrast to secure parents, caregivers with a predominantly dismissing attachment state of mind are restricted in the emotions they are able to express to others, and of which they are conscious in themselves. Their infant’s distress activates personal distress characterized by an aversive emotional reaction and an attempt to assuage vicariously induced stress. In consequence, dismissing caregivers ignore, or turn away from regulating, their infant’s stress and, instead, focus on managing their own emotional conflicts. To avoid rejection, the child minimizes expressions of need and vulnerability and becomes disconnected from his or her emotional states. Thus, the child tends to match the caregiver’s dismissing state of mind by developing a predominantly avoidant pattern of attachment, together with a dismissing and restricted style of regulating emotion. Children classified as avoidant have been found to show a marked lack of empathy towards peers in distress and to behave in aggressive and hostile ways.

Preoccupied Caregivers: Parents with preoccupied states of mind in respect of attachment are considered to have an under-controlled emotion regulation system, as manifested by an exaggerated style of emotion regulation and by attempts to heighten or maximize their emotional experience. Because of the attachment need to have their infant emotionally dependent on themselves, preoccupied caregivers focus on the infant’s negative feelings to the exclusion of helping the child regulate his or her emotions. Thus, although preoccupied-enmeshed caregivers may appear to respond in a sensitive way, they do not act quickly or appropriately to end the infant’s distress. As with dismissing parents, they are unable to allow the needs of the distressed child to take precedence over their own needs. The failure to provide appropriate and consistent soothing serves to keep the infant intensely focused on the attachment relationship, thereby reducing the chances of the child becoming emotionally independent of the caregiver. In such infant-caregiver dyads, the child is likely to develop a matching ambivalent-resistant pattern of attachment organization and a style of regulating emotion that is preoccupied and under-regulated, particularly in respect of anger.

Unresolved Caregivers: With respect to disorganized/disoriented attachment, findings indicate that infants develop this pattern in reaction to caregivers who display frightened and/or frightening behaviour associated with their own unresolved early trauma. Such fear-inducing parental behaviour may consist either of abuse or alternating forms of care-giving wherein emotional availability is followed by an abrupt entrance into dissociative, trance-like states that may be activated by the child’s distress and need of comfort. In effect, the unresolved caregiver’s mental states take precedence over the infant’s attachment communications and initiatives. Moreover, because of their own unintegrated fear, unresolved caregivers may perceive the child as a source of alarm. The child, in turn, comes to associate his or her own fearful arousal as a danger signal for abuse or abandonment by the caregiver.

A relational context in which the attachment figure is, at one and the same time, the source of alarm and the source of its solution presents the infant with an irresolvable paradox: fear of the parent activates the attachment behavioural system compelling the infant to seek proximity to the attachment figure, but proximity-seeking has the effect of increasing the child’s state of fear. This paradox of ‘fright without solution’ results in a collapse of behavioural and attentional strategies which is manifested as odd, disoriented approach-avoidance conflict behaviours. A distinct aspect of this behaviour consists of simultaneous and contradictory tendencies to approach and flee from the attachment figure.

In a caregiving-attachment system of this kind, the child’s attachment system remains in a state of high activation and he or she fails to develop a coherent, organized strategy for coping with the stress of separation. Since there is no physical escape from this traumatizing situation the infant shifts from a state of hyper-arousal and angry protest to a state of despair, followed by emotional detachment and dissociation, thereby matching the caregiver’s dissociated state. Findings show that a child may be classified as disorganized with one parent but not with the other. This supports the view that attachment disorganization emerges within a particular relationship and is transmitted at an interpersonal level.

Attachment research, then, indicates that parents’ cognitive-affective internal working models of attachment are transmitted to the growing child and powerfully influence his or her working models of attachment. These, in turn, mediate all subsequent relationships, particularly those forged with intimate, sexual partners in adulthood. Research also shows that older children and adults continue to monitor the accessibility and emotional responsiveness of those with whom they have formed a meaningful emotional attachment. The person seeks to maintain an optimal degree of proximity to his or her attachment figure throughout the life cycle in order to sustain feelings of security.

Choice of adult romantic partner is one of the most significant mechanisms by which attachment patterns and early affectional ties are externalized and maintained, particularly in instances of unmourned loss. This finding is supported by clinical experience and observation, most directly in work with couples. Here, a certain fit or match may be discerned in the respective partners’ early insecure attachment histories, with implicitly encoded maladaptive interpersonal patterns being externalized and destructively played out in their current emotional and sexual relationships. From an attachment/trauma perspective, the person’s symptoms, destructive and self-destructive behaviours are understood as expressing unprocessed traumatic experience encoded in implicit-procedural memories, as represented in confused, unstable self-other internal working models of attachment.

Moreover, preliminary findings provide compelling evidence that attachment strategies and implicitly encoded procedures formed in infancy influence the playing out of the sexual system in adult romantic relationships. Hyperactive strategies include preoccupied, intrusive and coercive attempts to persuade a partner to have sex. The preoccupied person is hyper-vigilant of a partner’s signs of arousal, attraction and rejection, coupled with heightened arousal about her or his own ability to gratify and hold on to a partner. By contrast, deactivating strategies are characterised by inhibition of sexual desire and avoidance of sexual contact, or by a shallow cynical approach that divorces sex from kindness and intimacy and disparages the partner. Thus, in broad terms secure attachment tilts sexuality towards more successful, less conflictual solutions, while anxious ambivalent attachment or avoidant/dismissing strategies tilt the patterns of sexuality towards less successful, more conflictual solutions.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Twickenham TW2 & London WC1X
Written by Paul Renn
Twickenham TW2 & London WC1X

I am a relational psychoanalytic psychotherapist and author in private practice in central and southwest London (see below in 'Extra Information' for details of my practice addresses). I am accredited by the United Kingdom Council for Psychotherapy (UKCP). I work with individuals, offer couples coun...


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