Personality disorders among mothers can lead to attachment issues in their kids

HOUSTON — If mom doesn’t get along well with others, it may lead to attachment issues in her children, according to researchers from the University of Houston. For the first time ever, scientists report maternal personality disorder symptoms in mothers can influence their adolescent kids.

The study notes that these children display an elevated risk of insecure attachment. Ideally, every child should develop secure attachment, meaning they feel comfortable around their parent or caregiver. Secure attachment is very important; it’s a major factor when it comes socio-emotional development and mental health in children.

However, prior research reveals that insecure attachment has a connection to a long list of adolescent issues including depression, anxiety, delinquency, substance use problems, and poorer social competence.

“When mothers struggle in their own interpersonal relationships, the passing on of secure attachment and healthy relationship functioning to adolescent offspring seem to be impeded,” says Carla Sharp, professor of psychology and director of Houston’s Developmental Psychopathology Lab, in a university release.

“Maternal interpersonal problems were associated with higher levels of insecure attachment in adolescent offspring such that adolescents would either dismiss the need for attachment with their moms or show angry preoccupation with the relationship with their moms.”

Several earlier studies have noted that a mother’s problems can influence maladaptive adult attachment in close or romantic relationships, but this is the first project to specifically research offspring attachment relationships. Study authors say their work may help inform future interventions intended to reduce or stop altogether youth psychopathology and any number of other negative outcomes.

Families could be passing down developmental issues for generations

Parent-child attachment security is important well into adolescence, and researchers say it’s the second most important developmental window after infancy and early childhood.

The research team interviewed a total of 351 psychiatric inpatient adolescents (average age of 15), as well as their biological mothers. They asked each patient about distressing interpersonal behaviors that they find “hard to do,” such as feeling close to other people, or things they “do too much,” like trying to please other people too much.

Researchers also assessed participating children’s ability to coherently and collaboratively describe their attachment experiences and reflect on those experiences and how they’ve impacted them personally.

Study authors also investigated if mothers recalled bonding with their own mothers. They hoped this may help explain the relationship with their children today. It did.

“The way that parents recalled their experiences with their caregivers is likely impacted by their own interpersonal functioning and may impact the relationship that they build with their children,” adds first study author Sophie Kerr.

Moving forward, the research team concludes these results will drive further work examining mechanisms of intergenerational risk. The hope is that these projects produce tailored interventions that can help improve both parent-child relations and attachment.

“Findings highlight the mediating role of the mothers’ recalled experiences with caregivers in the impact of their interpersonal problems on adolescents, suggesting  interventions that enhance interpersonal function such as mentalization-based interventions may be helpful for mothers with interpersonal problems and personality pathology,” Prof. Sharp concludes.

The findings appear in the journal Borderline Personality Disorder and Emotion Dysregulation.

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