Updated: Mar 28
UNHEALTHY ATTACHMENT & GENERATIONAL TRAUMA
I was writing about generational trauma when I realized how integral the part is about having a secure, safe attachment with a parent
Parents are obviously carrying their own trauma from their own families
Which is affecting their ability to for a healthy attachment with their own kids
And they probably had the same problem with their parent(s)
But I think that the unhealthy attachment is pretty central to all of this and is passed on
The specific trauma is oftentimes passed on as well
But the emotional disconnection and relationship misattunement is a constant and I think a precursor to potentially something worse
And this stems from an unhealthy attachment
FUNDAMENTAL TO ALL OF THIS - Parents are down the polyvagal ladder
Now in danger mode = unhealthy neuroception & vagal brake is off
Unhealthy neuroception means they are not detecting danger cues accurately, nor are they shifting into the appropriate autonomic state
They aren’t going into safe & social state when they are actually safe
No longer have access to their safe & social system
Sympathetic arousal for flight/fight and parasympathetic shut down = overreactions or under reactions, but follow the same themes:
Priorities are mixed up, not making safe decisions due to critical thinking being offline, not accurately detecting danger, not giving safety cues and now giving danger cues or actively rejecting or abandoning their children on some level
A parent can be more depressed or more anxious and still be a great parent, so this is really based on your subjective experience and this is a line for you to draw.
A parent chronically in a defensive state may not be capable of providing some fundamental needs for their child while also being safe & social
Example 1: With healthy neuroception, hearing a baby cry is a cue of danger and we shift down the ladder into a safe but sympathetic arousal and provide the baby what it needs - to be changed, fed, get attention or go to sleep, while providing safe and social cues
We feel the internal danger alarms that accompany a baby crying with healthy neuroception and can tolerate and provide for the need of the baby
Parents in a chronic defensive state are aware of their baby crying, but aren’t shifting into a safe but sympathetic arousal to take care of their baby’s needs
Or if they are acting on the alarm and providing for the need, it may not be consistent enough or with safe and social cues or it might be with a negative experience like: yelling, blaming, guilt trips
Just sticking a bottle in their mouth or leaving them unsupervised with a bottle isn’t the same as holding them gently, singing to them, rocking them
These rhythmic, melodic things like singing and rocking are only available when a parent is in their safe and social state
Where they have access to their prosodic voices and can listen to the rhythms of their bodies to rock a little bit
Example could also be a child that throws a tantrum
Parents in their safe & social system will be more nurturing and patient
Parents in a defensive state will be more demanding, threatening, punitive
Example when a child reports abuse
Safe & social system parent will prioritize safety and be able to tolerate their flight/fight arousal, get the child the help they need and be a part of the treatment
Defensive state parents won’t be able to tolerate and might blame, shame, not believe or not appropriately act on the information
In these examples, the parent is not able to be a safe co-regulator and get attuned to the child’s autonomic state and emotional and protective needs
Let’s pause here a moment to make sure we’re understanding what’s being talked about.
Meeting the fundamental needs of the child plus being in a safe and social state is basically what it takes to form a secure, healthy attachment.
From Psychology Today - “It all starts with how parents respond to their children’s needs and soothe (or not) the children when they are frightened or distressed. When parents are consistently available, warm, and responsive, the children develop secure attachment styles.”
Through being in a safe & social state, we are providing safety cues and the co-regulation necessary for a child to be in their own safe & social system.
A parent in their safe & social system is going to naturally be providing for the basic needs of their children.
A parent not in their safe & social system is not necessarily going to be providing for the needs of their children. And if they are, it will not be with safety cues necessary for co-regulation.
In fact, if the parent is meeting the needs of their child without the safety, then the child will grow up understanding that danger and basic needs go hand in hand.
And they will adapt to get their needs met by dropping and staying down the ladder.
Who do you think is least likely to be traumatized and pass it onto the next generation?
Someone who survives a traumatic event, but is able to go to a safe person and get the help they need and eventually work their way out of their shut down state?
Or someone that survives a trauma, but does not go to a safe person… because they don’t have a safe person?
Or someone that survived a traumatic event, tells someone, and gets a negative response, like being shamed or blamed?
Of course this isn’t a prognosis for any one individual’s future. I can’t know that. But based on my experience with working with families, it’s the ones that don’t have a safe person or aren’t believed that are more likely to pass on these unhealthy attachments and traumas to the next generation.
Because they’re in a danger state, these parents are not as emotionally available
Parents I’ve worked with didn’t receive cues of safety, safe experiences of love, of touch,
Didn’t get told they were loved
Didn’t get shown they were loved
Didn’t feel loved
Expressing love or connecting with someone else is terrifying, vulnerable and feels weak
In a danger state, these are intolerable
Leaving the child emotionally alone, emotionally neglected or emotionally abused
Being present physically is not the same as being present emotionally.
Knowing love versus Feeling love is a common theme in therapy
Being alone and emotionally isolated are major cues of danger, of being rejected from the family and being vulnerable
Being alone is a consistent theme in therapy
Commonly is underneath many of the presenting problems that I am treating
Because they’re in danger mode, their self-regulation is compromised as well as their ability to play
Co-regulation is now not being provided and neither is exercising the vagal brake, which commonly happens through play and also by learning through consequences from a parent
Consequences from these parents are erratic, extreme, non-existent, unpredictable
A child cannot exercise their vagal brake in this because there’s no safety to come back to
Play is nonexistent or unsafe
A healthy attachment is less likely since the child is also joining their parent in a defensive state and now there are two dysregulated nervous systems
But this first healthy attachment is key for the future
Recognizing safe friendships and relationships in the future is difficult
There’s a domino effect that is passed on through generations
Children are being raised without a safe, protective connection with an adult.
They are being set up for failure at a young age.
So just from looking at attachment and emotional abuse or abandonment, we can see that a child is left alone and unprotected by a safe parent figure
Leaving them in a defensive state, which they will carry into the school system, into dangerous situations in their teens, into relationships and into eventually being a parent.
This child is already in a defensive state and unable to use their social engagement system
If they never experience a safe relationship, they won’t be able to provide one. And they’ll be seeking out relationships that aren’t safe.
This is a setup for failure.
THESE ARE JUST A FEW PIECES OF THE PUZZLE
Everything I have laid out does not even really consider physical and sexual abuse
Which comes along with denial, keeping secrets, blame and shame and more
Being alone is an undercurrent in all the kids I have worked with
We can survive and recover from horrible events if we have someone safe to go to
You’d be surprised what someone will tell you when you ask them when things changed for them
Answer might not be when the abuse happened
As in, “When did things get worse for you?”
Answer might be when they lost the safe person, their protection
Like a relative, someone and somewhere away from the abuse
But the relative passes away or moves away
Or when their attempt to get help fails
Like a parent doesn’t believe them
This is often the event that breaks them entirely and the small bit of hope dies
Point being, taking that emotional isolation, being alone, and combining it with physical abuse, sexual abuse or neglect is a crippling combination and inevitably leads to a shut down for the child victim
They will get this need met though. Or as best they can.
They have to connect. They have to feel safe and cared about.
They’ll find this through peers or love interests.
But they haven’t experienced connection in a safe way and are existing down the ladder.
They don’t know safety and can’t detect danger accurately, this is a bad bad combination
Like attracts like - they will attract relationships who are also down the ladder
These kids who lack a safe and protective home are going to put themselves in situations where they are more likely to be traumatized
Like buying drugs, drinking at parties, submitting to dangerous people
The wrong person is more likely to come along and take advantage of a child in a danger or life threat state
Like hunting prey and targeting the weaker member of the herd that has fallen behind
But the wrong partner is going to do so by disguising him or herself as protective and caring
You gotta believe me on this, this is what I am hearing from the kids I work with
They desperately want to belong
And that desperation is exploited by a predator
And they are willing to repeatedly give them chances
They haven’t seen a healthy relationship.
They haven’t experienced a healthy relationship.
They’re not detecting danger cues.
They’re putting themselves in dangerous situations.
The most dangerous peers are targeting them.
Their homes often don’t have predictable consequences or predictable relationships.
These are ingredients for further trauma.
And then these kids will grow up and repeat with their own.
And those kids will need to get their needs met and eventually be in the wrong situation or with the wrong person.
And so on.