Maternal Adverse Childhood Experiences and Behavior Problems in Children: An Intergenerational Transmission

Nour Yaktine
· 5 min read

Research has found that mothers’ adverse childhood experiences can be transmitted to their children, leading to poor behavioral outcomes

Adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) are defined as potential traumatic events that occur during childhood. These experiences can take many forms, and can vary from emotional, sexual and/or physical abuse, to abandonment, neglect, or dysfunctional family dynamics. Adverse childhood experiences can have a long-lasting negative impact on one’s psychological well-being. When people who experience adverse childhood experiences do not overcome them, for example through therapy, they can display maladaptive behavioral and socio-emotional functioning. Not only can adverse childhood experiences affect the individual’s mental health, but they can also be transmitted, consciously or unconsciously, across generations.

Indeed, several studies have now established an association between mothers’ adverse childhood experiences and children’s behavioral problems; both in terms of internalized behaviors and affects such as sadness or withdrawal, or in terms of externalizing behaviors such as aggression or hostility (Halle & Darling-Churchill, 2016; Letourneau et al., 2018).

One question arises: how can a mother’s adverse childhood experiences be transmitted to her child? In a recently published study, Cooke and her team (2019) propose a framework that examines the role of attachment theory in order to explain the mechanism underlying the transmission. Their study aims at understanding how attachment theory can explain the association between a mother’s adverse childhood experiences and her child’s maladaptive behavior.

Theoretically, when a person experiences maltreatment or neglect during childhood, they are more likely to develop an insecure attachment. Insecure attachment in adulthood can, in its turn, lead to problems with attachment figures such as partners and even children. Indeed, attachment theory considers that attachment patterns are intergenerational and can be transmitted from caregivers to children. This can be one way of explaining the intergenerational phenomenon of transmission from a mother to her child. Other theories and fields such as epigenetic research postulate that pathways of transmission include biological and genetic factors (Smith et al., 2016).

In Cooke et al.’s research study (2019), mothers were asked to report adverse childhood experiences in a retrospective manner, such as having experienced physical, sexual, and/or emotional abuse, as well as household dysfunction such as witnessing domestic violence. Mothers’ attachment style was also evaluated, as well as the prevalence of depressive and anxiety symptoms. Finally, in order to evaluate the effect of these variables on behavioral outcomes in children, mothers were asked to complete an assessment evaluating child behavioral problems, both in terms of internalized behavior (anxiety, depression) and externalized behavior (hyperactivity and aggression). According to the results, mothers’ adverse childhood experiences were found to be transmitted to their 5-year-old children via pathways of attachment insecurity as well as mental health symptoms such as depression and/or anxiety.

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Far from blaming mothers for their children’s maladaptive behaviors, this study aims at shedding light on the importance of recognizing one’s maladaptive relational and behavioral patterns, in order to find ways to overcome them. While this process is important and necessary for all individuals, it becomes particularly important for caregivers, in order to avoid the risk of unhealthy intergenerational transmission. What is important to understand, is that adverse childhood experiences are not deterministic, but should be identified and addressed through interventions such as therapy. This means that intergenerational transmission can be prevented in order to pave the way for more healthy and adequate parenting behaviors. For that, mental health practitioners are encouraged to actively screen for maternal adverse childhood experiences, not for the purpose of diagnosing, but for the purpose of addressing them and preventing maladaptive intergenerational transmission.


Cooke, J. E., Racine, N., Plamondon, A., Tough, S., & Madigan, S. (2019). Maternal adverse childhood experiences, attachment style, and mental health: Pathways of transmission to child behavior problems. Child Abuse & Neglect, 93, 27-37.