Painting by Susie Nangala Watson, Australia
In order to delve deeper and better understand intergenerational trauma, attachment theory can provide a suitable framework for further exploration. Attachment theory is incredibly complex and this is not meant to be a daunting course in psychology. So without getting too immersed in psychology jargon, the basic relevant ideas from attachment theory will be looked at here. Based on attachment theory, unresolved losses or traumas experienced by a parent and the parent’s resultant behavior can contribute to children’s attachment problems, which can strongly influence the child’s later development all the way through adulthood (Ringel, 2005, pp.434, 433). In other words, there is a direct correlation between the early attachment relationships between a child and a parent or other caregiver and how the child continues to develop as an individual.
Basically, a child develops proper functioning if they grow up in a safe environment with low stress and responsive parenting but if a child grows up in a hostile environment where they experience poor or inconsistent parenting, the child develops insecure functioning (Kozlowska, 2007, p.90). A secure sense of attachment, resulting from feeling safe and secure, is then desirable whereas an insecure sense of attachment can be very detrimental. Parents are significant attachment figures in a child’s life but while an attachment figure can provide a sense of protection or comfort for the child, they can also be a source of danger, stress or anxiety (Kozlowska, 2007, p.90). Additionally, attachment relationships, such as with a parent, are important as they contribute to how a child mediates stressful emotions or situations (Kozlowska, 2007, p.90). Overall, it can be said then that the relationship between a child and a parent considerably shapes the child's development as an individual.
Applying Attachment Concepts
These concepts can be readily applied for a better understanding of intergenerational trauma amongst Indigenous peoples. For example, if a child has a parent whose parenting behaviours are modeled after the abuse and neglect they endured while in an institution, the child may develop an insecure attachment, rather than a desirable secure attachment, to that parent. Because the parent may alternate between the caring parent they consciously want to be and the abusive parent they have unconsciously modeled after their own childhood experiences, the child does not know what to expect and, as a result may feel unsafe and insecure. Because the child has an insecure attachment relationship with the parent, the child may then lack confidence in how to negotiate their relationship with their parent, which could later translate into lack of confidence in other areas of their life, such as coping with stressful experiences. This then may lead to the inclination of experiencing of some of the social or health issues that have been discussed. As such, insecure attachment can then be understood as being intertwined with intergenerational trauma.