Maternal Personality Disorder Symptoms May Lead to a Child’s Insecure Attachment in Adolescence


Research found a strong correlation between a mother’s dynamic with their mother and whether or not their child is able to form secure attachments with others in adolescence.

When children get a sense of comfort from spending time with a parent or a caregiver, their experiencing a type of attachment termed a “secure attachment” with that individual. This secure attachment with a parental figure has been shown to play a significant part in socio-emotional development and mental health during an individual’s youth.

On the other end of the spectrum, a child’s insecure attachment with a parent or caregiver has been found to be associated with depression and anxiety, delinquency and 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," said Carla Sharp, PhD, professor of psychology and director of the University of Houston Developmental Psychopathology Lab, in the journal Borderline Personality Disorder and Emotion Dysregulation. "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."

Although there has been an accumulation of data showing the presence of an association between a mothers' mental health issues and their child’s maladaptive attachment in close or romantic relationships in adulthood, the study published in Borderline Personality Disorder and Emotion Dysregulation is the first to investigate adolescent relationships and their association with offspring attachment.

The study authors noted that after infancy and early childhood, the parent-child attachment during adolescence is considered to be the second most critical developmental window. Due to the importance of this period, the investigators wanted to assess this period in an individual’s development further to shed light on the impact of the parent-child attachment in adolescence to inform potential interventions that may prevent or reduce youth psychopathology and other adverse outcomes.

During the study, the investigators interviewed 351 adolescents who were inpatient at a psychiatric program or facility and those adolescents’ biological mothers. The adolescents interviewed had an average age of 15 years and 64% of them were female.

During the interviews, the adolescent participants were asked about distressing interpersonal behaviors that they find "hard to do," such as feeling close to other people, or behaviors that they "do too much," such as trying to please other people. Following the interviews, the participants were then assessed on their ability to describe their attachment experiences in a manner that was coherent and collaborative, as well as to reflect on these attachment experiences and how they have impacted the participants personally.

Additionally, the investigators interviewed the biological mothers of the adolescents and asked them to recall experiences from their relationships with their mothers. During these interviews, the investigators looked at whether the relationship dynamic that the mothers recalled having with their mothers helped to explain their present relationship with their children. The results showed a strong correlation between the two.

"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," first study author Sophie Kerr, a graduate student working with Sharp at the University of Houston Developmental Psychopathology Lab, said in a press release.

The authors further noted that these study results will help to drive research to examine the mechanisms of intergenerational risk to tailor interventions that can help to improve parent-child relationships 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," said Sharp in the press release.


Moms' problems linked to adolescent attachment issues. Houston, TX: University of Houston; August 9, 2022. Accessed August 15, 2022.

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