Growing up in a context of parental substance use: adult children's lived experiences on attachment and intergenerational transmition of trauma
Background: Recent studies show a significant relationship between substance use disorders (SUDs) and insecure attachment (Unterrainer et al., 2018), and SUDs and trauma (NIDA, 2017). In this respect, Brothers (2014) refers to the concept of traumatic attachment, tending to coalesce into patterns of relating so inflexible and resistant to change that it profoundly affects parent–child interactions over generations. This research tries to get an in-depth understanding of how insecure attachment among parents with SUDs impacts child’s attachment, and how experiences and consequences of surviving trauma can be passed from one generation to the next in a context of parental substance use.
Methods: By conducting semi-structured qualitative interviews, 35 adult children retrospectively reflected on their upbringing in a context of parental substance use (alcohol or illicit drugs). Participants were recruited both through involvement of care providers as well as privately (e.g. snowball sampling). Interviews were recorded and transcribed verbatim and analyzed using an inductive thematic analysis technique.
Results: During the interviews, the intertwining influence of trauma and attachment among grown-up children arose. Longing for recognition, respondents revealed stories that have been disproved for a long time. Most importantly, however, results also reveal positive coping mechanisms and survival strategies during childhood, contributing to resiliency and reforming identities.
Conclusion: Findings suggest the need to recognize mechanisms of disruptive attachment and trauma transmission in a context of parental substance use. Hence, early adverse experiences can impact the establishment of secure attachment in later life and may ultimately lead to increased susceptibility to substance use disorders.