Childhood adversity, parental vulnerability and disorder: examining inter-generational transmission of risk

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BackgroundAn investigation of intergenerational factors associated with psychiatric disorder in late adolescence/early adulthood was undertaken to differentiate influences from maternal disorder, maternal poor psychosocial functioning and poor parenting, on offspring.MethodThe sample comprised an intensively studied series of 276 mother–offspring pairs in a relatively deprived inner-city London area with high rates of lone parenthood and socio-economic disadvantage. The paired sample was collected over two time periods: first a consecutively screened series of mothers and offspring in 1985–90 (n = 172 pairs) and second a ‘vulnerable’ series of mothers and offspring in 1995–99 (n = 104 pairs). The vulnerable mothers were selected for poor interpersonal functioning and/or low self-esteem and the consecutive series were used for comparison. Rates of childhood adversity and disorder in the offspring were examined in the two groups. Maternal characteristics including psychosocial vulnerability and depression were then examined in relation to risk transmission.ResultsOffspring of vulnerable mothers had a fourfold higher rate of yearly disorder than those in the comparison series (43% vs. 11%, p < .001). They were twice as likely as those in the comparison series to have experienced childhood adversity comprising either severe neglect, physical or sexual abuse before age 17. Physical abuse, in particular, perpetrated either by mother or father/surrogate father was significantly raised in the vulnerable group. Analysis of the combined series showed that maternal vulnerability and neglect/abuse of offspring provided the best model for offspring disorder. Maternal history of depression had no direct effect on offspring disorder; its effects were entirely mediated by offspring neglect/abuse. Maternal childhood adversity also had no direct effect.ConclusionsResults are discussed in relation to psychosocial models of risk transmission for disorder. Maternal poor psychosocial functioning needs to be identified as a factor requiring intervention in order to stem escalation of risk across generations.

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