Psychology and Psychotherapy: Theory, Research and Practice

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Volume 74 Issue 4 (December 2001), Pages 419-553

Attachment in anorexia nervosa: A transgenerational perspective (pages 497-505)

Both clinical and empirical studies suggest that insecure attachment is common in eating disordered populations. Clinical studies have addressed mother‐daughter interactions, but there has been little empirical research into the mother's own attachment patterns and whether there might be intergenerational transmission of these patterns. We aimed to examine the attachment status of patients with severe anorexia nervosa and their mothers, using the ‘gold standard’ Adult Attachment Interview (AAI). We predicted: (1) a high level of insecurity among the patients (women with anorexia nervosa with or without bulimic behaviours); (2) that the mothers would show a higher rate of insecurity than predicted by population norms; and (3) that there might be attachment style associations within mother‐daughter pairs. Twenty consecutive in‐patients with a DSM‐IV diagnosis of anorexia nervosa were interviewed using the AAI, as were 12 of their mothers. The mental state of daughters was rated by experienced clinicians, and that of mothers by the Clinical Interview Schedule (Revised). AAIs were transcribed and rated by expert raters. Nineteen (95%) daughters and 10 (83%) mothers were rated insecure on the AAI. Of these, 15 (79%) daughters and seven (70%) mothers were dismissive in type. We did not find an association between mothers' and daughters' attachment style. The incidence of unresolved loss was high among the mothers (67%). Idealization scores were high and reflective functioning scores low in both mother and daughter groups. Women with anorexia nervosa and their mothers commonly have a dismissive attachment style. Low levels of reflective functioning and high idealization scores are found in both groups, and may be learned (or transmitted) from mother to daughter. A difficulty in emotional processing, exemplified by unresolved loss, may be transmitted to daughters, and act as a risk factor for the development of anorexia nervosa.

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