Entrapped Mother, Entrapped Child: Agonic Mode, Hierarchy and Appeasement in Intergenerational Abuse and Neglect

Jackie Amos, Leonie Segal, Chris Cantor

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

17 Citations (Scopus)


Attachment theory, with its roots in ethology, has provided a powerful, biologically based map for understanding mother infant interactions and how they influence development across the lifespan. This paper draws on recent additions to other established, ethological theories of behavior, to propose an evolutionarily grounded model of psychological processes and behaviors in severely distressed relationships between mothers and their children (aged 3–12 years) where there is or has been maltreatment of the child by the mother. By exploring observed struggles for status, dominance and control as evolutionary adaptations to the problem of resource acquisition, these distressing relational patterns are seen as a vehicle to establish a form of stabilizing interpersonal equilibrium in fear based mother–child relationships. A particular focus is how the agonic mode of social relatedness (first recognised by Michael Chance in group-living primates) and the mammalian defensive strategy of appeasement can explain the complex and varied interactions documented between these mothers and their children. The implications for reconciling theoretical inconsistencies in the literature and for developing effective treatments for maltreating mothers and their children are discussed. We also note the potential role of the theoretical model in informing other clinical areas (such as working with domestic violence).

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1442-1450
Number of pages9
JournalJournal of Child and Family Studies
Issue number5
Publication statusPublished or Issued - 1 May 2015
Externally publishedYes


  • Attachment
  • Child
  • Hierarchy
  • Intergenerational
  • Therapy
  • Trauma

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Developmental and Educational Psychology
  • Life-span and Life-course Studies

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