However, mothers with ID who had been severely maltreated during their own upbringing typically had children judged as high in attachment insecurity or disorganization. In contrast, maternal intelligence was not related to child attachment.

The researchers conclude that mothers’ experience of severe maltreatment, but not their intellectual deficits as such, is a risk factor for mothers with ID and for their children’s attachment. If replicated, this research has important practical implications for prevention of maltreatment and for treatment interventions targeting parents with ID.

Caregiving by parents with ID is often viewed as a general risk factor in child development. Consequently, many individuals with ID were subjected to forced sterilization practices only a few decades ago. At present, many parents with ID lose child custody, often based on an assumption that their ID makes them permanently unable to provide sufficient caregiving.

However, available research is scant and methodologically limited. For example, properly matched comparison groups of mothers without ID and their children are often lacking in research. Also, in contrast to current practice and assumptions, available research shows that, unlike intelligence, external risk factors such as a life marked by maltreatment are not only highly overrepresented among individuals with ID but also key to understanding which parents with ID that are at risk for providing insufficient care.

Notably, no previous research has examined attachment among children of parents with ID. This knowledge gap is remarkable, as concerns related to child attachment often figure in the custodial evaluations. Also, the child’s attachment quality is often an outcome of caregiving, with secure attachment resulting from sensitive and competent care, insecure attachment from insensitive care (e.g., rejection), and disorganized attachment from anomalous care and maltreatment (e.g., frightening and abusive behaviors). Moreover, attachment quality is an important predictor of the child’s social and emotional development, with secure attachment as a protective factor and insecure, particularly disorganized, attachment as a vulnerability factor. 

Using a matched comparison design, a small group of 23 mothers with ID was studied. Besides maternal ID, the roles of maltreatment in the mothers’ biographies and of maternal intelligence were studied. ID-group of mothers had been diagnosed with ID prior to age 18. Comparison group of 25 mothers had normal variations in intelligence and matched mothers with ID on residential area, income, child age and sex.

History of maternal maltreatment was assessed using a coded, semi-structured interview. Children were aged 5 to 8 years and their attachment representations were assessed with a developmentally validated attachment procedure. Among children of mothers with ID, a substantial minority (35%) had a secure attachment representation, in line with research on other risk groups.

However, unlike many other risk groups, only a small minority (less than 20%) of these children had a disorganized attachment representation. These proportions were not statistically different from the proportions of secure and disorganized children in the matched comparison group. Also, mothers with ID had suffered elevated maltreatment, which was in turn a substantial risk factor for child disorganization and insecurity in the ID group.

The research is published as the opening article in the September issue of the peer-review journal Attachment & Human Development:

Granqvist, P., Forslund, T., Springer, L., Fransson, M. & Lindberg, L. (2014). Mothers with intellectual disability, their experiences of maltreatment and their children’s attachment representations: A small-group matched comparison study. Attachment & Human Development, 16, 417-436.

Online publication:

Contact information

Dr. Pehr Granqvist, Psychology Dept., Stockholm University, +46 8 16 36 81,