Attachment Disorders of Emotionally Damaged Children
How many of us had a perfect childhood? It doesn’t happen.
They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you….
The reality is more often the way that Larkin put it so memorably above (1). Are mum and dad the ones to blame? Not always, though often it’s what they fail to offer, such as unconditional love, that hurts, rather than actual misdeeds
Humans need love
We humans all need love, it’s in our genes, but we learn about it second-hand. The very young and newly born need love as an essential part of infancy. They also need it to develop into adulthood. When these emotional needs are not met in childhood, and adolescence, we develop coping mechanisms as substitutes for love. These, in the long term, prove to be self-defeating and maladaptive. As a result, our ability to sustain meaningful relationships is poor and our general levels of contentment and well-being are compromised. In short, we become a person with ‘attachment issues’.
A person with attachment issues has learnt that love hurts. not just from their own personal upbringing experience via their family of origin but also from their observations of how relationships work in the wider community. Lessons will particularly have been learnt from observing parental behaviour coloured by the state of the inter-parental relationship – is this intact, broken or perhaps rebuilt with another person? A child who witnesses a messy and acrimonious divorce for example, may respond by taking negative and avoidant action. Attachment issues often end with detachment.
The avoidant child learns, the hard way, to protect itself from the pain of such experiences. The disappointment, anger and grief around love that is treated like some precious commodity in the hands of a tyrant, either bestowed grudgingly or inconsistently or withheld completely, is traumatic. For such children, this love deprivation means that a solution must be found urgently. It will probably take the form of shutting down emotions and rejecting the idea of close relationships altogether. Such a response may not make a child happy but it will provide a place of safety from pain that will become their comfort zone, the coping role to which they will cling, as adults.
Three recognised types of coping roles are the ‘fearful-avoidant’, the ‘anxious-preoccupied’ and ‘the dismissive-avoidant’. The first two such roles are based on fear and anxiety and are adaptations of the victim role that tends to appear in many dysfunctional family dynamics. Perhaps more interesting because it leads to more positive action, is the dismissive-avoidant role.
The dismissive-avoidant child will make itself fiercely and defiantly independent. It will not value any involvement with others beyond the superficial and will scorn the idea of close dyadic relationships. For this child, independence is strength. From this idea, it draws self-esteem. Rather than look to others for help and support it will develop an outer shell of resourcefulness and resilience. It will tend to have a low opinion of others.
Early and later interactions with the mother will model a child’s ideas of what relationships are like — whether they are safe or fraught, reliable or unreliable, worthy of trust or requiring self-protection. They also shape its ability to self-regulate and manage negative emotions. While secure children learn healthy coping mechanisms when they’re sad, afraid, or lonely, children who develop without maternal interaction and feedback have trouble. When they experience painful emotions, they either suppress them altogether or over-react with tears and tantrums.
Positive experiences don’t need processing
The truth is that positive emotional experiences don’t require processing, and how happy we are is less a function of the number of happy-making moments we experience than how we manage those that stress us out or make us miserable. If your childhood memories are of the Famous Five or Teddybears’ Picnic kind, then you’re probably going to be able to handle a lot of difficult emotions in later life. You will have learnt beneficial coping mechanisms such as honest expression of feelings, and your role models will have most likely been benign.
But, as we know, very few people have perfect childhoods. Emotional disruption and traumatic events can happen to anyone at any time. How we deal with them and the damage that they inflict can often depend on our self-image at the time. Where self-esteem is low, any kind of trauma is going to feel painful and will have a greater effect on a child’s psyche.
Learning from experience
Neglected children learn about love in a distorted way. The strength of attitudes the child retains may well stem from the extent to which it was, or feels it was, unloved. Unloved children come to conclusions based on their negative experiences that may include:
– That love is a transaction. It is to be earned; you are not loved because of who you are, but for what you do. Reaching adulthood, these children tend to be clueless about the dyadic nature of healthy relationships and what constitutes emotional give-and-take. They often wrongly see mistreatment or even abusive behaviour as the necessary price you pay for being loved.
– That love is conditional. A tool for manipulation.
– That emotions (and true feelings) need to be hidden. When this happens, the child struggles to handle feelings and fails to mature emotionally.
– That love needs to be sought and searched for. The unloved child doesn’t understand that to feel worthy of love, you must first love yourself.
– That love makes you vulnerable and weak.
– That love hurts. Securely attached people are better able to handle emotional upheavals.
Coping strategies can be un-learned
Helping the emotionally damaged child begins when they discover that the strategies they learned in order to cope with the pain of uncertain or absent love in childhood can be un-learned. This takes time. Recognising that we were starved of affection is an important first step.
Treatment and recovery for children who have suffered in this way need to be highly person-centred and sensitive. Whether substance abuse is involved or not, part of the approach will be to assist the client to re-evaluate their learned attitudes and behaviours with a view to adopting more helpful methods. It is thus a revisiting of the growing-up process.
If parents were to undergo formal training for parenthood (it will never happen), perhaps they would be asked to read Louis Macneice’s moving cry of the unborn child, Prayer Before Birth:
…..I am not yet born; rehearse me
In the parts I must play and the cues I must take when
old men lecture me, bureaucrats hector me, mountains
frown at me, lovers laugh at me, the white
waves call me to folly and the desert calls
me to doom and the beggar refuses
my gift and my children curse me… (2)
The illusion of a safe relationship
Addiction is often described as an attachment disorder. This is said to mean that those whose childhood attachments have been damaged or invalidated in some way, have difficulty in finding and managing meaningful relationships in adulthood. This can lead them into coping skills that are essentially self-defeating – using substances to enhance social skills is one example.
Developing an attachment to a drug of choice can seem to be a safe relationship by those who have experienced human hurt. This can seem a straightforward, predictable and controllable solution to part of their problems. They are of course misguided in this belief, as they may later realise.
The inner child
Childhood experiences mark us for life and many of us carry within us a damaged inner child that continues to affect our wellbeing, long into adulthood. Recognising, understanding and nurturing this inner child may seem a strange thing to do, but in therapeutic terms, it can be hugely powerful.
Doing this will open the door to emotional maturity. It may require special therapy. It will eventually enable us to stop blaming parents and take responsibility for our own lives. It might even get us into feeling the unconditional love for our parents that they probably at some stage did give to us. Whether parents be alive or dead, the damaged child will greatly benefit itself by offering them forgiveness:
…..My mother shades her eyes and looks my way
Over the drifted stream. My father spins
A stone along the water. Leisurely,
They beckon to me from the other bank.
I hear them call, ‘See where the stream-path is!
Crossing is not as hard as you might think.’
I had not thought that it would be like this. (3)
1) This Be The Verse (Philip Larkin)
2) Prayer Before Birth (Louis Macneice)
3) Eden Rock (Charles Causley)