by Kim Barthel, Occupational Therapist

The following are some examples of insecure parent/infant attachment experiences and the behavior patterns in the children that often result:

When a caregiver is repeatedly emotionally unavailable, dismissive or highly critical of their child, whether or not this is coupled with violence, the child becomes preoccupied with their parent’s behavior. To protect themselves, children adapt. One way to stay safe is to try extra hard, even too hard, to try to please the parent.  Another way (often if the first way doesn’t work) is to keep a distance and withdraw. The child who learns that it’s not worth trying to connect will often remain distant and aloof in future relationships.  In their most intimate relationships, they often participate with caution, vigilance and anxiety around potential feelings of closeness or loss of independence. In the case of children who try too hard to please their parents, they may perpetuate this pattern in relationships with all kinds of other people. Those who become highly compliant, especially to those in positions of authority, may become vulnerable to exploitation. Early experiences of rejection and separation create an ongoing need for self-protection from the future possibility of rejection, abandonment and hurt. These insecure attachment strategies are understandable in their contexts, but they often outlive their usefulness and then interfere with healthy relationships later on.

Another form of insecure attachment occurs when children experience their caregivers as caring, but often overly connected and intrusive.  This child feels insecure and anxious when they are not with their parent, which limits the development of their independence.  The child feels as though they must stay connected to their caregiver at all costs in order to feel safe.  The minute they feel disconnected from their parent the child solicits connection by demanding and coercing comfort from their caregiver. This child turns up the volume on the display of their emotions, or charms their parent enough to ensure the caregiver is connected and paying attention.  The child learns to act excessively mad, sad or scared in a dramatic way in order to achieve comfort and connection, which typically miscues the parent into responding differently than what the child really needs and wants. Think of Stewy from “Family Guy” standing at the edge of his mom’s bed repeatedly saying “Mom, mom, mom, mommy, mommy, mommy, Lois, Lois, Lois” until she explodes with agitation.  Once he has gained Lois’ attention he feels connected and satisfied so says hi and leaves the room; he never really wanted anything else from her.  As the child grows up there are varying degrees to which this tendency to act out may become a problem for them.  As an adult, these individuals often maintain the desperation for connection and typically experience sinking feelings that their needs will never be met.  For them it’s all about their own needs, and as such they tend to become more self-absorbed than others.  Ironically, their exaggerated neediness for attention may push others away and thus create a self-fulfilling outcome of rejection that they dread.

There are also extreme cases in which children experience their primary caregiver’s behaviour with disorientation and terror.  This occurs when the caregiver is chaotic and frightening.  In this situation the child becomes “stuck” between needing to approach (for their basic needs) the very source of terror from which they need to escape.  This is what happens in children who experience abuse by their parents. Abuse is incompatible with parents’ providing children with safety and security. It fractures the relationship between the child and the caregiver creating a constant dilemma for the child, who often develops a mixed up sense of self.