Attachment Issues – When you can’t understand your child

Having trouble connecting with your child? Maybe despite the love, you feel distant from them, like they don’t need you or want you around? Or you just cannot understand them and their behaviour no matter how much you try? Maybe, no matter how much you tell them you love them, they don’t seem to believe you and keep on asking? If you have answered yes to any of these, there may be an attachment issue in the way.

Attachment is the bond between caregiver and child, developed to help babies survive at a time when they are unable to care for themselves. Attachment bonds are important in early years as a form of protection from danger, and this relationship forms a model for the child with which to interact with the world and people around them.

Signs of a disrupted attachment

Attachment difficulties are not well known or understood in the medical world and can be easily missed, or seen as a sign of another issue. Some signs of attachment difficulties you may see are:

  • Bed/pants wetting after developmentally appropriate;
  • Eating issues;
  • Avoids eye contact;
  • Difficulty smiling;
  • Oppositional behaviour and anger;
  • Lying and stealing;
  • Excessive independence or reliance on caregivers;
  • Extreme separation anxiety or disinterest in caregiver;
  • Demands for attention which are age inappropriate;
  • Aversion to touch and physical affection;
  • Depression and suicidal behaviour in very young children;
  • Rejection of your efforts to soothe or comfort them;
  • Overly trusting with a poor concept of “stranger danger”;
  • “Freezes” or zones out when around conflict;
  • Isn’t interested in interactive games or connecting with you;
  • Spends significant time rocking or comforting themselves.

Development of attachment disorders

Disruptions in the attachment bond can occur for a variety of reasons. Attachment to you serves as a "secure base" for your child so that they can explore and experience the world, returning to the “secure base” where they receive physical and emotional nourishment, comfort and reassurance when distressed or frightened. A parent’s role is to provide freedom for exploration within safe limits, while providing this secure base for the child to return to and integrate their learning. When this circle of leaving, exploration, return and integration is disrupted, attachment difficulties may result.

Attachment disruptions are based in the subjective experience of the child and caregiver. This means that all of the child's needs can be met but if the child or parent don't "feel" like they are, the attachment is not secure. Attachment disruptions can occur from subjective experience of pain, risk, neglect of distress and trauma. Earaches in childhood can be a risk for insecure attachment due to the subjective experience of pain for the child; the parent can't fix the pain damaging their sense of safety, while the carer may feel helpless and distressed by seeing their child in pain and being unable to alleviate it.

The secure base is essential for the child to feel safe, protected and loved. When a child feels unsafe, and insecure attachment can result and the child learns to rely on themselves for safety. The child is not emotionally equipped to care for themselves, and they may become withdrawn, untrusting, and fearful of emotional expression.

When a child is not able to explore independently, their developing sense of self becomes confused and overshadowed by that of their carer’s. In this instance an insecure attachment develops, whereby the child may develop difficulties with separation anxiety, developing their own confidence and identity and can become dependent on others to cope, regulate or problem solve.

Insecure attachment relationships can be passed down through the family as they are our only reference for developing a parent-child relationship and feel completely normal, familiar and comfortable to us. Breaking the cycle of insecure attachments, therefore, requires awareness and assessment of the problem(s) and a tailored treatment plan to address the disruptions to return the relationship on a course to secure attachment.

Repairing attachment bonds

Attachment bonds can be repaired through hard work. For younger children, repair using the Circle of Security program is a structured program which helps parents respond rather than react to the needs of their child. This program assesses issues in the circle of exploration and return to the secure base and repair relationships. This program works on a core understanding of the notion that insecure children misdirect their carers from basic attachment behaviour due to eliciting distressing emotions in their parents. The carer is then less available and thus begins the disruption in the attachment. The Circle of Security intervention helps carers understand the attachment process and be “bigger, stronger, wiser and kind” to meet the child’s attachment needs in a way which contains own emotion.

A common component of treatment of attachment disruption is the development of a corrective experience of attachment. The parent or carer will become this figure for the child, while the therapist may become a figure of attachment for the parent. As poor attachments can be passed down through generations, it is not uncommon for a carer of a child with disrupted attachment to have experienced problems with attachment themselves, and providing the corrective experience for their child is near impossible when you have never been provided a with helpful model. Working on our insecure attachment patterns in adulthood will be automatically passed down to children depending on their age.

When spending quality time with your child, try to follow their behaviours and interests, reflecting their learning, while not being intrusive. Allow your child to come to you with discoveries, reinforcing their learning through interest and praise, over talking at this stage is less helpful than your nonverbal attention.

When verbalising with your child, try to focus on labelling their emotional experience to help them identify emotions, and their links with causes. In these situations, all emotion should be reflected back, positive and negative, teaching your child that all emotions are normal, and manageable

When working with attachment issues with children, parents learn to be:

  • Involved: Involvement and attention reassures your child that you are there for them consistently and prepared to meet their needs.
  • Responsive: Awareness of your child’s present state allows fast response to their joy or distress, confirming your role as a secure base, while allowing independent exploration.
  • Attuned: Being attuned to your child’s emotional response allows them to build trust in you and your care, and provide fundamentals for empathy development.
  • Contained: By containing your own emotions, you are able to help your child see how emotions are normal, yet manageable, and help them to contain their own in a healthy way, leading to less suppression or over-expression of emotion.

Tips for parents

As a parent it is important to manage and contain yourself to effectively repair a disrupted attachment.

  • Support: Social support is essential; ask for help before it is required to help ensure you don’t become too stressed.
  • Self-care: Take care of yourself with a good diet and exercise regime, ensuring quality sleep is a priority and scheduling time in for pleasure and reinforcing relationships with loved ones.
  • Set realistic expectations: Repairing disruptions in attachment can be a long process, particularly when trauma is involved or you are not the primary care giver. Focus on small successes and set short term goals to improve motivation.
  • Patience: Hand in hand with realistic expectations comes patience. There will be setbacks and times when the relationship is trying, try to maintain your calm where possible, having a break when needed.
  • Have hope: Above all hope is essential. Though the situation may have become dire, this is the first step to improvement and your child will take their cue for hope for attachment repair from you. So if there are doubts and misgivings, try to seek social support.

Author: Rose Gillett, B Psych (Hons), D Psych (Clin) Candidate, MAPS.

References

  • Ainsworth, M. D. S. (1990). Some considerations regarding theory and assessment relevant to attachments beyond infancy. In M. Greenberg, D. Cicchetti, & E. M. Cummings (Eds.), Attachment in the preschool years: Theory, research, and intervention (pp.463-488). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Bowlby, J. (1969). Attachment and loss: Vol. 1. Attachment (2nd ed.). New York: Basic Books.
  • Bowlby, J. (1988). A secure base: Parent-child attachment and healthy human development. US: Basic Books.
  • Kobak, R., &Mandelbaum, T. (2003). Caring for the caregiver: An attachment approach to assessment and treatment of child problems. In S. M. Johnson, & V. E. Wiffen (Eds.), Attachment processes in couple and family therapy (pp. 144-164). London: The Guilford Press.
  • Powell, B., Cooper, G., Hoffman, K., & Marvin, R. (2007). The circle of security project: A case study – “it hurts to give that which you did not receive.” In D. Oppenheim, & D. F. Goldsmith (Eds.), Attachment theory in clinical work with children (pp. 172-202). New York: The Guilford Press.