Unhealthy parent-child attachments

Social worker, Sandri Appelgryn.

Dear Herald readers.

Previously, I discussed the impact of the relationship between a parent and his child on the child’s level of functioning.

Research on attachment theory tells us that when we are experiencing difficulties with children’s behaviour, it can be beneficial to stop and consider the nature of the relationship between the child and the parent.

A child is born with a brain and a nervous system that is still developing. In order for optimal development to take place, the child needs a care-giver who is responsive to his basic care and social needs.

The majority of the child’s social learning takes place within this caring and secure relationship. With a responsive care-giver, the child develops an understanding of how other people function and also learns to understand his own needs.

In a caring living environment, the child develops the ability to identify his own feelings, use those feelings to understand his needs, how to act to get his needs met, and to regulate his feelings.

But when a child learns that a care-giver is constantly unavailable or unresponsive to his needs, he eventually stops communicating his needs to that person. Children then learn to become avoidant and to keep their needs to themselves in order to avoid being disappointed or feeling hurt.

Very often, parents report that they did not experience secure attachments as children themselves, which makes it very difficult for them to form close relationships with their own children. They therefore find it very challenging to respond appropriately to their child’s needs.

As children become older, their avoidant behavior is often interpreted by the parent as the child challenging his or her authority.

Parents are often heard saying that the child is unmanageable and not treating them with respect.

Parents are also heard saying that they feel rejected by the child. In practice, it is often found that this parent and child do not share a close relationship; instead, they have an avoidant attachment style.

Adults with an avoidant attachment style tend to have difficulty with intimacy and close relationships. They do not invest much emotion in their relationships and experience little distress when a relationship ends.

Research has also shown that adults with an avoidant attachment style are more likely to engage in casual sex. Other common characteristics include a failure to support partners during stressful times and an inability to share feelings, thoughts, and emotions with partners.

• Sandri Appelgryn, social worker in private practice writes:

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