This is a special edition article by our guest blogger, Robert W. McBride, LCSW. Thank you, Robert, for volunteering your time and expertise in the areas of adult attachment issues.
For over 30 years, Robert W. McBride, LCSW, MSW, has provided therapy for adults, primarily men, in regard to their childhood and adult trauma, depression, criminal behaviors, personality issues, maladaptive schemas, and attachment issues. He is the author of Change is The Third Path and Breaking the Cycle. He currently volunteers at the Institute for Attachment and Child Development and Futures Academy.
How kids from “typical” biological families grow up with attachment issues
Just as not all foster and adopted kids grow up to suffer from personality disorders, not all kids from “normal” families grow up securely attached. Adults who grew up in so-called “typical” families—the families we pay no or little attention to because it looks “normal”, okay, or good-enough—can struggle too.
We talk a lot about how foster and adoptive parents can cope with behaviors and needs for their kids diagnosed with reactive attachment disorder. In such cases, we’re referring to healthy parents who are doing everything they can to help their children overcome the trauma created by their biological parents. What we don’t often discuss, however, is what happens when a child grows up in a “typical” biological family with an unidentified, insecure attachment. Here are two examples—
Phil the Farmboy
Phil was raised in a small mid-western town where his father operated several grain silos and mom was a teacher. Phil described his family as stereotypical—a happy, church-going, farmland family—dad, mom, daughter, and son. He described himself as mostly shy, afraid, unhappy, and somewhat angry as a child. When Phil was eight-years-old, his father began to take him to work at the silos after he got out of school. He picked up the dead rats, swept out the train cars, and cleaned the elevators. By the time he got home, his mouth and nostrils were red and raw, his throat was constricted and scratchy, and his eyes were swollen nearly shut from the dust. He remembers crying himself to sleep and feeling miserable, wishing the torment would end. He pleaded with his parents for medicine or something to help him. He begged his father not to make him work in the elevators, but the answer was always no. When his grades suffered, he was disciplined. His parents grew tired of his complaints and became harsh with him until he gave up and suffered in silence. In his teens, relief came when his father sold the grain elevators. Years later, Phil was court-mandated to treatment for abusive and violent behaviors. Phil represents a dismissing adult attachment strategy.
Beth the Big Sister/Mother
Beth grew up in a large western city. She did not know who her father was and her mother had been addicted to drugs until Beth was fifteen-years-old. She had four siblings by four different men. Beth raised her siblings—bathed, fed, dressed them, did the laundry, and many other caregiver roles from a very early age. As a child, she was afraid someone in authority would find out her mother was an addict and party girl and break up the family. Even after her mother became sober, she insisted that Beth continue in her role. When Beth complained that she wanted to finish school and have a social life, her mother became very harsh with her. At eighteen, she fled and went to live with her grandmother so she could finish high school and go to college. She came to treatment to deal with her severe depression and substance abuse. Beth represents a dismissing adult attachment strategy.
Although “Phil” and “Beth” grew up very differently, they both suffer the same dysfunctional attachment strategies as adults due to poor parenting. These children are overlooked by our society, however, because our problems are so large in this nation. We also have children who are homeless, physically and sexually abused, and severely neglected. We focus on them, which is understandable. Yet, we’re missing a large portion of kids who are abused and neglected in different ways. The problems so many of our children face impact them greatly and the long-term effects are devastating.
How kids from “typical” biological families grow up with attachment issues
As children grow and develop, many factors play into how they will attach into adulthood including their parents’ attachment classifications and behaviors and quality of their marriages (Cowan, et.al, 1996. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology. Vol. 64. No. 1, 53-64). These factors affect a child’s psychopathology and patterns of maladaptive behavior that may be transmitted from generation to generation. A child’s attachment process affects him as an adult in at least three areas.
A child’s experiences will affect him into adulthood in at least three ways:
- Attachment strategies—Children develop and grow up to have one of the following attachment strategies with others: secure to secure-autonomous, avoidant to dismissing, ambivalent to preoccupied, or disorganized-disoriented to unresolved-disorganized. (Main, M. 1996. Introduction to the Special Section of Attachment and Psychopathology. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology. 64. No. 2. 237-243)
- Concept of self—A child’s environment and interactions with others impact the early evolving structures of the brain, and therefore, his sense of self. A child who grows up to have an insecure attachment with his caregiver suffers lasting socio-emotional struggles that impact emotional regulation, stress regulation, morality, and socialization.
- Personality structure—Early childhood insecure attachment-bonding processes can negatively affect a persona’s schema and personality—how she perceives, thinks, feels, copes, and behaves. Personality constraint refers to a rigidity of personality preventing the individual from being able to change with changing circumstances.
In short, children who grow up with insecure attachments typically ends in plenty of adults with maladaptive schemas of self, affect dysregulation, antisocial behaviors, and personality disorders. Such adults often pass their issues along to their children and create generations of dysfunction in society.
Why attachment issues affect everyone
As a nation, we spend billions upon billions of dollars each year fighting the problems we create due to our inattention to our children’s early developments. For the most part, children with assertive and secure attachments don’t grow up to partake in prostitution, sell drugs, exploit others, commit crimes, or abuse drugs. The price we all pay is in the building and upkeep of welfare systems, mental health research programs, addiction education and recovery groups, and law enforcement agencies. At the very least, we end up with many adults who create chaos and undue stress for their friends, families, co-workers, and themselves. This suffering is unnecessary, even if its creation is unintentional.
It is too expensive, dangerous and wearisome to deal with or treat the carnage of insecure attachment, maladaptive schemas of self, affect dysregulation, antisocial behavior, and personality disorders. Prevention is the only real solution. We need to end the hypocrisy and really begin to value our children. The solution is to be found in how we raise and support them as a nation. Supporting the solution would cost a fraction of the cost of containing the problem.