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. Click here to read part I of this topic series.
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.
Many people believe kids are resilient. That’s true—sometimes.
People can overcome great odds. But they are stronger through the help of others. Humans yearn for and rely upon relationships and attachment to survive. Kids are only as resilient as their attachment strategies allow. Attachment researchers have found that our early relationships affect how we interact with others throughout our lifetimes. The way a child learns how to survive affects the sort of adult he’ll be—whether healthy and well adjusted or destructive and self-defeating.
The importance of early attachment and bonding
A child who reasonably and consistently gets his needs met during his first year of life—eye contact, smile, touch, motion, and food—feels satisfied and secure for the most part. This sense of satisfaction and security allows the infant to learn he can trust his caregiver to respond in safe and helpful ways. Therefore, he trusts, relies upon, and allows the caregiver to take care of him growing up. If this type of care continues, the child will likely learn to securely attach and build his future from a secure base.
When infants don’t get their needs met, however, the opposite is true. They feel dissatisfied and insecure when raised with neglectful, punishing, and otherwise inadequate caregivers. The child begins to feel hopeless and helpless and expresses anger to get his needs met. The infant learns to distrust caregivers. He does not trust them to be in charge of his life and begins to try to take control in inappropriate ways. The child learns to manipulate caregivers and remains fearful and angry. If this pattern of inadequate care continues, the child likely becomes insecurely attached and builds his future from an insecure model.
Most people with insecure attachment strategies experienced trauma in childhood from their families of origin. Such trauma typically includes physical, sexual, and psychological abuse or neglect, abandonment, or loss of the child’s caregivers. Sometimes, the trauma is subtle and can occur in seemingly healthy families (read more here) as well. A child who grows up in such environments learns survival behaviors that result in unusual or maladaptive strategies as an adult.
Early attachment issues follow people into adulthood
Mary Main identified five attachment-related risk factors arising out of childhood that influence mental or behavioral disorders later in life:
- failure to form a healthy attachment between six months and three years
- development of an insecure attachment
- major separations from or permanent loss of attachment figures
- disorganized attachment in response to early maltreatment
- disorganized attachment as a second-generation effect of the parent’s own trauma
In this third article of the series How Attachment Grows Up, we’ll explain two more (out of four) attachment strategies (a.k.a schemas) that begin and develop throughout a person’s lifetime (please visit here to read about the first two strategies):
- How an ambivalent strategy grows into a preoccupied strategy—
Kids with ambivalent attachment strategies—
Children with ambivalent attachment strategies tend to have had inconsistent, unreliable, and ineffective caregivers early on. Such caregivers react to their children in unpredictable and insensitive ways. As a result, children have a difficult time attaining closeness in a dependable manner. They tend to develop inflexible behavior strategies to deal with moderately stressful situations. Even when placed with healthy caregivers, children with this strategy remain needy and constantly seek contact. Yet, they’re also distrustful, angry, and unwilling to accept comfort from adults. “They develop maximizing attachment behaviors,” says Mary Main. “[due to fear] of the caregiver’s potential inaccessibility.” These children often grow into adults with preoccupied attachment strategies.
Adults with preoccupied attachment strategies—
Preoccupied adults maximize attachment strategy and appear preoccupied and entangled in relationships. They tend to feel confused and angry about and are non-collaborative toward attachment figures. These adults lack the objectivity to move beyond their preoccupation, says Main. Preoccupied adults often describe an unloving family of origin that lacked nurturing, understanding, and reasonableness. They are often stuck in their distress and dissatisfaction over the way they were treated by early caregivers.
People with a preoccupied attachment strategy tend to spend a great deal of time actively controlling others so that they are available for them. They seem needy and clingy in their relationships but also emotionally unavailable. They also tend to distrust all relationships, especially intimate ones, and blame their partners for the problems and dissatisfaction in their lives. They often take little responsibility and are frequently vocal about their troubles being caused by others—co-workers, bosses, police, or parents. They tend to feel angry and punish others but try to hold on to relationships even when dissatisfied with them.
George* is representative of people who demonstrate a preoccupied strategy—
George felt as though both his parents were unavailable to him. No one looked at schoolwork, attended school meetings or activities in which he was involved. They seldom spoke to him. He felt his mother was unfair, punishing, and seldom loving toward him. George’s father lived in another state and never showed any love or interest toward him. No matter what he did, he could not gain favorable attention from either parent.
Although George praised his mother for doing her best to raise him, he disclosed that his mother and aunt molested him as a child. He never remembered his mother sober. George described his recurring memory of how his mother died after she had a substantial amount of whiskey. He reported having tremendous guilt and feeling responsible for her death. He blamed himself because he knew no life-saving techniques and was unable to get rescue help fast enough.
When his mother died at 12-years-old, his older brother received custody of him. George’s brother treated him poorly. While living with his brother, George went to school sporadically for awhile, earned money playing pool and stealing, stole all his clothing and most of his food, and slept on pool tables at friend’s homes and in parks. He began using alcohol and drugs before he was fourteen. George abused girls his age and much older women who took him in. He began a trade in his late teens and married in his mid-twenties because the woman was pregnant. They had five children together.
By his 30s, George was convicted for drunkenness and assault of his wife and a police officer. It was at that time that George began to realize how angry he was toward his mother for sexually abusing him, dying of alcoholism, and leaving him afraid and alone to fend for himself. While trying to resolve the issue of his mother’s death, he contacted his father and discovered his mother had committed suicide by taking large amounts of barbiturates and whiskey. Neither George nor anyone else could have saved her. At age thirty-eight, he realized he had lived with twenty-six years of guilt, anguish, and anger about an event for which he had never before known the truth. He life was full of anger and self-doubt, always unclear and confused about his past.
- How a disorganized-disoriented strategy grows into an unresolved-disorganized attachment strategy—
Kids with disorganized-disoriented strategies—
Children with a disorganized-disoriented attachment strategy tend of have been under the care of adults who were unpredictable, rejecting, frightening, and out of control in the child’s early years. The adults were often abusive or violent and alcohol and drug dependent. The child often faced fear and anxiety when he requested attention, protection, and nurturing from his caregiver.
Disorganized-disoriented children lack a coherent attachment strategy toward their caregiver(s). They reverse care-giving patterns in which they either act punitively toward their parents or take on a care-giving role. Disorganized children are most at risk for mental illnesses (read why here). School children with disruptive, aggressive, and dissociative behaviors have been associated with disorganized attachment status. According to Main, a large “majority of maltreated children have been found to be disorganized.”
Adults with unresolved-disorganized strategies—
Adults exhibiting an unresolved-disorganized strategy tend to be more socially isolated than other people. They may have no intimate relationships and are without much idea about how to go about beginning new relationships, even if desired. They also tend to distrust all relationships. Many seem depressed and with a suicidal ideation.
Mary* is representative of people who demonstrate a preoccupied strategy—
Mary was an only child, raised by her mother. She never revealed much about her home life other than that her childhood environment included drugs and fighting. Her mother had a series of male partners over the years and she was not sure about the status of her father or any other relatives. Her mother was drug addicted and an alcoholic. The mother’s boyfriends who occasionally lived with her were also drug addicted or alcoholic. A couple of the mother’s boyfriends physically abused, as Mary described, “just for the fun of it.” One of the boyfriends sexually molested her until he left after Mary cut and stabbed him with a knife. Mary remembered little else of her childhood. What she did report of her childhood was general information—having a loving mother, life was boring, and she could do what ever she wanted because no one cared what she did. She watched television a lot and roamed the streets with other young people. She was using alcohol and drugs with the other children before she was a teen. At seventeen, she came home one night after being gone for several days and found her mother’s bloated body on the floor. She had finally drunk herself to death.
By eighteen, Mary had a child. Her relationship with the father failed shortly after the child’s birth. She started another relationship and had another child at that time. That relationship also ended in less than four years. In both relationships, she continued to abuse drugs and alcohol and obtained low-paying temporary jobs when she worked. On the job, she often fought with co-workers. She saw herself as incompetent and without much value.
She denied and minimized her behaviors and problems. She claimed the only problem she had was alcohol because it had ruined her relationships and caused her to rage. She refused to see herself as a person with abusive, violent, and criminal behavior. She appeared to be a dangerous person and was emotionally closed down and volatile when she lost her composure.
Attachment education is sad, but not without hope
It does us no good to deny that people like George and Mary struggle. Although their names are changed to protect their identities, they are true stories of real people—this reality may feel uncomfortable for many people. But to dismiss their lives is to deny, and therefore perpetuate, the effects of attachment problems in our world.
Humans are amazing. And they are resilient—when given the gift of healthy early attachment. When they struggle with attachment, however, hope is still possible. Early intervention is critical.
But early intervention means far more than removing, and keeping kids out of, harmful homes. Trauma follows a child wherever he lives, no matter how safe, nurturing, and responsible his new caregivers. A child needs specialized help from highly qualified attachment clinicians. Adoptive and foster parents cannot overcome attachment problems for their children with love, time, or “good parenting”. Our society must surround these caregivers with the support and resources necessary to provide for their children.
People don’t typically think about attachment. Yet, it is the basis of human interaction and behavior all around us. We’re all affected by trauma—whether directly or indirectly—throughout our lifetimes. We all pay the cost of violence and a cycle of child abuse and neglect in our country when we do nothing. It is not pleasant to ponder. It is also not time to throw up our hands. Or to say there’s nothing anyone can do. It is time to learn more, educate others, advocate for kids who battle trauma, and support the responsible, caring adults who now raise such children. When we do nothing, we accept the cycle of abuse and neglect. There is hope in early intervention and highly specialized attachment clinicians.
*names changed to protect client identities
Main, Mary. (1996). Introduction to the Special Section on Attachment and Psychopathology: 2. Overview of the Field of Attachment. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology. Vol. 64. No 2, 237-343.