Parents, Attachment, and Kids

By Dan Blair, a marriage counselor and family counselor.

To say that a parent’s attachment to his or her kids is strong may be a negative statement. Attachment is described as secure and insecure, so it is possible to have a strong attachment that is insecure. Insecure attachment descriptors reflect parental styles mentioned in the post What is Attachment? These parental styles are associated with the types of attachment: secure attachment with parental flexibility and stability, avoidant attachment with dismissive parenting, ambivalent attachment with preoccupied parents, and disorganized attachment with overwhelmed parents. Parental capacity is important to consider. Children build their nervous system and learn how to balance¬†emotions, thoughts, and behavior¬†through attachment. Parental capacity to attach to children can also change over time.

Avoidant attachment is reinforced from parental messages that emotions are not important in a child’s self-identity and in making decisions. Thus, the child (and as an adult) may feel like he or she does not really matter. An avoidant person may even believe that emotions steer one into danger or disaster and are not to be trusted. So emotions are left out of daily interactions. It may be hard to comfort or connect with an avoidant person. A second type of avoidant attachment seeks to please a significant other and downgrade one’s own needs because one can only accept emotions if they are not opposed by the significant other. This is a co-dependent relationship.

Ambivalent attachment patterns are derived from close connections that are not stable. The parent could be hot or cold. When cold, the parent may be preoccupied; it does not mean that the parent’s love wavers. So fear may develop associated with closeness and connection, because closeness and connection could be lost. The child or adult in this case may crave intimacy but not want to ask for it. If intimacy does happen, this person may eventually find it stifling. The child or adult may then experience anger and would distance from the significant other, but then fear would overtake from being feeling alone. The pattern then becomes hot pursuit, but then cold distancing.

Disorganized or dysregulated attachment patterns stem from parents who are ruled by the “fight or flight” autonomic nervous system. Parents tend to be aggressive or controlling, stemming from fear. On the other hand, parents could be overwhelmed or a victim, again stemming from fear.

Secure attachments are stable patterns but do not have to be perfect. They stem from a parent’s capacity at a particular place and time to recognize and value the emotions of a child, or to connect with what the child is doing. When the child comes to the parent, the parent in effect says to the child that the child is okay even when the child or parent is having negative emotions. The child is allowed to be separate from the parent, with the child’s own set of valid emotions and self-confidence.

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