The following series of blogs stems from inspiration by work that is in process between Kim Barthel and Theo Fleury surrounding the topic of healing from sexual abuse.
Many people who have been sexually abused define themselves through the lens of that abuse. They believe that their sometimes addictive and chaotic behaviour is caused solely by their childhood sexual abuse experience. Unfortunately for someone looking for a simple cause and effect explanation of why they do what they do today- it’s not that simple.
We have come to understand that our early childhood relationships with our core parent or caregiver (attachments) shape our brain patterns and our behaviours. There are three different kinds of “attachment” strategies, which have a significant effect upon how resilient we can be in the face of future trauma, including childhood sexual abuse. These three ways that kids learn to cope with their parents exist as strategies to feel comfortable and secure. Attachment theory is the study of these strategies and how they come to be. These concepts are being introduced here in hope that you will gain further self-understanding about your own patterns of behaviour.
For a newborn baby, survival is the name of the game. Aside from needing to eat and sleep, what they most require is to feel safe on all levels, especially emotionally. Typically a loving, attentive primary caregiver provides a baby with that sense of security and safety. Predictable care that sensitively meets a child’s needs allows them to feel loved and valued, molding healthy relationship styles for the years to come. The baby develops a sense of their own importance to others from these interactions; it gives them the foundation necessary to explore the world, learn and grow. This grounded sense of security is the basis of resilience to stress, like a protective factor preparing the child to weather the future storms of life.
When the caregiver’s natural response is to be “tuned into” their child, which means they pay attention in the moment to how the child is feeling as a direct result of their behaviour, then the child feels understood and connected to their parent. This happens when the parent empathizes and places their mind “inside the mind of the child”. Taking this perspective helps the parent to feel what their child is feeling and experiencing. This requires that the parent be “present” and available to the child with their whole being at least some of the time. This experience of attunement is at the heart of secure attachment. When a child experiences secure attachment at an early age, they are better able to balance their feelings and thoughts for clear communication and effective relationships throughout their lives. When the opposite is true for you, however, the odds are less in your favour. The infant who is not securely attached will naturally seek to protect themselves from danger in other, not always healthy, ways. The following are some examples of insecure parent/infant attachment experiences and the behavior patterns in the children that often result:
When a caregiver is repeatedly emotionally unavailable, dismissive or highly critical of their child, whether or not this is coupled with violence, the child becomes preoccupied with their parent’s behavior. To protect themselves, children adapt. One way to stay safe is to try extra hard, even too hard, to try to please the parent. Another way (often if the first way doesn’t work) is to keep a distance and withdraw. The child who learns that it’s not worth trying to connect will often remain distant and aloof in future relationships. In their most intimate relationships, they often participate with caution, vigilance and anxiety around potential feelings of closeness or loss of independence. In the case of children who try too hard to please their parents, they may perpetuate this pattern in relationships with all kinds of other people. Those who become highly compliant, especially to those in positions of authority, may become vulnerable to exploitation. Early experiences of rejection and separation create an ongoing need for self-protection from the future possibility of rejection, abandonment and hurt. These insecure attachment strategies are understandable in their contexts, but they often outlive their usefulness and then interfere with healthy relationships later on.
Another form of insecure attachment occurs when children experience their caregivers as caring, but often overly connected and intrusive. This child feels insecure and anxious when they are not with their parent, which limits the development of their independence. The child feels as though they must stay connected to their caregiver at all costs in order to feel safe. The minute they feel disconnected from their parent the child solicits connection by demanding and coercing comfort from their caregiver. This child turns up the volume on the display of their emotions, or charms their parent enough to ensure the caregiver is connected and paying attention. The child learns to act excessively mad, sad or scared in a dramatic way in order to achieve comfort and connection, which typically miscues the parent into responding differently than what the child really needs and wants. Think of Stewy from “Family Guy” standing at the edge of his mom’s bed repeatedly saying “Mom, mom, mom, mommy, mommy, mommy, Lois, Lois, Lois” until she explodes with agitation. Once he has gained Lois’ attention he feels connected and satisfied so says hi and leaves the room; he never really wanted anything else from her. As the child grows up there are varying degrees to which this tendency to act out may become a problem for them. As an adult, these individuals often maintain the desperation for connection and typically experience sinking feelings that their needs will never be met. For them it’s all about their own needs, and as such they tend to become more self-absorbed than others. Ironically, their exaggerated neediness for attention may push others away and thus create a self-fulfilling outcome of rejection that they dread.
There are also extreme cases in which children experience their primary caregiver’s behaviour with disorientation and terror. This occurs when the caregiver is chaotic and frightening. In this situation the child becomes “stuck” between needing to approach (for their basic needs) the very source of terror from which they need to escape. This is what happens in children who experience abuse by their parents. Abuse is incompatible with parents’ providing children with safety and security. It fractures the relationship between the child and the caregiver creating a constant dilemma for the child, who often develops a mixed up sense of self.
Abuse by a caregiver has been shown in research to damage the right side of a child’s growing brain, interfering with how they regulate their emotions, communicate socially, solve problems and learn. There is a tendency for dissociation- a process in which normally integrated thinking can become disjointed and disorganized.
Parents who repeatedly rage at their young children may create a state of alarm in the child’s brains that lead to disorganized and disordered attachment strategies that can negatively and significantly effect the relationships their kids form throughout their lives. This often occurs unintentionally in parents who they themselves have experienced trauma or who are caught in addictions that alter their capacity to be present to their child.
So why would parents treat their children like this? Research shows us that a parent who has unresolved trauma and loss themselves have a higher likelihood of acting out behaviours that terrify and traumatize their children. These caregivers have abrupt shifts in their state of mind that alarms the child. Some caregivers who have unresolved trauma and loss will they themselves space out when their child is distressed, or become suddenly enraged and threatening to the child for no apparent reason to the child. Having a history of trauma or loss does not by itself predispose a caregiver to acting out; it is the lack of resolution of that caregiver’s issues that become the concerning factor in their parenting.
Adults who experience their parents with alarm or terror often grow up very disorganized in their own states of mind. They may freeze when they are stressed, and may not always recognize danger until it is too late.
It is never too late to move forward in making sense of and healing your past. A nurturing relationship with someone along the way in your life where you feel safe, understood and valued provides a source of resilience and strength supporting change in your thoughts, feelings and behaviour. Just as some young children in challenging homes gravitate towards safe people and turn out okay, so it is with adults who are still hurting. Allowing yourself to connect with those around you who are emotionally safe and nurturing is recommended, at all ages.
It is important not to take this information to the place of blaming of your parents for messing you up. They were doing the best they could with what they had. Understanding brings about compassion, and is movement towards healing.
If you happen to be a new parent, please be mindful that the relationship you are just beginning to form with your baby has the potential to model all the relationships your kid will have in his or her life, including that of his/her own babies one day. No pressure…and remember, when it doesn’t go perfectly between you and your child and it won’t: until you stop breathing it’s never too late for repair.
For further information about attachment theory, I recommend “Parenting from the Inside Out” by Daniel Siegel and Mary Hartzell and “Raising Parents” by Patricia Crittenden.