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When it Goes Awry

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Attachment problems, when they arise, do not stem from any single cause, but are the result of multiple influences. A number of risk factors have been identified as increasing the probability of attachment difficulties: pre-natal rejection of the infant, extended or repeated hospitalizations during the first three years, pre- or post-natal maternal substance abuse, parents retaining unrealistic images of the child, multiple caretakers, multiple changes in living location, early history of losses, harsh and inconsistent parenting, overindulgent parenting, physical or sexual abuse, neglect, chronic illness, and an extreme temperamental misfit between parent and child.

Children with attachment difficulties are most commonly found in the adoption and foster care systems. However, they are being identified in increasing numbers from biologically intact families.

What are the signs that attachment has gone awry? In many ways, they are the opposites of the healthy attachment signals described previously. For the infant of zero to 6 months, poor attachment appears as social withdrawal and/or frequent screaming, pulling away from all touch, rejecting comfort from others and repetitive motions which are unsuccessful attempts at self-soothing. If not corrected, attachment problems at this age can lead to rage outbursts, a negative self-identity as one who causes bad things to happen, behavior problems and learning impairments in later childhood.

From 6 to 10 months the signs of weak attachment are: over- reliance on repetitive motions, such as rocking, for comfort; lack of stranger anxiety; and extreme precociousness that moves the infant towards a position of not needing anyone because she can handle it all.

Should attachment problems exist from 10 to 18 months, separation anxiety may intensify to the point that the child won’t leave the parent. There may be generalized disinterest in exploring the world and limited checking in with the parent. Frustration tolerance doesn’t develop, but in its stead, the child assembles a repertoire of aggressive behaviors as outlets for the frustration.

For the 15-to 24-month-old, attachment difficulties often mire the child in an inability to integrate dependence and independence. A child frozen in this dilemma usually ends up choosing one extreme or the other and may become withdrawn or clingy. If these difficulties aren’t addressed, separation anxiety can linger into the school-age years where it can interfere with behavior and performance in school. Attachment difficulties at this age also sensitize a child to frustration and failure which results in strong anxiety, anger, and a coloring of the self with shame. The outward sign is often heightened aggressive behavior.

Weak attachment from 24 to 36 months can interfere with achieving self and object constancy. Poor object constancy makes it difficult for a child to relate emotionally because of the expectation of inevitable loss. This will manifest as clingy behavior to prevent the loss or distancing behavior to avoid any pain. Poor self constancy undermines a child’s confidence in his ability to cope with changing situations. As a result, she may become very vigilant to prevent becoming overwhelmed. Additionally, there may be problems with transitions or sudden changes.

If attachment problems linger through the preschool years and into the elementary years, they are at risk of intensifying. In the most extreme cases, a child may exhibit an attachment disorder. Children with this disorder have a generalized distrust of others, particularly authority figures, who are seen as exploitive. They see themselves as defective victims of life and accept no responsibility for anything. Despite this outward presentation, internally they feel responsible for everything bad that happens. There is little satisfaction in mastery, and learning is seen as relevant only if it has survival value. Social skills are quite limited. People tend to be viewed as interchangeable sources of gratification. At home, a child with attachment disorder can be an enormous stress on all family members; parents can come to feel ineffective, and siblings may feel strong anger and jealousy.

While attachment problems can have severe consequences, their legacy is not necessarily destiny. Expectably, the younger the child, the easier difficulties are to correct. Some children and families will require professional assistance. However, there are interventions parents can use that can have significant impact on a weak attachment.

Credits: Used with permission from:

Lawrence B Smith L.C.S.W. - C., L.I.C.S.W.
9305 Mintwood Street
Silver Springs, MD 20901
301 589-3780
Fax 301 588-1933
lbsmith@annapolis.net
www.attachmentdisordermaryland.com

Lawrence Smith is a child, adolescent, adult and family therapist in private practice in Silver Spring, MD.

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