I have recently seen a mother dragging her young son through the shopping mall. She was screaming at him and was calling him names, while people around her watched in disbelief, not knowing what to do. What could have we done? Well, at least one of us could have told her to stop. Would it help? Would she have stopped and realize that what she was doing was wrong? Or would she have taken her anger out on us? Or drag the little guy home and carry on with the abuse there?
But that was not what I was thinking in that moment. I thought about all the other similar situations I have witnessed over the years. Screaming mothers. Screaming children. Screaming fathers. More screaming children. And while I can naively think that I have observed them treating their children like that when they were all having a bad day, there’s a possibility that for some of them that might have been behaviour they demonstrate regularly.
So as I was walking away I thought about attachment theory. I asked myself whether parents are aware of the enormous influence they have on their children’s personality, emotional development and behavioural habits. Why is not more attention paid to the problems that can result during adolescence and adulthood if a child does not form a proper attachment during first years of life?
So what is attachment? Attachment is defined as an emotional bond between the child and the caretaker, usually a mother. Parenting, especially in the first five years, is not only about meeting the basic survival needs of the child and being there physically. How parents address their children’s emotions and how they respond to them affects their children in a way most parents don’t even realize.
For example, when parents criticize their children and dismiss their negative emotions, the message they are sending to their children is that their emotions are not valid or appropriate. As a result, children will be more prone to negative emotions and they won’t learn to express themselves in a healthy manner.
Just picture an angry child having a tantrum. We might all sympathize with a parent having to deal with a child having a tantrum in the middle of the street. But look at it from the point of the view of children lying on the ground screaming their little lungs out. Why are they angry? Why have they learned to express their anger in such a way? Are their emotional needs not being met and this is the only way they know will give them attention? What message does the parents’ frustrated reaction send to their children? How might this reaction affect them?
Attachment theory helps us comprehend how the parent-child relationship emerges and how it affects development. An attachment pattern is established in early childhood, during the first five years, and while the child is growing up, he or she develops what is known as an ‘internal working model’. It’s a set of expectations and beliefs we have about ourselves and others. It also affects how we view relationships throughout our lives.
The relationships we form with other people are hugely influenced by our earliest attachments. In other words, the attachment style we formed as children affects who we choose as a partner, how we behave in relationships and how we expect our partner to behave.
So when we start a relationship with someone we may unconsciously choose a partner whose own attachment style complement with ours. For example, if we grew up feeling ignored by our parents, we may choose a partner who is unavailable, cold and rejecting. I know it seems strange that people would choose someone who behaves exactly like their parents, but it is what they know and what they are familiar with. Therefore, the relationships you have in the present may look a lot like your relationships in your past.
In order to gain a better understanding of attachment theory it might be helpful to learn a bit more about different types of attachment and I will do just that in my next blog.