Bonding and Attachment in Maltreated Children

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Lesson 3: Factors Affecting Bonding and Attachment
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How does abuse and neglect influence attachment?

There are three primary themes that have been observed in abusive and neglectful families. 

The most common effect is that maltreated children are, essentially, rejected.  Children that are rejected by their parents will have a host of problems (see below) including difficulty developing emotional intimacy. 


Another theme is "parentification" of the child.  This takes many forms.  One common form is when a young immature girl becomes a single parent.  The infant is treated like a playmate and very early in life like a friend.  It is common to hear these young mothers talk about their four-year-old as "my best friend" or "my little man."  In other cases, the adults are so immature and uninformed about children that they treat their children like adults-- or even like another parent.  As a result, their children may participate in fewer activities with other children who are “immature.”  This false sense of maturity in children often interferes with the development of same-aged friendships.



The third common theme is the transgenerational nature of attachment problems --they pass from generation to generation.  In abusive families, it is common for rejection and abuse to be transgenerational; the neglectful parent was neglected as a child.  They pass on the way they were parented. 


It is important to note that previously secure attachments can change suddenly following abuse and neglect.  For example, a child’s positive views of adults may change following physical abuse by a baby-sitter.  The child’s perception of a consistent and nurturing world may no longer “fit” with her reality. 


Are attachment problems always from abuse?

No, in fact the majority of attachment problems are likely due to parental ignorance about development rather than abuse.  Many parents have not been educated about the critical nature of the experiences of the first three years of life.  Currently, this ignorance is so widespread that it is estimated that 1 in 3 people has an avoidant, ambivalent, or resistant attachment with their caregiver.  Despite this insecure attachment, these individuals can form and maintain relationships--yet not with the ease that others can.  With more public education and policy support for these areas, these statistics can improve. 


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