Unhealthy / Broken Attachment

Posted by admin on February 26, 2013

Unhealthy / Broken Attachment


I talked about what healthy attachment looks like in my previous post.  If you haven’t already done so, go back and read that one first.  Having a basic understanding of what attachment is supposed to look like and how it's supposed to happen is key to understanding why broken and/or unhealthy early attachments are such a big deal and why they need devoted attention in order to heal.

Today, we’re going to talk about what happens when attachment doesn’t happen as it’s supposed to and/or there are breaks in it.  For way too many of our kids, the first year attachment cycle wasn't a healthy one as previous discussed. It was more like this one. 

Rather than having their needs consistently met, they were left alone, ignored, neglected, or worse, hurt because they were trying to let the big people know they needed something.  As a result, fear and apathy, followed by a sense of anxiety and stress develops. Rather than learning the world is a safe place and their parents will take care of them, they learn that the world is a scary place and adults can't be trusted to meet their needs. They learn, not just at a self-esteem level, but at a deeply ingrained core belief level that they have no value. Sadly, when attachment is lacking or is traumatically broken (such as through adoption or death of their first parents…both of which are processed the same by the child), many babies will just shut down.  They stop crying. They’ve already learned that they don’t matter and the only person they can count on to meet their needs is them.  As soon as they are big enough to take charge of doing it, that very act of insuring their own survival using any means necessary defines everything they think, say, and do.
Indeed, their brains become hardwired to operate from this place of survival. In normal development situations, the amygdala (the primal “flight, fight, or freeze” command center of the brain) normally works like a light switch.  When danger or threat is sensed, it activates the body’s natural startle response.  The frontal lobe (the part that normally governs logic and reasoning) then quickly takes over, assesses the real threat level and either shuts the amygdala off and all the body systems calm or logic and reasoning take over and appropriate action is taken to mitigate the threat.  When there’s no reprieve from threat and needs are inconsistently met, they amygdala becomes hard wired as the primary command center of the brain and EVERYTHING that comes in is processed through the lens of “is this safe and will it meet my needs.”  At the same time, the hippocampus (the memory and learning center) starts to lose mass and the front lobe fails to develop properly. 
Another thing that happens when attachment is broken or missing is that the child fails to learn any sense of order and predictability.  That is one of the reasons that many kids who had a rough early start end up struggling in school.  They missed those needed foundational elements that help them organize, group, and connect information in meaningful ways. 
Guess what else?  The second year attachment cycle - the time in which children learn to accept parental authority and boundaries - can't be started until the first one is complete.  No matter how old they are, until that child goes back and experiences the repeated repetitions of that that first year cycle in a healthy way, the second year cycle of learning to understand and respect boundaries set by adults can't happen - or at least not fully and completely.  This is why consequences don’t work. This is why sticker charts and removing privileges doesn’t work.  In their quest for survival, the kids will buck them and continue upping the ante just to prove that the adults really aren’t in charge and “won’t” or “can’t” or aren’t strong enough to take care of them. 
Not all attachment challenged kids outwardly express their stuff…at least not in a way that most people realize, though.  Some will appear to cooperate with most everything (especially when directives don’t come from their parents), but they will still exhibit significant passive aggressive behavior.  It's not accidental.  It's a quiet expression of an internal storm.  It's more about manipulation and survival in a world they believe is out to get them than it is about genuine connections and a desire to please their parents.

Now, I know what some of you are thinking.  “But wait!! I adopted my child birth.  Or, better yet, my kid is biological and I gave birth to him. I’ve given them everything in both those first and second year cycles. My kid still hates me and has rejected me at every turn. The kid has been screaming since the minute they were placed in my arms. What’s up with that???”

Attachment is a two way street. It is dependent on the parent’s ability to consistently and reliably meet the physical and emotional needs of the child with love AND it is dependent on the child’s ability to receive those offerings from the parent. If you’ve done everything right (well, ok…most things…no one does EVERYTHING right), the first thing to do is make sure there isn’t a physiological barrier such as autism or a sensory processing disorder getting in the way and preventing your child from being able to receive all that good stuff you’re pouring in.  Or, perhaps there’s been some medical trauma or some other circumstance that has caused a prolonged physical or emotional separation.

The second thing to realize is that babies can be born traumatized. If the birth mother was living in a highly stressful or abusive environment such as a bad relationship, on the streets, or prison, the baby’s developing body and brain were constantly flooded with cortisol.  This has a profoundly negative impact on the child’s development in utero.  Being bathed in stress hormones in the womb results in lagging neuro development and babies being born stressed out and already wired with precious little capacity to tolerate more stress.  If there was substance exposure on top of that (nicotine, alcohol, drugs, etc) there may be some neuro-physical damage on top of that. What and how much damage there really is may take years to manifest itself and may not be fully realized until that child is in school.
It is also quite well documented that attachment starts before birth. Even unborn babies know whether or not they are wanted by their birth mothers. There are also several studies out there that indicate that even such factors as whether or not the birth mother considered abortion or not can profoundly affect a child’s ability to attach to anyone.
Finally, and probably most significant if you are not your child’s first parent, is the HUGE amount of abandonment and loss of intimate connection to their first mother.  This loss happens in ALL adoptions and out of home placements (such as long term respite or foster care.) It doesn’t matter how old the child was at placement.  No matter how perfect the situation might have been, no matter how carefully planned the adoption was, no matter what the circumstances were, attachment was still severed.  My awesomely amazing friend Lindsay wrote about this topic in detail the other day.  I couldn't say it better and have nothing to add to it.  She absolutely nailed it…because she’s living it.  Go read her post if you haven’t already done so.   
Please don’t fall into the trap of thinking your child doesn’t or can’t possibly have attachment problems just because they were adopted at birth and you’ve been a great mom to them.  Or worse, don’t assume they were “too young to remember” or “too young to be impacted by trauma.”  Neither are true.  If your child had a history without you, be it prior to birth, a few weeks after birth, or even a couple of years in another environment, the experiences they had during that time, most of which you likely don’t know the full details of, are still part of their story and forever will be how their story begins.
“It is an ultimate irony that at the time when a human is most vulnerable to the effects of trauma – during infancy and childhood [and especially during the first year of life] – adults generaly presume the most resilience.”
                                                                                      --Bruce Perry, M.D, PhD.

The earlier the damage happens, the more devastating it is likely to be to the child, the more difficult it can be to heal, and the more chance it has to have long term effects.  Once the attachment is broken, it’s broken and the impact it has on the child is huge.  No matter how little a child is the subconscious still records everything that happens and their perceptions of it in perfect detail.  Some kids will be able to bridge the gap and attach to their new caregivers and families.  Some will struggle.  Others will never recover.

…and we’ll save the discussion of how and why that happens for another post. 


- Diana ( who blogs at From Survival to Serenity)

Comments Welcome

Posted by frankee on
very educating and never realized how serious it was. never knew how long it could run in families or didnt even realize i was doing this to my child and how i was unable to break the cycle.
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