Sunday, 08 September 2019 11:16

Hanging on for Dear Love

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She loves me, she loves me not. He loves me, he loves me not. What’s it like to not know, not be certain of love, when it’s your parent? There’s the profound joy when you’re received and held, and then the plunge – ignored, sent away, yelled at. You just never know which one it will be. David Wallin describes it as “parents relatively responsive in one encounter, intrusive or unavailable in the next.” For a little one there are no clues how to respond to this. Whatever he or she tries could meet with any of these responses. There is no pattern.

Sue Gerhardt points out that “Good relationships depend on finding a reasonable balance between being able to track your own feelings at the same time as you track other people’s.” Not everyone can do this. Lots of people find it hard to say how they’re feeling, let alone reflect on it and relate that information to what is going on for a baby or a small child.

So the parent of a child with an ambivalent attachment style may have their own feelings blocked, maybe because of the parenting they received. They may be very preoccupied with their own feelings. There are a number of reasons these things may happen - in a home where there is a lot of violence, for example, where fear is always present. People cope with situations in different ways, of course – we cannot predict what such a situation might mean for the parent or the child.

Unpredictable parenting often means that the child must pay close attention, trying to discern how to approach or manage each encounter. The child may take behavioural risks in order to elicit some attention – anger is better than nothing, than the acute loneliness of waiting to be attended to in some way. These children often become very clingy, a desperate clinginess that can survive into adulthood and interrupt the possibility of building a strong relationship with friends or a partner.

But as Bruce Perry and Maia Szalavitz point out: “Many children react to neglectful or abusive situations with greater desire for and interest in empathy” and that “early attachment problems can also be mitigated by strong, later-life relationships.” Such relationships can be romantic and committed, reliable close friendships, or a good therapeutic relationship. There are fields of daisies out there.

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