By Rita Brhel, managing editor and attachment parenting resource leader (API)
Especially if you’re new to Attachment Parenting, you may be wondering what does parenting have to do with your adult relationships. Quite a lot, if you understand the impact of healthy and unhealthy parent-child attachments on the child. In fact, you could say it has to do with everything about our adult relationships.
The attachment bond you had with your primary caregiver – most likely your mother – is your model for how a relationship should work for the rest of your life. For some of us, that attachment bond was loving and nurturing and we find our adult relationships relatively easy. For many of us, we may have some difficulties in our adult relationships, mainly in trust issues, indicating that there were inconsistencies in the response by our primary caregiver when we were younger. And for some of us, our childhood homes were downright neglectful and abusive and our natural tendency in our adult relationships is not to have a relationship at all.
Because humans are social beings, having close relationships is an essence of life. Without working relationships, we are at risk for depression and anxiety, substance abuse, eating disorders, and other unhealthy and risky behaviors that we use to fill a void in our lives left by the needs left unmet in our first loving relationship – that with our parents. The success of this first attachment bond in our lives is what shapes the way our brain works, influencing the way we cope to stress, how we see ourselves, our expectations of others, and our ability to maintain healthy relationships all through our lives.
What the Parent-Child Attachment Predicts for Adult Relationships
Children who experience confusing, frightening, or broken emotional communications, verbal and nonverbal, grow into adults who have difficulty understanding their own emotions and the emotions of others, according to the HelpGuide.org article, “Attachment and Adult Relationships.” The health of the parent-child attachment determines our ability to:
- Maintain emotional balance
- Enjoy being ourselves
- Enjoy being with others
- Rebound from disappointment, discouragement, and other life stress.
Very simply, our first attachment is what determines our success in all relationships – romantic, family, work, friendship, and so on – for the rest of our lives. That’s a huge revelation for many people who wonder why they or their partners have a pattern of difficulty in their relationships that never seems to get resolved. While abusive parenting obviously causes unhealthy, or insecure, attachment bonds, they also develop from parenting approaches that consistently promote isolation and loneliness.
Editor’s Note: It’s important to note that no parent-child relationship is perfect, but the key is a consistency of nurturing, compassionate, attachment-promoting interactions.
The article goes on to explain what emotional tools are needed by both people in an adult relationship, all of which need to be modeled by a person’s first primary attachment figure – his parent:
- Ability to manage stress
- Ability to stay “tuned in” with emotions
- Nonverbal communication, such as body language and facial expressions
- Playfulness in a mutually engaging manner
- Ability to be readily forgiving without holding grudges.
An insecure attachment produces an adult who has severe issues with starting and maintaining healthy relationships, indicated by:
- Tuning out and turning off – Children of parents who are unavailable and self absorbed become withdrawn into themselves and avoiding any close relationships with others. As adults, these children may be physically and emotionally distant, critical, rigid, and intolerant.
- Insecurity – Children of parents who are inconsistent or intrusive become anxious and fearful, never knowing what to expect. This inconsistency shows up in adulthood – available one moment, rejecting the next. Other traits in adults include anxiety, controlling behavior, blaming, and unpredictable.
- Disorganized, aggressive, and angry – Children whose early needs for emotional closeness went unmet, or whose childhood was traumatizing, become adults who don’t love easily and may be insensitive to the needs of others, explosive and abusive, and untrusting even while craving security.
- Slow development – Children in insecure parent-child attachment relationships can develop social and learning disabilities and physical and mental health problems that follow them throughout adulthood.
Editor’s Note: It’s important to know that most parents do not deliberately harm their children through neglect and abuse. Most parents want the best for their children and do the best for them with what resources they had at the time.
Our parents probably experienced insecure attachments with their own parents. They may have suffered from depression and poor abilities to cope with stress. They may have been addicted to drugs or alcohol, or were abusive because they didn’t know how else to deal with their own strong emotions. They may have been unavailable due to the need to work, divorce, or death. Perhaps your parents were simply inexperienced in childrearing or following the cultural parenting approaches of that time period. Or, it may not even be our parents – perhaps you grew up in the foster care system or were in a daycare situation with several changes in your caregiver.
It’s important that as we identify that our needs were not met by our own parents, or caregivers, that we come to a point of forgiveness so that we are able to move forward in our relationships, which includes that with our children.
The Effects of Insecure Attachment Don’t Have to be Forever
The bad news is, we may be suffering from the effects of our own insecure attachment with our parents. The good news is, we don’t have to. There is an end in sight if we’re willing to do the intense and often painful work it takes to sort through our emotions, mourn, accept and forgive our parents, and rebuild our adult relationships with new skills replacing our natural tendencies.
The goal is to change not only the way we see relationships, others, and ourselves but also to shift the way we react to stress in our lives and in our relationships. HelpGuide.org names four areas of improvement for adults who seek to lessen the effects from their insecure attachments and wish to learn how to become emotionally attuned to their and others’ emotions, which is the basis of all relationships:
- Learn how your and others’ nonverbal cues affect how you see others and how others see you – observe, take notes and remember, practice, and learn from your and others’ mistakes.
- Learn how mutually satisfying playfulness can smooth over the rough spots in adult relationships – do the same as for nonverbal cues.
- Learn how to approach conflicts without fear or the feeling that you need to punish, so that conflict builds trust rather than tears the relationship apart – read Nonviolent Communication by Marshall Rosenberg for more information.
- Learn how to deal with stress — recognize that your “knee-jerk” reactions, expectations, attitudes, assumptions, and memories are the result of your insecure attachment with your parent and that they do influence your adult relationships. And then begin to reconstruct the healthy relationship skills that produce an emotionally attuned adult-adult attachment.