Attachment Theory and Child Abuse
Alan Challoner MA (Phil) MChS
ABSTRACT Child abuse is seen to follow a general pattern and it is the intrusion of fear into what might otherwise be good enough care-giving that is necessary for the development of a disorganised or disoriented attachment. Research has shown that in the case of the rejected infant only one signal is required to throw the child into conflict. Withdrawal tendencies occur as a result of main carer‟s threat. This paper seeks to find some reasons for the perpetuation of abuse through the generations, and draws attention to the potential remedies. ______________ In recent years research has shown that the revealed characteristics of abusing parents and abused children fit the pattern of attachment disorders. Fontana has drawn attention to a „maltreatment syndrome‟, in which child abuse is seen to follow a general pattern. 1 DeLozier describes this pattern of dependent, fearful, anxious, hostile, and depressed behaviour consistently found in abusing families, as well as parent-child rôle reversal and the generational pattern of abuse, as reflecting dysfunctional attachment and care-taking behavioural systems in these families. 2 She describes the literature as reflecting varying degrees of anxious attachment and detachment resulting from actual or persistently threatened disruption of attachments. The intense separation anxiety, dysfunctional anger, distrust of others and the environment, and restraints on the development of self-reliant behaviour that are known to accompany attachment disorders are reflected in the consistent description of abusing parents and children as dependent, depressed, angry, anxious, isolated, hyper-alert, and distrustful. Main and Hesse 3 have suggested that it is the intrusion of fear into what might otherwise be good enough care-giving that is necessary for the development of a disorganised or disoriented attachment. Fear is obviously a common experience for physically and emotionally abused children. They suggest it is also probable that there are frightening aspects of emotional and physical neglect. As Main and Hesse
Fontana, V. J. The maltreated child: The maltreatment syndrome in children. Springfield, Ill.: Charles C. Thomas. 1971 Delozier. P. An application of attachment theory to the study of child abuse. [Ph.D. dissertation], California School of Professional Psychology; 1979 Main, M.; & Hesse, E. Parents‟ Unresolved Traumatic Experiences are Related to Infant Disorganized Attachment Status: Is Frightened and/or Frightening Parental Behaviour the Linking Mechanism? In Greenberg, M.T.; Cicchetti, D.; & Cummings, M. [Eds.] Attachment in the Preschool Years: Theory, Research & Intervention. Univ. Chicago Press, 1990.
have described, the concurrent activation of the fear or wariness and attachment behavioural systems produce strong conflicting motivations when approaching the care-givers for comfort and they may feel the need to retreat from them to safety. Proximity seeking mixed with avoidance causes frustration and stress and if the approach tendencies equal the avoidance tendencies they will inhibit one another. Ainsworth has indicated that in the case of the rejected infant only one signal is required to throw the child into conflict. Withdrawal tendencies occur as a result of mother‟s threat signals and these lead directly to approach tendencies. The connection between these opposing tendencies is internal to the attached infant and has no reference to the circumstances. As the approach is forbidden, the attachment behaviour system is still further activated but approach remains forbidden. Thus there is conflict as vacillation between approach, avoidance and angry behaviour occurs. The only solution is a shift of attention toward another figure. 4 (Ainsworth, Idem, 1982) A psychoanalytic view has been expressed by Fine when he writes:
For optimal child-rearing, what seems to count more than anything else is the maturity and emotional health of the parent, and these depend on the inner structure of the family. 5
Petrovich and Gewirtz propose that exposure to biologically inappropriate stimuli during social development may functionally isolate such an individual from a reproductive population. Infanticide and serious infant abuse are likely to be observed under stressful conditions of intensified reproductive pressure, environmental ecological depletion, and/or where the mother‟s mate is not the infant‟s biological father. In some species, the striking features of distorted imprinting and attachment processes provide a provocative demonstration of sexuality channelled in the direction of the biologically inappropriate object. Forced separation from objects of attachment has deleterious effects on avian and mammalian infant behaviour. If separation is prolonged or leads to privation and deprivation, the consequences may be even more severe. In monkeys and chimpanzees, isolation studies have shown that appropriate early social experiences are essential for the normal development of sexual activity. In turn, prolonged separation and deprivation may progressively lead to depression and related withdrawal from social interactions. Human data on the development of sexuality and gender identity, suggest also that sexual phenotypes, as genetically programmed at the moment of conception, may be radically modified and altered by “environmental” stimuli, such as chemical by-products of other genes, hormones, or exposure during development to biologically and psychologically inappropriate stimuli. ( Fine, 1991) Cicchetti & Barnett 6 and Schneider-Rosen et al., 7 have shown from their research that children at any age up to four years, who have been ill-treated by parents, are significantly more likely to show insecure patterns of attachment. Even those
Ainsworth, Mary D Salter. Attachment: Retrospect and Prospect. In Parkes, Colin Murray; & Stevenson-Hinde, Joan. [Eds.] The Place of Attachment in Human Behaviour. Basic Books, New York USA. 1982. Fine, R. A History of Psychoanalysis. New York, USA, Columbia Univ. Press; 1979. Cicchetti, D.; & Barnett, D. Attachment organization in maltreated pre-schoolers. Special Issue: Attachment and developmental psychopathology. Develop. & Psychopath. 3(4); [pp., 397-411]; 1991. Schneider-Rosen, K.; Braunwald, K.G.; Carlson, V.; & Cicchetti, D. Current perspectives in attachment theory: Illustration from the study of maltreated infants. Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development; 50(1-2); [pp., 194-210]; 1985.
children who might be securely attached in their early months are likely to lose that at later assessments if they are ill-treated. A similar line of enquiry was pursued by Youngblade and Belsky, when they examined the link between the aetiology of child ill-treatment and later development together with the attachment outcome. 8 As others have done, they also found a strong association between ill-treatment of the child and attachment insecurity. Another factor uncovered was the aberrant inter-peer relationship of those who had been ill-treated. They emphasised the link between abuse in childhood and later transgenerational abuse of their own children. The investigation highlighted the urgency of intervention measures at a family level. Several authors have reported comparable findings and Browne and Saqi extended their conclusions to incorporate a suggestion that abused children were more likely to show increased stranger anxiety and reduced exploratory behaviour. 9 Extending this work into separate domains, Aber & Allen 10, used three cohorts of children aged from four to eight years. These were divided as to: ill-treated children (93), demographically matched non-ill-treated children from families receiving welfare benefits (67), non-ill-treated children from middle-class families (30). relationships with novel adults, effectance motivation, and cognitive maturity.
The three domains were:
Assessments were made on ten dependent variables, and factorially analysed. Two meaningful factors emerged: on a factor measuring secure readiness to learn in the company of novel adults; ill-treated children scored lower than welfare children, who in turn scored less than middle-class children; on a factor measuring outer-directedness; ill-treated children and welfare children scored higher than middle-class children, but did not differ significantly from each other.
From this it was suggested that maltreatment, occurring during early childhood, disrupts the dynamic balance between the motivation to establish safe, secure relationships with adults and the motivation to venture out to explore the world in a competent fashion. Theoretically the development of such attachment pathology (anxious attachment and detachment) in a child‟s attachment system could later become incorporated
Youngblade, L.M.; & Belsky, J. Child maltreatment, infant-parent attachment security, and dysfunctional peer relationships in toddlerhood. Topics in Early Childhood Special Education; 9(2); [pp., 1-15]; 1989. 9 Browne, K.; & Saqi, S. Mother-infant interaction and attachment in physically abusing families. Special Issue: Early child maltreatment. Jnl. Reprod. & Inf. Psychol.; 6(3); [pp., 163182]; 1988. 10 Aber, J L.; & Allen, J.P. Effects of maltreatment on young children‟s socio-emotional development: An attachment theory perspective. Devlop. Psychol.; 23(3); 1987.
into the adult attachment and care-taker systems and would thus affect both the development of parental behaviour and the development of attachment in the next generation. Thus the transmission of abusive parent-child interaction could be seen as resulting, to a great extent, from patterns of attachment dysfunction that are perpetuated within the family. DeLozier (1979) reports the results of a research project in which a group of abusing mothers were compared to a comparable group of non-abusing mothers. There was a clear pattern of severe attachment disorders in the group of eighteen abusing mothers as compared with another group of eighteen typical mothers. The difficulties appeared to originate from threatened disruption of attachments, as well as severe discipline in early childhood; to have been influential in the childbirth experience of the mothers; and to be manifested at the time of the project, both in their general expectations of significant others and in their pattern of response, to projected separation from attachment figures. In her summary DeLozier interpreted the analysis of the data collected in her study as indicating that in childhood the abusing mothers experienced severe threats of abandonment and harm. The children‟s self-expectations and possibly parental expectations were that they should care for their parents and this added to a general uncertainty as to the availability of significant others. Their histories contain some indicators of childhood disruptive events such as family problems causing a parent to leave home, though not permanently. During childhood the abusing mothers appear to have had to watch constantly for indications of impending separation and other threats to care-taking. In adulthood there is evidence that they viewed significant others as being generally inaccessible. They appeared not to have developed adequate internal representations of attachment figures and other significant individuals as reliable and accessible. Furthermore, the abusing mothers indicated that, at the time of the birth of the later-abused child, they were generally fearful, felt alone and unsafe, and were dissatisfied with the availability of significant others. Thus it appears likely that the abusing mothers were handicapped by their own attachment difficulties in their initial steps toward maternal care-taking. She believed that all of the results were consistent with the present manifestations of attachment difficulties as assessed by the Separation Anxiety Test. On this test the abusing mothers indicated a high current level of attachment disorder, primarily anxious attachment, but with some tendency toward detachment as well. Thus the abusing mothers in the study demonstrated their overall sensitivity to separation, especially mild separation, and their feelings of helplessness anxiety, and anger in response to significant separation experiences. DeLozier suggest that these findings support the prediction that the abusing mothers in the study have experienced difficulty in their childhood attachments and in the development of internal representations of significant others as accessible and reliable, resulting in consequent adult attachment difficulties as well as in possible difficulties in the development of appropriate care-taking behaviour. There are implications that DeLozier perceives from her research and she summarises them as follows:
The pattern of attachment dysfunction found in the abusing mothers in this research suggests the attachment-related origin of at least some of the inappropriate parenting directed toward their children. The dysfunctional development of anger and anxiety are two components of anxious attachment, especially if the expression of anger has been prohibited by the child‟s fear of precipitating loss of care-taking. Once anxious attachment has developed, separation
signals can trigger expression of intense anxiety and anger. It seems possible that abusing mothers, who exhibit a high degree of sensitivity to separation from significant others, interpret the normal behaviour of their children as if it were actual or threatened rejection. If so, these mothers would be likely to respond to such a misapprehension with dysfunctional levels of anxiety and anger and with feelings of rejection, self-blame, and helplessness. Not only could the child‟s normal exploratory behaviour elicit such a response, but even such behaviour as normal crying could function as a danger signal to the anxiously attached mother. Thus the attachment-related response of the mother may result in the inappropriate direction of anxiety and anger toward the child who, owing to the expectations that the mother maintains regarding attachment figures that they will be inaccessible and unreliable. Furthermore, the development of competence in a child depends not only on the parent‟s appropriate response to his attachment behaviour, but also on encouragement of the child‟s increasing self-reliance. If the parent, however, responds to normal parent-child separation with intense levels of anxiety or anger, increased attachment need, decreased self-reliance, and feelings of rejection, the parent will be more than likely to discourage the child‟s exploratory and self-reliant behaviour, especially in inverted parent-child relationships, thereby even further hampering the child‟s development. (Idem, 1982)
In a later study, Crittenden assessed what the differences were between ill-treated and adequately reared infants, whether they existed at birth, and if the differences could be positively changed. She devised two experiments: EXPERIMENT 1 Thirty-eight low socio-economic scale infants, aged from one to 19 months, were assessed in terms of: congenital abnormalities, mother-child interactions, developmental delay. abusing (8), neglecting (10), problematic (10), adequate (10).
The thirty-eight mothers of these infants, aged 15 to 49 years, were classified as:
EXPERIMENT 2 Seventy-three low socio-economic scale infants, aged from two to 24 months, were similarly assessed, but in addition their pattern of attachment to their mother was also assessed, as was a change in their pattern of interaction when the sensitivity of a second adult was experimentally manipulated. Their mothers, aged 13 to 35 years, were classified as: abusing (17), neglecting (21), problematic (22), adequate (13) the mother initiates the maltreatment but both mother and infant behave thereafter to maintain the situation; the ill-treated subjects did not differ from adequately reared subjects in congenital characteristics;
The results gave evidence that:
however the ill-treated subjects displayed some differences in characteristics that could have been affected by environmental conditions; the abused subjects were difficult, mildly delayed, and angry when stressed; the neglected subjects tended to be passive, significantly delayed, and somewhat helpless when stressed.
When intervention procedures were introduced with the mothers, ill-treated subjects showed developmental gains and began to behave more co-operatively in their interactions. 11 It is important to understand how abused children react when they are placed into the care of alternative adults following abuse at home. Howes & Segal investigated this situation with 16 children who had been removed from their homes owing to abuse and, or, neglect. It was found that the children were just as likely to form insecure and particularly insecure-avoidant, attachment relations with the alternative care-givers as might be expected had they remained at home. The subjects did vary in their attachment behaviour depending upon the particular care-giver, and the attachment classifications were inconcordant. This approximated to a division between the more sensitive and less-detached caregivers on morning sessions, than with the lesser motivated afternoon care-givers. The highest secure scores on attachment was directly related to the longest placement with the more sensitive care-givers. 12 In conclusion, an attachment theory view of child abuse calls for the early detection of attachment disorders in both parent and child, assessment of the extent of attachment dysfunction in high-risk families, and intervention with abusive families to reduce separation anxiety and support the more adequate development of attachment bonds. In this regard, for example, the common practice of removal of the child from the home warrants careful inspection. Although sometimes mandatory for the child‟s protection, such an intervention further strains the poorly developed attachment relationships within the family and further adversely affects the development of attachment and self-reliance in the child. Moreover, if the child is to be returned home eventually, separation in and of itself will serve to activate attachment behaviours upon reunion that further stress parent-child relations, possibly eliciting further abuse. Crittenden‟s work that suggests that some ill-treated infants actively contribute to their own misery needs careful consideration and checking. If this outcome is comprehensively established then it has relevance in adult situations. In particular it might be asked whether spouse abuse is a continuation of this effect , albeit in another attachment relationship. From the attachment theory perspective, therefore, efforts should be made to: direct child-abuse treatment to the family unit where possible, with the child either remaining in the home under close supervision or with frequent, prolonged contact between parent and child during separation;
Crittenden, P.M. Maltreated infants: Vulnerability and resilience. Jnl. Child Psychol. & Psychiat. & Allied Discp.; 26(1); [pp., 85-96]; 1985. 12 Howes, C.; & Segal, J. Children‟s relationships with alternative care-givers: The special case of maltreated children removed from their homes. Jnl. Appl. Develop. Psychol.; 14(1); [pp., 71-81]; 1993.
provide interventions in abusive and potentially abusive families that support the development of attachment bonds in children and remedy attachment dysfunctions in both children and adults; and direct attention toward the provision of support to all parents in their rôle as caregivers, thus enabling them to provide more reliable and accessible care-giving to their children.
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