Attachment & Relationships

Trust issues…where do they come from?  Yes, it’s certainly possible that family and intimate relationship experiences can cause heart-break and mistrust.  For instance, enduring your parents’ divorce, seeing your mother as unfaithful or your father as a “rolling stone,” and you yourself, being cheated on by a long-time spouse or partner – all of these experiences can cause us to keep up an emotional guard in relationships, doubt the fidelity and genuineness of others, or avoid intimacy altogether.  But what about those of us who do not have such profound and obvious experiences?  Where does the inability to trust come from if we’re never modeled or ‘taught’ to be weary of others?

Attachment Theory provides a possible explanation to these queries.  This theory describes the dynamics of long-term relationships between humans, which is determined as early as infancy.  The most important principle of Attachment Theory is that an infant needs to develop a relationship with at least one primary caregiver for social and emotional development.  Attachment is the affectionate tie between two people and this bond becomes internally representative of how young children will form relationships in adulthood.  In other words, this initial relationship between self and others serves as a “blueprint” for all future relationships.

The attachment bond can be broken in many ways, with the most obvious being physical and sexual abuse; however, physical and emotional neglect can also be detrimental to future relationships.  For instance, a child frequently left crying, wet, or hungry, or who is not comforted when in physical pain, must learn to comfort or sooth himself, and possibly, develop an inability to trust those whom they love the most.  Another example is an infant child who smiles at his or her mother, or reaches for a hug, but does not receive reciprocation may develop a lack of empathy for others and have difficulty forming lasting relationships in their later life.  They may lack genuine affection with others, be inconsiderate or conscious of others’ needs, or be suspicious of a partners’ affection. 

The core of one’s relational problems may be his or her attachment style and history.  Therefore, in some cases, what may seem like a need for couple’s counseling may actually be more of an issue for individual counseling.  The deeply-seated and suppressed needs can be met, emotional damage can be healed, and relationships can become lasting. 


Childhood Stress. Really? Really.

As adults, we have hundreds of sources for stress: in our homes, in our jobs, in society, financially, relationally, physically, mentally, and the list goes on and on.  It’s easy to discuss with friends the “problem of the week” or with colleagues “what’s wrong with the world today.”  Oftentimes, we don’t consider that children have these same sources for stress.  In fact, many of us reminisce about childhood being “easy” and free of responsibilities.  In my clinical experience, however, that has not been the case for many children and adolescents.  Due to disregarded stressors (external and internal), many youth present with psychological issues or conditions, including disruptive and defiant behaviors, ADHD, depression, anxiety, social problems, low self-esteem, substance abuse, learning or academic difficulties, and sexual behavior problems.  External stressors can occur within the family (i.e., separation, changes and/or disorganization, loss, finances), peers (i.e., bullying, loss, assimilation), school (i.e., success and expectations, child/teacher relationship, learning limitations), and community (i.e., social pressures, violence, media).  Internal sources for stress might include hunger, pain, physical sensitivities (to noise, temperature change, crowding, etc.), fatigue, over- and under-stimulation, psychological conditions, and physical disabilities. 

A main difference with adult verses child stress, is that adults have had years of learning coping mechanisms to manage their stress (some positive, some not-so-positive), whereas children are not so fortunate.  Due to cognitive limitations, children generally rely on previously learned behaviors to diminish the stress (i.e., crying, temper tantrums, asking questions, being withdrawn, thumb sucking).  However, this may lead to a negative cycle whereas symptoms remain, become enhanced, and/or transfer to other problems – especially if the child is disciplined for the “inappropriate” behavior.   Here are some signs to look for if your child or adolescent may be experiencing external or internal stressors: crying, sweating palms, tantrums or aggressive outbursts, headaches and stomachaches, toileting accidents, sleep disturbances, sadness, avoidance, excessive shyness, hypervigilance, excessive worry, “freezing up” in social situations, seemingly obsessive interests in objects or routines, excessive clinging, inattentiveness, or hyperactivity. 

So, as a parent, what do you do?  First, it’s important to know what NOT to do…Do not assume that your child can or will cope in the same manner you do.  Then what?  1. Appropriately prepare the child and help them anticipate the stressor (if and when possible).  2. Provide the child with an age-appropriate and friendly environment where they feel supported to play out or express their concerns.  3. Help the child identify various coping strategies, including relaxation techniques, artistic expression, and positive self-talk skills (i.e., “I can do this”).  4.  Help the child recognize, name, accept, and express their feelings appropriately.  Many child and adolescent therapists can offer these tools, this special type of environment, and provide other recommendations for helping children cope with stress.  Also, in some cases, psychological testing may be necessary to fully understand the nature and impact of external and internal stressors.