What Impairs Attachment, and Who Repairs Attachment?

What Impairs Attachment?

A big pet peeve of mine is the label “attachment disorder.” This is a diagnosis given to kids who have typically experienced severe disruption in the natural order of what should have been the effortless, instinctual connection we’re designed to make from the very beginning. They were prepared at the Attachmentlevel of their brains, their hormones and their entire sensing organism to connect, to be skin-to-skin with oxytocin flowing and weaving the powerful bonding foundations for healthy attachment. They expected to connect.


Many children with the most severe cases of “attachment disorder” had this expectation crushed in a way that has left a primal imprint. Can you think of a time when you were totally, ecstatically primed for a connection and it for whatever reason did not happen? Or it happened and then went away without warning or explanation? I’m speaking here of a romantic situation. Remember the disappointment, the deflation of your entire being? Now take that feeling and multiply it by an order of magnitude of a thousand. Ten thousand. As if there was nothing to you but that deflation, that floor pulled out from beneath you. As if the floor pulled out from beneath you was you.


Broken Trust

And can you remember the feeling you’ve had — c’mon, almost all of us have had it — “That’s it, I’m done with <men / women> — they all suck”? Your trust had been broken and you probably gave a cold shoulder to <men / women> for a while. This was usually just momentary — a few days, or weeks, maybe months, sometimes years — until you’d licked your wounds and nursed back your willingness to trust. The thing is, before this happened, you had gathered decades’ worth of experiences that taught you that people in general could be trusted. You had a life’s worth of data to gradually erode the new distrust caused by your recent heartbreak.


A baby who has experienced early separation has no previous data upon which to conclude the world can be trusted. A child whose world is imploded by trauma, family upheaval, and disruption of his sense of secure base, has very little such data. Ever since Freud, psychologists have taught us that the first stage of psychological growth includes the development of trust as a foundation for secure relationships with others.


Babies who experience separation from the only connection they’ve ever known — their first biological and psychological home, their mother — have had their nascent sense of trust violated. The separation may happen because of adoption or surrogacy, but also for much more “routine” reasons, such as medical procedures on the mother; NICU confinement of the baby; or the intrusion of traumatic or disruptive events within the family.


Whatever the cause, the result can be a child who learns early on that the world is not a safe place, not a place to trust people. Trying to love this child can be hard. The love and care we offer can have a hard time getting in. As Primal Wound author Nancy Verrier says of her relationship to adopted daughter, “I discovered that it was easier for us to give her love than it was for her to accept it.” On very deep levels, those who have experienced early disruption of their connections* may unconsciously feel that it’s too dangerous to love and be loved, authentically and deeply; how can they trust that they won’t be hurt or abandoned again?


Connection Disruption, Rather than “Attachment Disorder”

*See what I did there? Rather than saying “those with attachment disorder” I said “those who have experienced early disruption of their connections.” This is a far more fruitful perspective to take, because it recognizes (very accurately) that attachment is a dynamic, reciprocal process. As Daniel Siegel writes, “attachment is a relationship measure, not a feature of the child alone.”


And yet we don’t see parents being diagnosed with attachment disorder when their child is struggling with attachment! This is why I prefer the term “attachment disruption” rather than “attachment disorder.” It captures the fact that a process has disrupted rather than a person is disordered. In fact, the responses to disrupted attachment are usually quite brilliant and extremely adaptive!


When we can expand our perspective and apply an adaptive lens to the behaviors and developmental issues of kids who’ve experienced disruptions in their connection (and thereby in their ability to trust), we can see them as brilliant adaptation strategies that have gotten stuck. They are no longer adaptive. They are no longer useful. They get in the way and cause problems. When a child who has been moved from one mother to another cannot allow himself to accept the love and care his adoptive mother has for him, in bucketsful, it’s painful for both of them.


An adaptive lens interprets children’s behaviors and expressions in light of what they have experienced. Participating in a panel presentation on ADD at an adoption conference years ago, I proposed a new label to use for children who had suffered through maternal separation — which essentially engraves the threat of annihilation in their nervous system — and who years later could not gather their attention and focus on a particular task. The new label I proposed was: Natural Organismic Response to Massive Abandonment or Loss — acronym, NORMAL.


Who Is Responsible for Fixing / Fostering Attachment?

This is why people who do brilliant work with attachment-challenged families — Daniel Hughes, Bryan Post, Heather Forbes — see as the #1 goal to create conditions of security and trustworthiness for the child. And the job belongs to nobody other than to the parents. Extreme situations contain instructive seeds for more average ones, and that is the case here. Thus, the answer to the question posed in my title: In every family, it is the parents’ job to foster attachment. To be a safe, secure place. To be a home base. It is solely the child’s job to be. Period. To be.


This is why I flinch when watching the YouTube video (which won’t play here because of its ads) of an expert whose book I recommend as frequently as my own. I flinch when I hear Gordon Neufeld’s response to the interviewer’s question, “Why are parents so confused?”


Along with too much information (“so many people telling them what to do”), which I agree contributes significantly to parental stress and confusion, Neufeld goes on to say,


Part of the problem is that our children are not pulling the best out of us, they’re not pushing the right buttons.


Here’s the thing: it is our responsibility as parents to make those “right buttons” so irresistible that our kids can’t not push them! When we cultivate within ourselves the calm authority our children need and seek, it organically fosters the “right relationship” Neufeld speaks of.


When children are in right relationship with their parents, when they’re dependent upon them, it brings the most wonderful alpha provider instincts out of the adult. But many of our children are not attaching properly, they’re not attaching deep enough, and then we lose our confidence that we’re their answer.


Despite his wording, I doubt Dr. Neufeld believes secure attachment is the child’s job. His book Hold On To Your Kids (which I recommend almost as often as my own book, especially to parents of tweens and teens) is full of excellent recommendations for parents who want to enrich and strengthen the attachment process with their children.


If you actually posture yourself as if you’re your child’s answer, it pulls out the right place in you.


Oh how true this is! The heart of coaching I do with parents addresses the downward spiraling loss of confidence so many parents experience today. Neufeld also hints at one of the unsung virtues of healthy connection — its positive effect on discipline:


Children need to be in right relationship with their parents for their parents to be able to have the context to parent them and have the power they need to do their job. The secret and the key to it all is in the child’s attachments to the adults responsible.


Indeed — a child enjoying a secure, connected relationship with her parents experiences it a privilege and a joy to behave in harmony with their wishes. In this way, robust attachment is like the power steering of parenting!


So yes, it is your job to create the conditions for healthy relationship with your child. But take heart, for as I point out as often as I can, this is not about perfection but rather about striving. There is tremendous power in striving, even proven by neurodevelopmental research. As Gordon Neufeld so wisely points out,


When you rise to the occasion to become the parent your child needs, it grows us up, and we find that we can find a way there.




Image of mother and baby by Lisa Pflaum, used with permission


About Marcy Axness

I’m the author of “Parenting for Peace: Raising the Next Generation of Peacemakers,” and also the adoption expert on Mothering’s expert panel. I write and speak around the world on prenatal, child and parent development, and I have a private practice coaching parents-in-progress. I raised two humans, earned a doctorate, and lived to report back. On the wings of my new book I’m delighted to be speaking at many wonderful conferences all over the world in the coming months, and I’m happy to be sharing dispatches and inside glimpses with you here on Mothering.com! As a special gift to Mothering readers I’m offering “A Unique 7-Step Parenting Tool.”


6 thoughts on “What Impairs Attachment, and Who Repairs Attachment?”

  1. Wow! Great article. Thanks. I love the idea of focusing on the process rather than seeing a child as damaged.


    Bobbi Sheahan

  2. Dr. Marcy – I concur with your article’s description on how attachment gets impaired– exactly –and that the parents are major healing agents of their children — assuming they have access to attachment & trauma therapy, as well as training on how to therapeutically provide the intense nurture and structure our children need . I am, however, disappointed to hear that you do not believe that children can have attachment so impaired as to have it become disordered (dysfunction/disordered thinking). This view doesn’t appear to take in to consideration what neuroscience is telling us about trauma’s impact on early brain development. It is not only adaptive, but the neurological and chemical changes in the brain brought on by maltreatment, unmitigated pain, or loss can actually manifest themselves in some very, VERY maladaptive ways.

    This article simplifies all of the challenges of parenting a child who has been severely developmentally and emotionally impacted by trauma and “connection disruption” by implying that parents are looking for a label to declare their child disordered and to not have to work at helping the child attach. In my experience over the last 15 years of supporting countless families and helping parents find therapy resources and learn how to parent children with impaired attachment, I know this simply is NOT TRUE.

    If we were talking about autism, I doubt people would take serious an article that purports autism to not be a disorder, but rather a connection disruption. It wouldn’t make sense to imply that parents of children with autism are just after a “label” and not willing to be responsible for “fix their kids”. It actually sounds silly, given what we know (and even what we still don’t know) about the nature of autism.

    Parents who are raising children who have been traumatized – and carry the diagnoses of Reactive Attachment Disorder (or even others such as Developmental Trauma Disorder, Complex Trauma, PTSD, attachment impairment), are not creating a disorder in their child. They are raising, and attempting to foster attachment with, a child whose disorder impairs the ability for this attachment to occur. The diagnosis is made by professionals, not parents. (And the diagnosis of RAD does exist in the DSM and has for years — again, put there by professionals not parents.)

    I have never met a parent who was searching for a label to then let them “off the hook” for properly parenting their child. Instead, an accurate diagnosis of any childhood disorder generally then opens the door to resources, education and support, along with recognition of what the child/family needs through many systems, such as insurance companies and school systems.

    One other thing you did get right — that there is tremendous power in striving. The parents of children with Reactive Attachment Disorder and related issues who I know are some of the strongest, grown-up parents I’ve ever met – going to the ends of the earth to help find ways to heal their children and give them the best chances for success possible.

  3. Spot on Julie Beem. I concur with YOU!!

    I am a parent of a child whose attachment disruption had turned into a disorder so much so that he is now headed to a RTC that works with families. No matter how much we made the environment family friendly for him and used all the methods of all the gurus, he was so out of sorts that he has been tearing our family apart. Our home is no longer safe and he has to get 24 hour treatment for a while. There are many kids whose circumstances have caused so much harm that it has actually become a disorder and they need treatment that can’t always be handled at home!

  4. Well said Julie Beem!

    The two issues that this article does not seem to take into full consideration are…

    1) WE are always NOT what the child is seeking. As in the case of adoption, we are not the biological parent (and that missing, disrupted developmental bond). No amount of great parenting is going to magically make us into THAT person/missing conection.

    2) Often our kids trauma is compounded by real, nuerological damage (exposure to drugs in utero, abuse, neglect) and so a real deficit is present. That impairs the child’s ability to find a new attachment with a new parent… to adapt.

    So to some exptent parents need to make real efforts to attach to a child who has experienced developmental trauma, but the child must also be willing and capable ot accepting those efforts.

    Often they are not.

  5. Thank you, Julie, for making such an informed and reasonable response. I was so outraged by this article, I needed to think my response over for awhile.
    Ms. Axness clearly has never lived with a child who has a RAD diagnosis. Had she woken in the middle of the night to a child holding a knife over her body, had her milk spiked with Drano, had urine splashed in her refrigerator, been falsely accused of child abuse, or one of the many other nightmares that we as RAD parents face, she may have a very different opinion of how hard we work to facilitate attachment with our kids. Often times we as parents are forced into the sad realization that no matter how hard we try, or children may not ever become attached to us. To blame or indicate laziness on the part of the parent demonstrates a distinct lack of understanding concerning attachment. Life might be ponies and rainbows at Ms. Axness’ home, but for those of us who live and deal with traumatized children, life is a long, difficult road, sometimes without a “happily ever after.”

  6. Ohh the pain expressed on this page in response to an article that in no way points blame. Axness speaks of taking responsibility, nowhere does she cast blame, and yet it is so very easy to feel blamed when our children seem and feel incapable of love. When our best efforts are spit back into our faces with vile words and actions, our property destroyed, our hearts hammered into the dirt…and then pounced on and danced upon like a celebratory touchdown dance, who could not feel blamed? But, it is not your fault. It is not your fault that your child struggles to trust, is mired in fear, knows only behavior for the expression of his feelings and inner most pain. It’s not your fault but you do take it personally. It’s hard not to isn’t it? Sometimes impossible. And then you hear the professional talk about responsibility. And then you hear another professional talk about how the other professional doesn’t know what she is talking about! Talk about confusion…and where does confusion oftentimes lead an already scared and stressed out heart? Into more confusion.
    Taking responsibility always, in every instance, only means one thing: You are responsible for how you think, feel and behave. No one else can control that. The moment you allow another whether adult or child, to dictate to you your own feelings and behaviors then you are no longer taking responsibility, you are being reactive. When we are being reactive then we are being held hostage, victimized by the other. There is no freedom in being victimized, only fear, stress, and pain.
    Arguments about labels and diagnosis go nowhere. It’s all pain and the sooner we transcend labels and focusing on such the sooner we will get down to really facing the pain and fear that gives root to them. Otherwise we’ll only continue to add another diagnosis or another medication and where does that get us? Nowhere…just more confused.
    Can someone who’s never been an alcoholic counsel an alcoholic? Before we can answer we must understand what counsel means…to give counsel or advice…it does not indicate to be the all knowing authority. Axness is offering advice based on personal and professional experience but it is only advice and it is not blaming. Her words are wise counsel. Listen as openly as you can, take what feels good and let the rest go. Try to feel good today…right now…in the midst of it all…even as the child circles the house with a can of gasoline threatening to burn it down…there you will find some peace. When you find peace then you can try to find understanding. When you find understanding then you can find love. And in that space if you do not feel safe, if you can no longer go another day, if you don’t want to be a parent to your child anymore, that won’t make you bad and it need not make the child bad either, it is just what is. No blame.

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