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Posted Friday March, 29th 2024

Avoidant Attachment in Children

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For ten years I have been working with a client who is now 21 years old. I’ll call her Deena. For her whole life Deena has been dealing with a genetic heart condition that is amplified when she experiences stress. The condition has led to some serious health issues for her over the years.

Deena is also a capable city kid who is familiar with being independent and vigilant about her safety as a young female. She recently went on a trip with some friends to Las Vegas. While they were hanging out in the casino, Deena realized she needed something back in her hotel room. She told her friends she’d be back and went to the elevators. As the elevator door was closing, a young man slid in through the doors. Deena didn’t think much of it, but as the elevator started moving with just the two of them in there, the man quickly stepped into her personal space, and actually pushed his body into her. He asked in her ear if she wanted to find a room together. She was panicked with fear but still had her wits about her, so when the elevator came to her floor, Deena quickly ran out and dashed down the hall and into the stairwell to the lobby where she found her friends. The man didn’t follow her, and she was unharmed, but certainly shaken up. Her friends noticed that she was flush and out of breath and asked her what happened. Deena downplayed what she had just experienced, simply saying that she saw a creepy guy in the elevator.

When she came to me a few weeks later and we discussed this, Deena told me about the incident. We talked about how she had hid from her friends how scary it had been for her in the elevator. Deena also didn’t tell her parents about the incident, because she felt they would say she wouldn’t be able to go on trips like this with her friends anymore. She knew they would be fearful about additional stress exacerbating her heart condition, even though the cardiologists had long decided that Deena could live a normal life without limiting her activities. And yet, Deena is always worried that her parents will blame her or blame themselves, with the mindset “We shouldn’t have let you go”. This has long been a symptom of their relationship. If Deena stayed out late studying and forgot to text her parents, her mom would say “You had me worried sick.” Her dad would respond with a quiet but angry remark like “Maybe we shouldn’t have let you take the car to the library; we should have driven you there.” This has always caused Deena to feel alone with her fears, and also that when things happened to her, it was somehow her fault.

In these years of therapy, Deena and I have been working on the central theme that her heart condition, numerous surgeries, hospitalizations and time missed from school has shown her how resilient she actually is. Deena has managed so well despite the setbacks and was able to graduate high school with high honors and be accepted to a prestigious university. But the loneliness and self-blame are still issues she struggles with. In our therapy session, we discussed how she had the right to experience things, make decisions, and feel confident that, whatever happened, she had that “safe harbor” relationship, where she could share her experiences and feel supported, not judged. Deena needed to be able to go to somebody who would listen to her and be in the moment with her, with a response like, “I’m sorry this happened to you! That sounds so scary. But you handled it well. What else do you need to feel better?” When a parent responds in this way, the child feels like they’re not alone. When children feel supported, we don’t see the trauma reaction developing into full-fledged PTSD. Because the child knows they’re not alone.

Being a family therapist who focuses on facilitating structured, safe conversations between family members, I have periodically offered that we conduct a dyadic session with her and her parents. But Deena feels apprehensive and ultimately declines. She feels like her parents are just too wrapped up in their own heads and that it would cause more trouble than it's worth. So for now, we are focusing on new relationships that she can develop and deepen as a young adult. Deena longs for closeness and safety in a relationship, whether with a friend or a romantic partner.

So when, in our session, Deena revealed that she actually did tell her college friend Anna about the incident, and did share her feelings of doubt and shame about why she didn’t tell her travel companions the full extent of her fear, I highlighted this as a courageous act – a real step forward in Deena’s willingness to show her true self to another person. I asked Deena to recall what about Anna made her feel inspired to share her vulnerable feelings. Deena responded that she could sense that Anna was open and supportive because Anna herself had told Deena a story in the past about feeling self-doubt and seemed really comfortable and non-judgmental. Anna was a supportive friend! As we sat together in our session, I remember making a conscious effort to celebrate and highlight this achievement with Deena, so that she could mark and remember that she is capable of both identifying a potentially safe person to talk to and to be able to take the risk and open up.

There is an interesting phenomenon in attachment theory called the “earned secure" classification. According to attachment theory and research, a baby’s attachment pattern or classification towards their parent is already set by the age of 18 months. The attachment classification in relation to their parent is deemed by researchers as either secure, insecure or disorganized. This relational classification, once set in early childhood, remains stable and unchanged unless a significant relational life event occurs that changes (for better or worse) the relational capacity and climate of the parent and family environment. However, in adolescence and early adulthood, there is an opportunity, as the person becomes an adult, to enter into a deep, meaningful relationship, like a good friend, romantic partner, a therapist or even a mentor, that will allow the person to change classification as it relates to attachment, and become secure. This attachment classification is called “earned secure”.

The idea is that in adolescence or early adulthood, a person can reconfigure their attachment classification if they develop a deeply impactful new relationship with a life partner, a therapist, or a friend. Going throughout life without the unconditional support of your primary caregivers leads to an insecure attachment style. But, if the adolescent meets someone who can really be with you and support you, who can ask, “Why are you blaming yourself for this? I see your side, and I support you. I’m here for you,” then this type of friendship can lead to earned secure status. When my client’s friend showed nonjudgmental support and made her feel that she was really with her, Deena gained hope.

The takeaway: It didn’t enter my client’s consciousness to tell her parents about her experience. This response was ingrained in her from a long time ago, back to the early stages of their relationship. Out of her group of friends, she only told one person as she sought to find some security. Deena continues to struggle with loneliness, and blames herself for this. She doesn’t want to be criticized for making a mistake, and she pushes down her feelings as a way of coping. But in therapy, we are working on developing Deena’s courage in being able to tell her story and feel supported and strengthened in the context of a trusting relationship, rather than feeling that she’s putting the burden on someone else or feeling ashamed.

At the moment, Deena’s parents aren’t able to be that secure base for her, but she can develop relationships that will help her feel secure. My work usually focuses on the parent-child relationship, but here is an example of when that relationship is limited in its capacity to provide that security. Thankfully, based on her experience with her friend, she’s learning, there’s still hope for her! Attachment can shift from insecure to “earn secure”.

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