When attachment is harder to establish

When attachment is harder to establish
Even though attachment is a natural process, some situations make it more complicated to develop, such as when an infant is sick or when parents cannot take care of their baby.

Even though attachment is a natural process, some situations make it more complicated to develop, such as when an infant is sick or when parents cannot take care of their baby.

4-month-old Magalie was born with birth defects that have already required 3 medical procedures. Her parents, Nathalie and Alexendre, and her older brother, 2-year-old Marc-Antoine, haven’t been able to bring her home yet. And they don’t yet know when that special day will come.

Every day, Magalie’s parents take turns going to see her. She recognizes them even though they wear masks. When they arrive, her eyes brighten. Just about everything happens with a look. “I get the feeling she can see right through me,” says Alexendre. “She also senses our emotions. If my eyes get all teary, I see sadness in hers.”

When the hospital staff prepare Magalie for a shot or any other medical intervention, the monitors show her little heart beating faster. She knows what’s coming. “She squeezes our finger tightly and keeps her eyes on us. It’s what makes us believe she knows we’re not medical staff and that we’re important to her,” says Nathalie.

The couple knows that this situation complicates attachment development. “Some days, her health allows us to take her in our arms. She’s intubated and she’s in pain,” says her mom. “How can we play our role of protective parents in these conditions?”

Other obstacles

There are also situations where parents just can’t be there to adequately meet their baby’s needs, such as depression or another illness in a parent, grief, substance addiction, poverty, social isolation, conjugal violence or marital conflict. “When a parent isn’t well, it’s very hard for them to properly take care of their child and to do what it takes for their baby to feel safe,” says social worker and psychotherapist Johanne Lemieux.

Sometimes parents have issues from their own childhoods. “If the parents were raised in a family where their needs were ignored, they risk having a hard time understanding their own baby’s cues and meeting his needs,” explains George Tarabulsy, professor at Université Laval’s School of Psychology. They may therefore neglect or mistreat their baby.

“Babies will attach to their parents or their primary caregiver, regardless of the quality of care provided,” says Karine Dubois-Comtois, professor with the Department of Psychology at Université du Québec à Trois-Rivières and psychologist in child psychiatry at Montreal’s Sacré-Coeur hospital. “However, when a child isn’t sure whether he can count on his parents or not, he lives with insecurity and anxiety and develops what is known as insecure attachment.”

You can share your concerns with those close to you or someone in the field.

Attachment can be seen in various forms. Some children always stick to their parent and are afraid to move too far from them to go and explore their environments. They cry a lot and are difficult to calm. These children often have a parent who is unpredictable. Because they never know what to expect, they stay close in the hope of getting some attention.

Other children, on the contrary, express little distress and rarely turn to their parents when they run into trouble. This happens when the parent is seldom emotionally available for the child and tends to ignore his requests. The child will prefer to ask nothing rather than risk rejection. “Toddlers who don’t have a solid attachment bond have a hard time controlling their emotions,” says Karine Dubois-Comtois. “They react more strongly to changes and are likely to demonstrate more aggressive behaviour. They also have lower self-esteem. All this can make relationships with others harder later on in life.”

Can things change?

Fortunately, when the context improves, a more solid attachment can develop between parent and child. This could happen, for instance, when a mother recovers from depression and is better able to care for her baby. The younger the child, the easier it is for him to redevelop trust in the adult.

On the other hand, the older the child, the harder the bond is to repair. This is why parents who are having a hard time caring for their child should quickly ask for help from someone close, a doctor or the CLSC. There are various help programs available. Some regions even offer training to teach parents how to better understand their infant and meet his needs.

Some problems are serious
Some children who have a really bad start in life are unable to develop an attachment bond with any significant person. This sometimes happens to children who are abandoned at birth, seriously neglected, mistreated or even repeatedly placed in foster care. Since they receive neither the attention nor the care they need, they’re more at risk for delayed development or behavioural disorders. “These children present a huge challenge for the people who care for them,” says social worker and psychotherapist Johanne Lemieux. “You need a lot of energy and patience, and you must often rely on child psychiatry services to improve the situation.” This lack of attachment may be very difficult to repair. This is what we refer to as “attachment disorder,” which is a diagnosis made by a psychiatrist. “This disorder can be compared to post traumatic stress disorder, as emotional relationships become a veritable minefield for the child,” says Johanne Lemieux. “The child is pretty much incapable of attaching himself to or trusting anyone, even the most loving of foster parents.”

Naître et grandir

Source : Magazine Naître et grandir, March 2016
Research and copywriting : Nathalie Vallerand
Scientific review : Ellen Sheiner-Moss, professor with the Department of Psychology at UQAM and Director of the Centre for Study of Attachment and the Family

Photos : Alexendre Boislard, personal collection (top) and iStock.com/Milos Stankovic (bottom)