During the early developmental years of an infant and young child’s interpersonal life is the need for intersubjectivity. Intersubjectivity involves the infant and parent’s discovery of each other, and the development of the self in relationship with the other. The intersubjectivity experience in a securely attached child is what creates an integrated self. Without a secure attachment relationship with a parent then a person develops a fragmented self, incapable of properly engaging in healthy interpersonal relationships. Primary intersubjectivity involves a here-and-now person-to-person relationship.
Affect (emotional) attunement is shared affect and is one component of intersubjectivity between two persons. Two other components of intersubjectivity are shared attention and shared intentions. Both parent and child are involved in a congruent state of experience. Attunement creates connection between the two individuals by ensuring that each person feels a co-occurring experience of acceptance, value, and enjoyment. In order for a child to develop well, he needs to have a positive impact on the important people in his world.
When a child is neglected, ignored, and not attuned with in some way then he/she feels and concludes that “I am not interesting, not special, and not lovable.” This is the end result of attachment trauma. When this experience recurs over and over again the child develops a deep sense of shame and rage. Over time, when a child does not have sufficient restorative or correcting experiences with the parent, the shame never gets resolved and the child develops neither the ability to experience guilt nor empathy.
When a child has been subject to attachment disruption, neglect, or abuse, then he has not learned how to trust others, how to love, and how to develop an integrated self. He has deep seated shame that permeates his sense of self, which if not corrected, can develop into psychopathology. Children and adults who do not have healthy intersubjectivity with a parent, particularly a mother, as a young child, are incapable of experiencing remorse when they hurt others. Guilt and empathy emerge only within the context of attachment security.
If you are a foster parent, therapist, step-parent, or some other significant person in a child or adult’s life who suffers with attachment trauma, be prepared to understand that your life will be difficult. The person suffering with attachment trauma cannot have a healthy relationship with anyone, particularly someone in a close, intimate context. Be prepared to realize that the suffering person will display the following behaviors:
- Have a strong need to be in control at all times
- Will resist comforting, affection, and experiences of mutual enjoyment
- Will be highly manipulative causing others (and yourself) to doubt your good intentions
- Will use people like objects and will use people for what they can give to them (are very utilitarian in relationships)
- Can be extremely oppositional
- Have no sense of guilt, remorse, or regret for wrongdoing
- Will sabotage all or most events involving enjoyment with others or between others
- Will steal, lie, bully, hurt, and destroy
- Cannot connect to others emotionally and can easily walk away from significant relationships
- Have no insight
- Cannot feel sadness, but rather, feels self-pity and pouts
- Is very manipulative
If you are involved with a person exhibiting the above listed traits, then be warned to educate yourself and arm yourself with knowledge and personal therapy so that you will not personalize or react to this person in ways that will cause you to lose your own sense of self. Make sure you have resolved all of your own childhood attachment issues with your own parents.
When raising a child with attachment trauma, it is important that you run a tight ship and keep the child in close proximity to you at all times, always providing empathy, strength, humor, kindness, and firmness. Be aware that other people will not understand the continual manipulation strategies the child uses and will most likely question your parenting. It is important for you to be strong enough to understand that other people just have no idea about the nature of the work you must constantly accomplish in order to raise a child with attachment trauma, and you must realize that in many ways you stand alone. In fact, others may openly challenge you, believing that you are too hard on the child; this happens because of the masterful manipulators these individuals are.
To help these children (and adults), you must provide the attachment experiences that they did not have in those early developmental years. You do this by holding them accountable, mirroring (reflecting) their words and behaviors consistently, and by not allowing them to manipulate you or others. You must be willing to call them on their manipulations and behaviors and teach them how to interact in a family in a healthy way. This job is tough and requires consistent love. Never yell at them or look at them without empathy. If you are unable to do this momentarily then remove yourself from the situation until you are ready to do so.