It has been extensively studied just how harmful parental emotional neglect can be. As American psychologist Harry Harlow’s experiments in the 1950s demonstrated, a strong emotional bond with one’s parents—or what psychologists call “secure attachment”—is crucial to good health and flourishing later in life. Harlow tested whether young rhesus monkeys would choose a surrogate mother made of soft terry cloth but who provided no food, or one made of wire but who delivered food from an attached baby bottle. He found that the baby monkeys spent significantly more time with their cloth mother than with their wire mother. The baby monkeys would turn to their cloth mother for comfort and security and would use the cloth mother as a secure base to explore the room.
British psychiatrist and psychoanalyst John Bowlby, the founding father of attachment theory, described attachment as an emotional bond that impacts behavior “from the cradle to the grave.” How you bond with caregivers during early childhood affects how you behave in relationships and friendships, how in touch you are with your emotions and how much you will allow yourself to love others on a conscious level. Bowlby argued that the early attachment processes lead to a particular mental model of relationships that continues to shape the child’s interactions with other people as the child matures. The mental model is an implicit belief system about child-caregiver interactions that to some extent predicts how the child will interact with future caregivers, romantic partners, friends, teachers and colleagues.
Psychologist Mary Ainsworth, who worked with Bowlby, carried out the first study of attachment in infancy in Uganda from 1953 to 1955. The study observed twenty-eight unweaned babies from twenty-three families in six local villages. It was customary to uproot babies from their mother when they were weaned and leave them with the grandmother. This custom allowed for a convenient way for the researchers to gauge how the youngsters would behave when separated from their birth mother.
Ainsworth found that babies of mothers who were attuned to their youngsters’ needs developed a secure attachment style, whereas babies of mothers who were imperceptive, aloof or erratic developed an insecure attachment style. Five of the twenty-eight infants apparently had failed to develop an attachment to their mother, and this correlated with a largely unapproachable or unpredictable parenting style. Seven babies were attached in an insecure way and experienced great difficulties being separated from their mother, probably as a result of the mother’s inconsistency and own insecurities.
Since the highpoint of Bowlby’s career, plenty of real-life situations appear to confirm the theory that infants need secure bonding to thrive.
In the 1980s and 1990s a ban on abortion in Romania led to a sharp increase in orphanage infants. These infants were fed and kept clean but were not forming a healthy emotional bond with a caregiver. As a result, they developed autistic-like behaviors, repetitively rocking or banging their heads. They were also affected physically. Their head circumference was significantly smaller than average, and they had problem attending and comprehending language.
Children who have spent their early childhoods in institutional settings in which they received care but not love develop weakened immune systems, physical abilities, learning abilities and problems with social interaction. They often failed to gain in weight and height, had trouble sleeping and developed depression and even the withdrawal signs of autism.
Perhaps the most recent extreme case of lack of emotional stimuli in early childhood is that of Danielle, a horrific case of child neglect. When Danielle’s situation was finally getting the attention of the police and child protective services, Danielle was seven, but she was still in rarely changed diapers, locked in a small room, never attended to, never talked to, never experienced any signs of affection. She was undernourished, unable to speak and had suffered severe brain damage as a consequence of the physical and emotional neglect. Now a teenager, she still is unable to speak and, mentally, she is not much older than a very young child.
Danielle’s case is extreme. And rare, thankfully. But insecure attachment is not. Recent reports reveal that a shocking high number of children are not securely attached to their parents. Forty percent of U.S. children lack strong emotional bonds with their parents and hence are likely to have an insecure attachment style, according to a report published by Sutton Trust. The reason for this may turn on the lack of parental autonomy which, as we have seen, is likely consequence of parenting and which can affect parents’ interest and ability to bond with their children.
When adequate attachment between child and caregiver is lacking, the child grows up with an impaired ability to trust that the world is a safe place, and that others will take good care of her. Childhood abandonment, unpredictable parental behavior, unrealistic parental expectations, and physical, verbal or emotional abuse teach the child that her environment is not a safe place and that the people she encounters cannot be trusted.
As a consequence, the neglected child develops an insecure attachment style. An insecure attachment style can lead to serious difficulties handling romantic relationships, work relationships and friendship later on in life. If you have a secure attachment style, you maintain a healthy proximity to other people. You are not afraid of closeness and intimacy and you don’t depend on it in a pathological way. If you have an insecure attachment style, by contrast, you avoid closeness with others or your whole existence depends on it.
There are two main types of adult insecure attachment style, the anxious (or "dependent") and the avoidant. They differ in a number of ways. The avoidant attachment style is a kind of deactivation of the attachment system. People with an avoidant attachment style don’t care about close relationships and prefer not to be too dependent on other people and prefer that others are not too dependent on them. They tend to avoid close romantic relationships and intimate friendships. They have difficulties trusting others and are unable to share their feelings with friends or partners because most of their emotions aren’t felt. They also tend to have difficulties with intimacy and closeness and are more likely to engage in casual sex than to have sex in a monogamous relationship. Sex is a kind of control or proof of their attractiveness or status.
When avoidant individuals do enter relationships, they employ deactivating mechanisms to avoid closeness. If the relationship is becoming too intimate, or the other person shows signs of clinginess, they shut down and distance themselves. One way to do that is to focus on the negative features of the other, small imperfections such as the way the partner socializes, talks, dresses or eats. They may purposely provoke jealousy by flirting with others, withhold expressions of affection, for example, purposely refraining from declaring their love for the other, staying out of touch after an intimate encounter or leaving the status of the relationship ambiguous. They use these tactics as distancing mechanisms that help suppress any romantic feelings they may have and maintain a feeling of independence.
The anxious attachment style can be seen as a hyper-activation of the attachment system. It is manifested in continuous attempts to make the other fit certain anticipated goals. Anxiously attached individuals are compulsive caregivers and over-invest themselves emotionally. They desire extensive contact and declarations of affections and praise and are preoccupied with and depend on the relationship or friendship. The relationship or friendship is the primary means by which they can experience a sense of security and a sense of self. They tend to idealize others and idealize relationships and friendships. They tend to put romantic partners and friends on a pedestal and keep nourishing their dream of the perfect, grand relationship. They have a deep desire for partners or friends to reciprocate. They worry that others may not love them completely, and they are easily embittered or irated when their attachment needs are not met. They expect their emotional investment to be returned in the form of praise and affection, and have a deeply irrational desire for partners or friends to share the same dream. For them, sex is typically regarded as evidence for the sex partner’s commitment to them.
Anxiously attached individuals tend to become overachievers because they implicitly believe that this will provide them with attention and affection. They perceive others as difficult to understand, as inscrutable and unpredictable. They furthermore tend to be hypersensitive to criticism and rejection.
They also respond with fear to anger in others. Their personalities are grotesquely twisted by their intense emotions, most frequently morbid or even murderous jealousy. Pedro Bravo started dating Erika Friman at Doral Academy, a high school in Miami. The relationship lasted three years. This was Pedro and Erika’s first relationship but for Pedro it was more than that. It was forever. When Erika ended things before going away to college, Pedro’s world fell to pieces. He became even more madly obsessed with her and changed his career plans, so he could follow her to the town where she went to college. But there he discovered that Erika had moved on. In fact, she was dating Christian Aguilar, Pedro’s best friend from high school. Pedro was furious when he found out. When Christian finally agreed to meet him to smooth things out, Pedro poisoned Christian’s bottled drink, strangled him to death and buried him in a forest. Christian’s remains were eventually found, and Pedro was found guilty of first-degree murder and was sentenced to life in prison with no chance of parole. Pedro’s case is an example of just how badly things can end with an anxious attachment style run amok.
Beneath their conscious thoughts and emotions, people with an anxious attachment style ache and yearn for parental love or the love of a protector who can play a parental role. In early life they believed their parents would always be their solid foundation and a persistent source of validation. Their first heartache occurred with the first rejection, put-down, belittling or blistering criticism. For all of their life they have continued to search for parental validation. Still yearning to recapture the past, they continue to search for the perfect parent in their friendships and intimate relationships, the perfect parent who can give them the approval and affirmation that their real parents or their previous friends or lovers were unable to provide.
Because anxiously attached individuals are able to feel their negative emotional responses, they typically have lower levels of stress hormones in their bodies than avoidantly attached individuals, who may not sense that their bodies are on high alert; they only ever experience discomfort when talk of commitment comes up. Because they are able to feel their negative emotional responses, anxiously attached people are not at as great of a risk of life-threatening complications as avoidant folks. They are also more likely to seek professional treatment for their condition.
It is tempting to think that overinvolved parents have an anxious attachment style, and some no doubt do. But in most cases they have quite the opposite attachment style and survive the horrors of parenting by merging their own life with that of their kid.
It is easy to detect the difference between parents who is anxiously attached to a child and those who are taking over the lives of their children. The former are not typically outward control freaks but need to hear back from their children and stay in touch with them because they develop anxiety when they sense that the bonding relation is not as strong as it used to be.
Parents who are incorporating the child’s lives into their own, on the other hand, are usually perfectionists, the kind of people who could have developed anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa in order to to get a handle on life. They need to be in control of every part of their lives. Anorexia-prone freaks who control their offspring rather than their food uptake. They don’t really depend on anyone. They just need to be in control and micromanage their own and their children’s lives, sometimes the lives of their spouses as well.
Over-involved parents are typically no less estranged from their children than neglectful or indifferent parents. They ensure Munchkin’s life isn’t polluted by the trash of commercial culture but never truly attends to his needs. Unlike the neglectful and indifferent parents, the over-involved parents grew up to feel that everything had to be perfect: no Diet Coke, no Austin and Ally, no Wendy’s junior cheeseburgers. Instead: perfect attendance at the Parent Club, healthy vegan-ish lunch boxes and early 2:40 pickup. Perfection per excellance. Perfectionism grounded in a need to control the world, a need which their unsuspecting children are expected to satisfy.
Children who are abandoned, neglected or mistreated will inevitably experiment with different ways of coping with the psychic wounds and lack of security. Whatever is most effective influences what sort of attachment style your little chubby-cheeked toddler develops. One youngster may restore some kind of equilibrium by continually seeking the caregiver’s attention and approval. If, however, the initial attempts to restore equilibrium by seeking attention don’t work, the child will eventually disengage from the external world and retreat into her own mind. She learns that keeping her thoughts and feelings to herself leads to the least amount of anguish and pain.
Estranging yourself from your children rarely goes unpunished. They sometimes kick back and make their parents pay. That is what happened to Michael Ricci and Maura McGarvey. In 2013 their daughter Caitlyn Ricci, then a junior at Temple University, sued her estranged parents for tuition money. The verdict? The Camden County judge ordered the parents to cough up $16,000 every year their daughter is still enrolled in classes.
Growing up with an indifferent parent can also result in a continuing relationship of indifference, the sort of parent-child relationship that others find utterly puzzling. Guardian contributor Caroline Archer describes her distant relationship with her indifferent yet not explicitly neglectful mother under pseudonym:
I didn't have an unhappy upbringing. I wasn't a particularly happy child but that wasn't down to child abuse or neglect. I was clothed, fed, I had ballet lessons, I went to university, paid for by my parents, and I knew – and know – that there's always somewhere to stay if I need it and probably money to borrow if necessary. But my mother and I never had the sort of closeness I saw in my friends' relationships. They'd go shopping or share secrets. They'd tell their mums things about their lives. The one time I tried to ask my mother about her teenage years she told me to mind my own business. So I did. I grew up minding my own business and she minded hers. [...] My mother is the last person I go to in a crisis. She is certainly the last person to whom I would tell a secret or a problem [...]. But my lack of a close relationship with her bothers other people a lot. When I say that I don't have a close relationship with her they ask whether we fight a lot. No, I don't recall ever having a fight with my mother. That would entail caring enough to bother. I used to go through phases of worrying about it and trying to repair the damage. But all the while I was aware that I was doing it for other people. [...] A few years ago, before I realised I didn't care any more, I called her up and asked whether we could sort it out. Her answer told me everything I needed to know: "Sort what out?" I stopped bothering from that moment. Now my principal concern is explaining to people why I don't see her that often. And I feel guilty for not really having a good enough reason.
Caroline Archer writes off her indifference to her indifferent mother as “no big deal.” But it is very often a big deal. Indifferent adult children are hurt. Deeply hurt. They are not hurt because they didn’t get to do ballet lessons, or because their parent’s didn’t tell them that they loved them. Their indifferent parents fed their broods, drove them to ballet lessons, sent them to college, told them they loved them, yet hated being parents, hated parenting.
Ainsworth, M.D. (1969). “Object Relations, Dependency, and Attachment: A Theoretical Review of the Infant-Mother Relationship,” Child Development 40, 969-1025.
Berit "Brit" Brogaard is a co-author of The Superhuman Mind and the author of On Romantic Love.