Can You Be Too Attached To Your Child?

Can You Be Too Attached To Your Child?

My sister had a favorite blanket that she carried around with her until she was eleven years old.  It was her “shmata,” a Yiddish word meaning “worn out security blanket.”  She didn’t actually carry it around, but she was always aware of its location, and at night she slept with it on her bed.  One day my parents hid it from her and made her think that they had finally disposed of it.  My sister was inconsolable at the news that her blanket was gone.  She was so inconsolable, in fact, that my parents miraculously “recovered” it for her.  Of course, my parents felt she was too attached to her blanket, and obviously, the loss of her blanket created a tremendous sense of anxiety within her.  Conversely, my sister’s inconsolable sobs also produced tremendous anxiety in my parents.  They couldn’t cope with the guilt of my sister’s reaction when she was unceremoniously separated from the attachment she had to her blanket.

The moral of the story is, human beings form attachments.  It’s that simple.  As a consequence of attachment, the issue of “separation from attachment” is also a major challenge in human relationships.  In order to form strong relationships we must learn how to comfortably attach and separate from the object of our desire.  Our failure to separate can result in us becoming too attached.  Margaret Mahler, a pioneering ego psychologist, says that the theme of human attachment begins with childbirth when the child is fused to the mother.  This phase lasts from birth to 4 weeks and gives rise to the symbiotic phase where the child begins to have a vague awareness of an outside caretaker, but still functions as if they are both one complete unit.  Symbiosis lasts until the child is approximately 5 months old.  The final stage in the psychological development of the young child is called separation and individuation, and occurs when the child becomes aware of being separate from caretakers and ventures off on his or her own.  This phase can last until the child is 3 years old.  At every stage the child develops a greater sense of self and progressively individuates, or becomes separate, from his or her mother.

Although it is normal to separate from our parents, as children we go to great lengths to avoid it.  If we are feeling insecure we will cry and cling when they leave the room.  After they leave we will sometimes frantically search for them.  We will also develop a repertoire of behavior, such as being engaging or charming, all designed to keep our parents close by.  We will tend to be more confident and secure if we know our parents are close and attentive.  On the other hand, if we think that our parents are inaccessible we are likely to experience anxiety.  The anxiety of being separated from our parent is aptly called “separation anxiety,” and occurs during the separation-individuation stage, usually beginning no earlier than eight months and no later than three years of age.

Separation anxiety is normal, and occurs in both parent and child alike.  In the symbiotic phase the mother does not feel that her child will be safe if there is too much distance between them, and may experience separation anxiety if she leaves her child alone for any length of time.  It is very gratifying for a parent to be needed, but if parents don’t learn to separate normally from their children the gratification they feel quickly turns to guilt when they eventually need some time on their own.  Although children do not protest when their parents leave during symbiosis, they certainly do during the separation-individuation stage.  In this stage the child does not feel safe if the mother leaves.  It is very difficult to drop your child off at day care only to have him or her cling, cry and give you a look of sheer terror as you get ready to leave.  Consequently, it is very hard for the parent to do what is normal in the face of such strong opposition.  Similar to the anxiety that my parents felt when my sister was inconsolable at the loss of her blanket, there is a mutual exchange of anxiety between a parent and child whereby an anxiety reaction in one of them will produce an equal anxiety reaction in the other.

The fear that your child feels during these times, even if you go into another room, is because they do not know if you are ever coming back.  That’s because children have no concept of time, and no concept of permanence.  To them, if you leave the room you may just as well have died.  You can begin to see why children develop so many behaviors designed to keep their parents close to them.  For your child, it’s life and death.  For you, it’s a frantic cry for soothing and reassurance coming from your defenseless toddler.  Once you come back into the room, however, you have taught your child that shrill screaming will make you reappear.  With all the gusto of their magical thinking, your child will become frantic whenever you leave thinking that the extra crying will make you reappear.  Just ask my sister, even as an eleven year old her inconsolable sobs made her shmata reappear.

There are several things that you can do to manage separation anxiety.  First, when you leave your child with another provider try to make sure your child is introduced over a period of time, so when the time comes for you to actually leave your child is comfortable with the new person in his or her life.  Also, be aware that children have a decreased tolerance for separation when they are tired or hungry.  Next, try not to convey any anxiety you may have to your child.  You should try to be confident and firm when you leave.  Some parents have separation anxiety issues too, so if you hedge a little when you leave your child will become more anxious and cling to you very hard to prevent you from going.  Remember, the mutual exchange of anxiety is very powerful, so if you do not manage yours you can heighten the anxiety reaction in your child.  Finally, reassure your child that you will be coming back and that he or she is safe.  Once your child knows that you will be returning, often after several drop-offs and pick-ups, or several reassuring gestures from the other room, your child will begin to have confidence that your leaving is only temporary.

There is nothing stronger than the parent-child bond.  Issues of attachment and separation, therefore, are very difficult and challenging tasks for both parent and child.  If you learn to keep attachment and separation issues in perspective you will be able to effectively parent without sacrificing your entire life to the task, and your child will grow up knowing that separation does not mean a loss of safety but rather an opportunity to develop independently.

Two Minute Articles for Parents2 comments

  1. Remarkable! Its truly remarkable paragraph, I have
    got much clear idea concerning from this article.

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