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Parenting any child who has attachment disorder is tough – as the adoptive parent of twin boys, I know this only too well. If you’re up against it right now, I bring tidings of great joy: YOU ARE NOT ALONE.
I find this tough, you find this tough, and thousands of others are finding it tough all over the world right now. In the time it’s taken for you to read these two paragraphs, 836 parents have reached for the biscuit tin as a direct result of parenting attachment-disordered children.
(OK, maybe I made that bit up. Regular readers will know: stats on this blog are not always true. But hopefully it caused the corners of your mouth to rise a little, which is the first step to dealing with your child’s attachment issues, because you’re starting to get a little perspective on them. Life will not always be so tough. You are not failing. In fact, I’m willing to bet that you’re doing pretty awesomely. Keeping your sense of humour, IMHO, is pretty much the greatest tool we have as parents.)
This post is specifically for you if you’re parenting, teaching or working with an ambivalent attachment child. We’ll be looking at what is ambivalent attachment, what causes ambivalent attachment, and how we can parent our children if they display a preoccupied ambivalent attachment.
Phew. That’s a lot of words right there. Don’t worry, I’m going to unpack them all for you – and it’s actually a lot more straightforward than you think.
First-off, though, if your child is showing traits of avoidant attachment or disorganised attachment, click those links to access more ideas. It’s also worth saying that there is some overlap between all of these, so if you feel your child displays aspects of all three, that’s totally normal. Maybe it’d be good to bookmark those pages regardless, and take ideas from all three.
For a broader overview of attachment styles, check out The Four Types of Attachment Styles Explained, which is my simple, no-fuss overview of attachment.
For the purposes of this blog post, I’ll assume that the child in question is your child and you are their main caregiver, but please feel very welcome here if you are a teacher, children’s worker or otherwise involved in the life of an avoidant attachment child. I think much of this will be highly relevant to you too.
Right, let’s get this gig on the road…
What is ambivalent attachment?
Ambivalent attachment style is sometimes referred to as ‘preoccupied attachment’ or ‘preoccupied ambivalent attachment’. Don’t get too hung up on all these different terms – they mean the same thing.
Ambivalent attachment is also one of two ‘anxious’ attachment styles (the other is avoidant attachment) – so if you hear this term, it refers to both of these attachment styles. And any attachment style which isn’t secure can be referred to under the umbrella term ‘insecure attachment’ – so that’s yet another term you might hear bandied around.
Ambivalent attachment in children tends to manifest itself in very low self-esteem, but – unlike avoidant attachment – also tends to be overly dependent on others. An ambivalent attachment child can often become attention-seeking, going over the top to get a reaction from others. Eventually, this can lead to possessive and/or controlling behaviours.
A child with preoccupied/ambivalent attachment will usually see themselves as not worthy of being loved, and this couples with their low self-esteem to mean that he/she might be over-sensitive to what others say or do to them.
What causes ambivalent attachment?
A child with proccupied/ambivalent attachment will most likely have had a caregiver in early life who hasn’t been able to meet his/her needs consistently.
From time to time, the child is well cared-for, but this is interspersed with times when his/her needs are neglected. This inconsistency plays havoc with a child’s ability to link cause and effect – leading to some very unusual and strange responses to circumstances.
For example, in the well-known ‘Strange Situation Procedure’, where a mother is present in a room with her child, and then leaves, an ambivalent attachment child will be extremely distressed when separated from mum – but will remain distressed when mum returns.
This response makes no sense for a securely attached child who would be happy to be reunited with mum – but for an ambivalent attachment child, any change to the routine can be a cause of distress, because they literally have no idea what’s coming next.
This inconsistency in the care a child has been given can lead to a child becoming very attention-seeking. He/she learns to cry as loud and as long as possible, for this may have been the best way in the past to get their care-giver’s attention and to have their care needs met.
How can I parent my ambivalent attachment child?
Of course, parenting any child with attachment issues requires much patience and persistence. There are no quick fixes, nor do we need to stress too much about whether we’ve correctly analysed our child’s attachment style and whether we’re parenting them ‘right’.
But if you’ve noticed some of these ambivalent attachment traits in your child, and are running out of ideas, the following paragraphs may give you some additional parenting fodder. I’m not an adoption professional, just an adoptive mum, so please check out the ‘further support’ section below for more resources which can help.
Because ambivalent attachment in children can often manifest in an over-dependence and over-the-top attention-seeking behaviour, we will need to set extremely firm boundaries, and communicate them very clearly.
It is also imperative that we don’t allow ourselves to be controlled by our children. What might be a gentle ‘arm-twisting’ from a securely attached child, may become a source of huge anxiety for a child with ambivalent attachment, as they cannot then trust that you will be able to parent them with authority.
To do this, we will probably need to have physical reminders of our boundaries, routines, rules and schedules displayed in the home – either written, or pictoral, depending on the age and preference of our children.
But we will also need to (constantly, it feels like) verbally reiterate these guidelines to our children. We will need to be as consistent as we possibly can when reinforcing what we will do for them, and what they need to do for themselves. We also need to be as firm as we can be about not interrupting us, waiting their turn, and not engaging in other negative attention-seeking behaviours.
A self-controlled use of that wonderful parenting technique ‘Ignoring the Negative Behaviours’, coupled with giving our children over-the-top attention when they exhibit positive values and decisions, may help to teach our children which behaviours will get our attention. Over time, they will start to produce more of the positive and less of the negative.
It is incredibly frustrating doing this for weeks, months and years – but it does pay off in the long term.
In our family, we are currently reinforcing our rule of not interrupting/talking over each other (not easy with four kids each wanting a bit of our time). What is more effective than simply telling them to wait their turn, is making sure we DO give them plenty of attention, even if this just means turning to look them in the eye when they’re talking to us, engaging with what they’re saying. They start to feel seen and loved, and their self-esteem rises, as does their confidence that their needs will be met consistently.
This is just the tip of the iceberg, really, but I hope it’s been a helpful start as you work out what strategies might be workable in your specific family situation.
A few months ago, we reached out to our local authority (who prepared us for adoption) as we were in need of more support with our then-4-year-old twins. We’re now nearing the end of the Enhancing Adoptive Parenting (EAP) course, which I highly recommend – and it’s all been paid for by the Adoption Support Fund.
Theraplay is something we hope to access with our children in the future, and might be a good tool for you too, if your child’s attachment disorder is preventing them (or you) from achieving daily tasks and goals.
I’m going to end this blog post how I started it: YOU ARE NOT ALONE. If you’re up in the early hours, worried about your child’s future or the relationship the two of you have, please know that there are many other parents feeling like this too.
I can relate to these feelings, but I’m not your only ally. Check out the other resources and blog posts I’ve mentioned, leave a comment, sign up to the blog to stay in touch with this fabulous adoption community – but, whatever you do, don’t panic. You’ve got this.