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Parenting a child with attachment disorder is challenging work. If you’re in the trenches right now, please know that you’re not alone.
I myself am an adoptive parent, and know what it’s like to feel at your wits’ end. My twins are 5 and a huge blessing to our family – but when their attachment issues rear their ugly heads, it’s enough to make me want to crawl into a dark space with a huge supply of chocolate, and never surface again.
This post is specifically for you if you’re parenting, teaching or working with an avoidant attachment child. We’ll be looking at what is an avoidant attachment style, what causes avoidant attachment, and how we can parent our children if they display a fearful avoidant attachment style.
If the child in question is showing traits of ambivalent attachment or disorganised attachment, click those links to access more help. 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.
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.
What is an avoidant attachment style?
First off: what are we dealing with? What does avoidant attachment in children look like?
An avoidant attachment child might present as strong and independent, seeing this very much as a strength, while finding it hard to depend on others when needed. They might find it difficult to draw close to anyone, appearing emotionally distant and perhaps seen as a ‘loner’. They will likely relate to others better through practical activity than emotional activity, and may avoid anything which involves being open and vulnerable with others.
Their self-esteem will be very fragile, based as it is in their own perception of themselves. An avoidant attachment child will struggle to let others in to what they’re feeling or thinking.
Avoidant attachment style – along with ambivalent attachment style – are sometimes referred to as ‘anxious’ or ‘fearful’. And any attachment style which isn’t secure can be referred to under the umbrella term ‘insecure attachment’. Each of the three insecure attachment styles (avoidant, ambivalent and disorganised) are fairly distinct although, like I said above, they all have some overlap too.
What causes avoidant attachment?
The fearful avoidant attachment style described above will probably come into play because a child has experienced a traumatic start to life.
If a child was neglected, rejected or both – either in the womb, or in babyhood/toddlerhood – then the child is likely to develop an avoidant attachment style. In other words, if the one person a child was looking to for their needs to be met did not (or could not) meet these needs, then they will learn to withdraw from others too. If a child’s cry to be fed/changed/held was ignored, then that child will learn that it’s not worth asking for help, and that their needs don’t matter.
This leads to the avoidant attachment style traits mentioned above such as independence (because they weren’t able to depend on their caregiver) and emotional distance (because they weren’t given the opportunity to develop an emotional bond with family members early on, and also because they’ve grown to believe that their own emotions are unimportant).
How can I parent my avoidant attachment child?
Much of parenting a child with avoidant attachment style traits is about patience and persistence. They may not respond to discipline as you might expect a securely-attached child to do. Avoidant attachment in children may also manifest itself in them presenting as younger than their actual age, requiring more supervision at a stage when you might otherwise be able to trust them to make the right decisions.
Specific help that you might need to give a child with fearful avoidant attachment style would include building their ability to trust and depend on you, encouraging them to open up emotionally, and building their self-esteem.
To build your child’s trust, you may need to take back some of the care-giving tasks they are doing for themselves – or for others – and this may need some persistent work over the period of a few weeks or months. I heard an amazing story of a little girl who’d been adopted with her baby brother. Whilst living with birth parents, this girl had had to care for her brother, even though she was only 4 or 5 at the time, so when they moved to an adoptive family, she continued to do this.
Their mum realised she needed to let her daughter learn to trust and depend on the new grown-ups in her life, so came up with a creative strategy. As the daughter loved princesses and enjoyed dressing up, her mum bought herself an adult-sized princess dress. The two of them would dress up as princesses together as they cared for the baby boy. Gradually, the little girl was able to trust her new mum to care for her brother, and was able to draw back from doing it all herself.
To encourage your child to open up emotionally, you will need to initially model this. It may be difficult to open up to your child whilst also reassuring them that you have things under control – too much opening-up of the “I don’t have a clue how to parent you!” nature may be counter-productive!
One strategy is to talk through your emotions and response after they’ve happened, so that you can reassure your child that it is not only OK to feel negative emotions, but that these emotions pass and do not affect your general self-esteem.
For example, “I felt really sad when I heard Auntie Anne was ill…but I’m so glad she’s on the mend now” or “That news story made me feel angry; I didn’t know what to do but I prayed about it/wrote to my MP/gave some money to charity, and feel more peaceful, even though the situation still exists”.
Part of this is also being able to put into words your child’s emotions – as they will be unable to recognise them for themselves. For example, “I think you’re feeling angry because Tommy took your Action Man without asking” – persistently validating how your child is feeling helps them to realise that their emotions are not ‘wrong’.
To build your child’s self esteem, try to ensure that the positive words you use are specific. Not just, “You’re so lovely” but “You’re so lovely to think of others by making them cards”. Not just, “You did brilliant Maths work”, but “You’re really good at working out halves”.
In this way, children will start to see that there are logical reasons for them to be proud of themselves – it’s not all in someone else’s head, or just because you’re their parent and you have to think they’re awesome!
All this takes a huge amount of time and energy that you may not feel like you have, but please be assured that every little step you take each day does have an impact and does pay off eventually.
Books like the A-Z of Therapeutic Parenting can help with strategies for avoidant attachment in children, and I highly recommend asking your adoption agency for support, too.
We did this a few months ago and are now coming to the end of the Enhancing Adoptive Parenting programme (EAP), which has been a game-changer for me and my husband. We’re also looking at accessing some theraplay for our children in the future. Both of these have been/will be funded through the Adoption Support Fund here in the UK.
Please don’t hesitate to go more widely for advice and support. I am not an adoption professional, so while I hope this blog post has been a useful first port of call, if you need to investigate your child’s struggles further, then please do that – in the first instance, by contacting the agency you adopted or foster with.
If you’re a birth parent, chatting to your pupil support team at your child’s school may be a good start, followed by your GP who may be able to suggest some counselling or strategies to help.
And don’t forget to check out my Adoption library right here on the blog.