From 1986 through 2004 Regesh Family and Child Services ran a renowned residential treatment program for difficult and at-risk youth and children. Over the many years of providing residential, as well as outpatient care, we realized that children and youth with symptoms of an attachment disorder acted out the most and were difficult children to make immediate progress with. These children always required more long-term care and much caring and patience. These children display defiance, opposition or, maybe worst of all, indifference. A child with insecure attachment or an attachment disorder doesn’t have the skills necessary to bond with caregivers or build meaningful relationships. The behaviors of these children leave adults exhausted, angry and often feeling helpless and hopeless.
Attachment problems fall on a spectrum, from mild problems that are easily addressed to the most serious form, known as reactive attachment disorder. It is beyond the scope of this article to discuss the various types or their treatments. However, in brief, attachment disorders are the result of negative experiences in a child’s earliest developmental stage and early relationships. If a young child feels repeatedly abandoned, isolated, powerless, or uncared for—for whatever reason—he or she will learn that other people can’t be depended on and that the world is a dangerous and frightening place. Consequently, their behavior reflects these feelings. Some causes of this phenomenon include, but are not limited to: infants with teenage mothers, infants with extended hospital stays, parents who do not give the required attention to the child or parents whose attention and caring are inconsistent (that is, sometimes they are there for the child while other times they cannot be relied on). Other conditions leading to possible attachment problems include the young child who gets attention only by acting out or displaying other extreme behaviors; a young child or baby who is mistreated or abused, or a baby or young child who is moved from one caregiver to another (this can be the result of adoption, foster care or the loss of a parent).
Healthy attachment, like trust, begins in infancy. The infant quickly learns that when he/she feels discomfort, i.e. from being wet, hungry or in pain, there will be someone, a caregiver, usually a mother, there to relieve the discomfort. This first stage of developing trust leads to the development of an attachment between the infant and the caregiver. The infant develops a clear preference for being with, and interacting with, those specific caregivers over lesser known individuals. Thus, without proper attachment to this primary individual, the child’s emotional and nurturing needs are not met. When the normal attachment process does not occur, children develop abnormal relationships with caregivers, leading to potential serious mental health and behavioral issues. Due to the pervasive nature of this disorder, subsequent interpersonal relationships, such as the development of normal peer and ultimately romantic relationships in later childhood are often distorted. In addition to unconditional loving and consistent parenting, therapy is often required to work with such children and adolescents.
Why am I giving you all this background? Lately I hear a common theme in the attitudes of at-risk youth. Perhaps you have heard it as well. It goes like this: “Who do you think you are?” “You have no right to tell me what to do.” “You can’t make me” or the challenge “Try to make me.” The theme is the same; the parent, caregiver, teacher does not have any rights or better, any connection or relationship with the youth, in his or her mind. There seems to be a disconnect between the child and the adult.
Why do kids do what we ask of them? Really, think about this question. At what age does a child make up his own mind to do as he wants, not as you want? (This is a whole article within itself). When do we no longer have the “power” to “make” a child do what we want?