How our parents mess us up - Humantold
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How our parents mess us up

Kirk Pineda, MHC-LP September 29, 2022

Whether or not you’re aware of it, a lot of attachment styles stem from the relationship you developed with your first caregivers: your parents.

Have you ever wondered why you might have tendencies to be “clingy” or “needy” in your current relationships? Or do you see yourself as someone who keeps an independent streak and finds themselves more comfortable being on their own, rather than in someone else’s company? Do you seek intimacy with others, but disengage when the opportunity presents itself? 

Whether or not you’re aware of it, these are characteristics of three different types of attachment styles (amidst a total of four). They stem from the relationship you developed with your first caregivers: your parents.

What are attachment styles?

Attachment theory developed what we know today as attachment styles. British psychologist John Bowlby was the first attachment theorist, analyzing the emotions that arise from children and babies when separated from their caregivers. He suggested that babies who develop healthy relationships with their caregivers (that is, caregivers who are attentive and responsive to their babies) lead to babies that feel instilled with a sense of security to explore the world as they grow older. This results in what we know today as secure attachment. However, babies and children who don’t develop a healthy relationship with their caregivers can have one or more characteristics of insecure attachment.

From 1969 to the early 1990s, various theorists and researchers later developed what we know today as the adult attachment styles. One is the secure attachment style, and the remaining three are insecure attachment styles: anxious-preoccupied, dismissive-avoidant, and fearful-avoidant.

Are attachment styles developed only as newborns?

It’s essential to recognize that the development of an attachment style is not limited to when we are newborns. We can develop various kinds of attachment as children, and even during our teenage through adult years. Certain events can also significantly affect the way we attach to others. Attachment, after all, is an emotional bond with another person, and the bond we establish with our first caretakers sets a precedent for how we form bonds with others in the future.

However, keep in mind that our attachment styles are not permanent. While we may, for example, have characteristics of anxious attachment today (such as constantly needing validation), it is not impossible to reach a level of secure attachment. It takes a conscious effort, as well as surrounding ourselves with those with securely attached characteristics. We’ll cover this in the latter part of this post. First, let’s discuss what kinds of parenting lead to developing various attachment styles.

How inconsistent parents mess us up: anxious attachment

Parents unattuned to a child’s needs tend to produce children with anxious attachment. Usually, this is expressed by parents who are occasionally present and attentive to a child’s needs, but are also capable of lacking concern or being indifferent to them altogether. Inconsistent parents also tend to make the child responsible for how they feel or even push them away.

This kind of parenting sets up a shaky foundation, making children struggle to fully understand their caregivers’ nature and unsure what type of care they will receive. They will not know what to expect if they signal that they are in need, creating an atmosphere of instability that leaves a a looming sense of worry.

As children of inconsistent parents grow up, they tend to portray some or all of the following characteristics:

  • Intense fear of being abandoned or left alone
  • Clingy behavior or a high degree of neediness
  • Sensitivity to criticism or threats (both real or perceived)
  • Constantly seeking approval and validation from others
  • High focus on relationships and little attention to themselves
  • Frequent worrying about their partner wanting to be away from them
  • Quickly bonding with others without taking time to assess if each person meets their needs fully
  • Acting out by not returning calls, provoking jealousy, and withdrawing from relationships as a means to acquire attention and reassurance
  • A tendency to suppress their own needs or wants in a relationship out of fear of abandonment or rejection, but experiencing later feelings of resentment and unfulfillment from not expressing these needs earlier on

It’s common for people with characteristics of anxious attachment to feel as though they are not deserving of love, and they’re likely to blame themselves when relationships do not form or last.

How strict and neglectful parents mess us up: avoidant attachment

Parents who engage their children in an overly strict, absent, or emotionally distant manner are likely to produce children with avoidant attachment. This kind of parenting leaves children to handle things independently; punishes them for relying on their parents; and disregards their emotions, wants, and needs. They fully expect their children to be autonomous from a young age.

One nuance to acknowledge with this parenting is that some parents can neglect their children. Still, some parents can be unconcerned or disinterested in their children’s needs, and more focused on their children’s accomplishments and responsibilities. Examples of this include parents who focus more on their children performing well in school, respecting others through good manners, and completing household chores rather than acknowledging their child’s hopes, dreams, interests, and feelings. Ultimately, this still leads to children developing characteristics of avoidant attachment.

Overall, strict and neglectful parents teach a child that their caregiver is unlikely to meet their needs. Later, this child develops ways to meet their needs independently and not rely on others. The lack of reliance on others also leads to a strong sense of independence and thus makes avoidant-attached individuals unlikely to form close, meaningful bonds with others.

As children of strict and neglectful parents grow up, they tend to portray some or all of the following characteristics:

  • A tendency to be dismissive of others’ feelings, needs, or wants
  • Frequent and consistent avoidance of emotional or physical intimacy
  • Maintaining a strong independent streak, often doing things on their own
  • Feeling upset when others infringe on their need for space or time alone
  • A tendency to disengage from relationships when things become too serious or intense
  • Difficulty expressing their feelings to others, or a general discomfort in doing so
  • Feeling “threatened” when people attempt to become closer
  • Difficulty conceptualizing how others could meet their needs, frequently believing they do not need others for help 
  • Struggling to commit or make social plans with others, often feeling fearful of being trapped by commitments to other people

It’s common for persons with an avoidant attachment style to refrain from getting too close to others. They either struggle to establish emotional intimacy, don’t know what it looks like, or both. Many people who engage with avoidantly attached individuals tend to feel they cannot seem to get close enough to feel connected with them.

How abusive parents mess us up: fearful attachment

Parents who mistreat their children to the point of trauma and abuse are likely to produce people with fearful attachment. Caregivers, in this case, are not only inconsistent but additionally a source of both fear and comfort to children. As a result, they grow up with confusing and contradictory behaviors, such as acting hot and cold towards others.

Children with fearful attachment styles still want intimacy with others, but tend to push others away simultaneously. This can lead to others seeing fearfully-attached persons as erratic. They are often unpredictable, acting independent in one moment and excessively needy in the next. They often crave emotional intimacy and closeness, but reject it out of fear when it begins to truly manifest.

As children of abusive parents grow up, they tend to portray characteristics of both anxiously-attached and avoidantly-attached persons, as well as:

  • Difficulty regulating their emotions
  • Self-contradictory behaviors
  • Excessive fear of rejection and abandonment
  • Difficulty trusting friends, family, and romantic partners
  • A frequent preoccupation with relationships, despite them being a source of anxiety

It is also important to note that for fearfully-attached individuals, other mental health conditions may also be present — such as substance usage, self-harm, and mood and personality disorders.

How loving parents prepare us: secure attachment

Parents who are attentive and attuned to their child’s needs often lead to children who grow up securely attached. Parents that freely give love, validation, and reassurance to their children set them up to become people who do the same. Securely-attached individuals can be intimate with others without concerns of conflict or misunderstanding, and directly communicate their needs without attempting to manipulate or play games.

Children with loving and attentive caregivers grow up feeling valued, seen, and safe. On top of this, their caregivers were also mindful of their own emotions and behaviors and expressed them in ways that were healthy and non-destructive.

Persons with secure attachment portray characteristics of the following:

  • High self-esteem
  • Ability to trust others easily
  • Comfort both on their own and in relationships
  • Willingness to seek out emotional support without hesitation
  • Healthy and direct communication skills to convey their needs, as well as in asking others for their needs
  • Ability to regulate their own emotions
  • Ability to connect well with others
  • Emotional availability
  • Cheerful and loving behavior in their relationships

People with secure attachment tend to refrain from codependency, which is an excessive reliance on others to maintain their sense of self and well-being. Instead, they strike a healthy balance of creating a safe atmosphere in their relationships but also making time for personal interests on their own.

Can we change our attachment style?

In short, yes. However, it takes a concerted effort and requires a great deal of patience and healthy feedback. Keep in mind that everyone around us, to some degree, exudes a semblance of insecure attachment — which can make it hard to change. Social media can also glorify some insecurely-attached behaviors, making it hard to discern what is healthy, and sometimes may lead us to be ostracized by others who shun securely attached behaviors.

You can adjust your attachment style based on the following: 

  1. Valuing yourself and your needs by dedicating time to self-care. You are important!
  2. Learn to practice assertiveness by setting boundaries and enforcing them.
  3. Be authentic towards others and yourself, and honor your needs by expressing them directly to others.
  4. Practice not taking things personally. It’s common for people to assume the worst out of perceived self-interest or self-preservation, but it can also result in misreading others.
  5. Look into de-escalation techniques and conflict resolution skills. It often helps to look at relationship issues from a collaborative perspective, rather than a competitive one.
  6. Recognize your insecure attachment characteristics and reflect on your upbringing. How did your caretakers raise you? Were they reliable? Who do you turn to for comfort?
  7. Practice responding, rather than reacting. It’s easy to react because we are hard-wired to do it, but mindfulness can help create the space to come up with a purposeful response to events rather than an impulsive reaction.

It can be hard not to blame our parents for how they might have messed us up when we got older. Our relationship with them substantially impacts how we establish relationships with others. However, realizing what insecure characteristics we exude in our relationships and accepting their presence is the first step to changing them. It’s not impossible to change, but it will take work.

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