Revised 9 November 2012

Attachment Theory and Child Abuse
Alan Challoner MA (Phil) MChS


Child abuse is seen to follow a general pattern and it is the intrusion of fear into what might otherwise be good enough care-giving that is necessary for the development of a disorganised or disoriented attachment. Research has shown that in the case of the rejected infant only one signal is required to throw the child into conflict. Withdrawal tendencies occur as a result of main carer’s threat. This paper seeks to find some reasons for the perpetuation of abuse through the generations, and draws attention to the potential remedies. ______________

In recent years research has shown that the revealed characteristics of abusing parents and abused children fit the pattern of attachment disorders. Fontana has drawn attention to a ‘maltreatment syndrome’, in which child abuse is seen to follow a general pattern. 1 DeLozier describes this pattern of dependent, fearful, anxious, hostile, and depressed behaviour consistently found in abusing families, as well as parent-child rôle reversal and the generational pattern of abuse, as reflecting dysfunctional attachment and care-taking behavioural systems in these families. 2 She describes the literature as reflecting varying degrees of anxious attachment and detachment resulting from actual or persistently threatened disruption of attachments. The intense separation anxiety, dysfunctional anger, distrust of others and the environment, and restraints on the development of self-reliant behaviour that are known to accompany attachment disorders are reflected in the consistent description of abusing parents and children as dependent, depressed, angry, anxious, isolated, hyper-alert, and distrustful. Main and Hesse 3 have suggested that it is the intrusion of fear into what might otherwise be good enough care-giving that is necessary for the development of a disorganised or disoriented attachment. Fear is obviously a common experience for physically and emotionally abused children. They suggest it is also probable

Fontana, V. J. The maltreated child: The maltreatment syndrome in children. Springfield, Ill.: Charles C. Thomas. 1971 Delozier. P. An application of attachment theory to the study of child abuse. [Ph.D. dissertation], California School of Professional Psychology; 1979 Main, M.; & Hesse, E. Parents’ Unresolved Traumatic Experiences are Related to Infant Disorganized Attachment Status: Is Frightened and/or Frightening Parental Behaviour the Linking Mechanism? In Greenberg, M.T.; Cicchetti, D.; & Cummings, M. [Eds.] Attachment in the Preschool Years: Theory, Research & Intervention. Univ. Chicago Press, 1990.



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Revised 9 November 2012 that there are frightening aspects of emotional and physical neglect. and/or where the mother’s mate is not the infant’s biological father. [Eds. Proximity seeking mixed with avoidance causes frustration and stress and if the approach tendencies equal the avoidance tendencies they will inhibit one another. prolonged separation and deprivation may progressively lead to depression and related withdrawal from social interactions. New York USA. or exposure during development to biologically and psychologically inappropriate stimuli.. the concurrent activation of the fear or wariness and attachment behavioural systems produce strong conflicting motivations when approaching the care-givers for comfort and they may feel the need to retreat from them to safety. Fine. & Stevenson-Hinde. may be radically modified and altered by “environmental” stimuli. USA. as genetically programmed at the moment of conception. 5 Page 2 of 7 . As Main and Hesse have described. In Parkes. In some species. In monkeys and chimpanzees. In turn. Infanticide and serious infant abuse are likely to be observed under stressful conditions of intensified reproductive pressure. Press.] The Place of Attachment in Human Behaviour. Colin Murray. hormones. 1982) A psychoanalytic view has been expressed by Fine when he writes: For optimal child-rearing. Joan. 1982. 4 Ainsworth. Idem. the attachment behaviour system is still further activated but approach remains forbidden. environmental ecological depletion. 7 have shown from their research that children at any age up to four years. the striking features of distorted imprinting and attachment processes provide a provocative demonstration of sexuality channelled in the direction of the biologically inappropriate object. If separation is prolonged or leads to privation and deprivation. suggest also that sexual phenotypes. R. Human data on the development of sexuality and gender identity. The connection between these opposing tendencies is internal to the attached infant and has no reference to the circumstances. idem) Cicchetti & Barnett 6 and Schneider-Rosen et al. Ainsworth has indicated that in the case of the rejected infant only one signal is required to throw the child into conflict. Columbia Univ. isolation studies have shown that appropriate early social experiences are essential for the normal development of sexual activity. As the approach is forbidden. avoidance and angry behaviour occurs. 5 Petrovich and Gewirtz propose that exposure to biologically inappropriate stimuli during social development may functionally isolate such an individual from a reproductive population. ( Fine. Thus there is conflict as vacillation between approach. and these depend on the inner structure of the family. such as chemical by-products of other genes. the consequences may be even more severe. Forced separation from objects of attachment has deleterious effects on avian and mammalian infant behaviour. Basic Books. Withdrawal tendencies occur as a result of mother’s threat signals and these lead directly to approach tendencies. 4 (Ainsworth. The only solution is a shift of attention toward another figure. Attachment: Retrospect and Prospect. 1979. Mary D Salter. what seems to count more than anything else is the maturity and emotional health of the parent. who have been ill-treated by parents. New York. A History of Psychoanalysis.

. Current perspectives in attachment theory: Illustration from the study of maltreated infants. 1-15]...G. Child maltreatment. Psychol. J L. Assessments were made on ten dependent variables. & Cicchetti. Jnl. Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development. J. 1988. Psychol. 3(4). & Inf.. 194-210]. D. non-ill-treated children from middle-class families (30). when they examined the link between the aetiology of child ill-treatment and later development together with the attachment outcome. & Barnett. They emphasised the link between abuse in childhood and later transgenerational abuse of their own children. 163-182]. Several authors have reported comparable findings and Browne and Saqi expanded their conclusions to incorporate a suggestion that abused children were more likely to show increased stranger anxiety and reduced exploratory behaviour. Even those children who might be securely attached in their early months are likely to lose that at later assessments if they are ill-treated. The investigation highlighted the urgency of intervention measures at a family level. S.Revised 9 November 2012 are significantly more likely to show insecure patterns of attachment. 50(1-2). Special Issue: Attachment and developmental psychopathology. Another factor uncovered was the aberrant inter-peer relationship of those who had been ill-treated. D. Aber. [pp. 7 8 9 10 Page 3 of 7 . 6(3). who in turn scored less than middle-class children. A similar line of enquiry was pursued by Youngblade and Belsky.. 1991. K. effectance motivation. they also found a strong association between ill-treatment of the child and attachment insecurity. 6 Cicchetti. [pp. These were divided as to: • • • • • • ill-treated children (93). V. Reprod. 1989. ill-treated children scored lower than welfare children. Two meaningful factors emerged: • on a factor measuring secure readiness to learn in the company of novel adults. L. Special Issue: Early child maltreatment.. demographically matched non-ill-treated children from families receiving welfare benefits (67). and cognitive maturity. infant-parent attachment security... 9(2). 9 Extending this work into separate domains.. Develop. & Allen. K.M. The three domains were: relationships with novel adults. Topics in Early Childhood Special Education. 1987. Carlson. J. Aber & Allen 10. 8 As others have done.. [pp. Braunwald. Youngblade. Schneider-Rosen... & Belsky. K. & Psychopath. and dysfunctional peer relationships in toddlerhood. 23(3). Effects of maltreatment on young children’s socio-emotional development: An attachment theory perspective. Browne. & Saqi. Mother-infant interaction and attachment in physically abusing families.P. 1985.. and factorially analysed. D. Devlop. Attachment organization in maltreated pre-schoolers. used three cohorts of children aged from four to eight years. [pp. 397-411].

as well as severe discipline in early childhood. Their histories contain some indicators of childhood disruptive events such as family problems causing a parent to leave home. to a great extent. In her summary DeLozier interpreted the analysis of the data collected in her study as indicating that in childhood the abusing mothers experienced severe threats of abandonment and harm. and to be manifested at the time of the project. they were generally fearful. DeLozier (1979) reports the results of a research project in which a group of abusing mothers were compared to a comparable group of non-abusing mothers. from patterns of attachment dysfunction that are perpetuated within the family. In adulthood there is evidence that they viewed significant others as being generally inaccessible.Revised 9 November 2012 • on a factor measuring outer-directedness. the abusing mothers indicated that. The difficulties appeared to originate from threatened disruption of attachments. at the time of the birth of the later-abused child. Furthermore. They appeared not to have developed adequate internal representations of attachment figures and other significant individuals as reliable and accessible. both in their general expectations of significant others and in their pattern of response. primarily anxious attachment. and their feelings of helplessness anxiety. Theoretically the development of such attachment pathology (anxious attachment and detachment) in a child’s attachment system could later become incorporated into the adult attachment and care-taker systems and would thus affect both the development of parental behaviour and the development of attachment in the next generation. From this it was suggested that maltreatment. to have been influential in the childbirth experience of the mothers. and were dissatisfied with the availability of significant others. and anger in response to significant separation experiences. The children’s self-expectations and possibly parental expectations were that they should care for their parents and this added to a general uncertainty as to the availability of significant others. to projected separation from attachment figures. but did not differ significantly from each other. occurring during early childhood. especially mild separation. Thus the transmission of abusive parent-child interaction could be seen as resulting. but with some tendency toward detachment as well. There was a clear pattern of severe attachment disorders in the group of eighteen abusing mothers as compared with another group of eighteen typical mothers. DeLozier suggest that these findings support the prediction that the abusing mothers in the study have experienced difficulty in their childhood attachments Page 4 of 7 . disrupts the dynamic balance between the motivation to establish safe. She believed that all of the results were consistent with the present manifestations of attachment difficulties as assessed by the Separation Anxiety Test. On this test the abusing mothers indicated a high current level of attachment disorder. secure relationships with adults and the motivation to venture out to explore the world in a competent fashion. though not permanently. Thus it appears likely that the abusing mothers were handicapped by their own attachment difficulties in their initial steps toward maternal care-taking. Thus the abusing mothers in the study demonstrated their overall sensitivity to separation. During childhood the abusing mothers appear to have had to watch constantly for indications of impending separation and other threats to care-taking. felt alone and unsafe. ill-treated children and welfare children scored higher than middle-class children.

but in addition their pattern of attachment to their mother was also assessed. owing to the expectations that the mother maintains regarding attachment figures that they will be inaccessible and unreliable. as was a change in their pattern of interaction when the Page 5 of 7 . (Idem. were similarly assessed. especially if the expression of anger has been prohibited by the child’s fear of precipitating loss of care-taking. problematic (10). especially in inverted parent-child relationships. who exhibit a high degree of sensitivity to separation from significant others. the parent will be more than likely to discourage the child’s exploratory and self-reliant behaviour. If so. interpret the normal behaviour of their children as if it were actual or threatened rejection. developmental delay. adequate (10). Once anxious attachment has developed. thereby even further hampering the child’s development. Not only could the child’s normal exploratory behaviour elicit such a response. but even such behaviour as normal crying could function as a danger signal to the anxiously attached mother. She devised two experiments: EXPERIMENT 1 Thirty-eight low socio-economic scale infants. increased attachment need. whether they existed at birth. and helplessness. but also on encouragement of the child’s increasing self-reliance. Furthermore. and if the differences could be positively changed. responds to normal parent-child separation with intense levels of anxiety or anger. If the parent. self-blame. separation signals can trigger expression of intense anxiety and anger. The thirty-eight mothers of these infants. Thus the attachment-related response of the mother may result in the inappropriate direction of anxiety and anger toward the child who. and feelings of rejection. the development of competence in a child depends not only on the parent’s appropriate response to his attachment behaviour. decreased self-reliance. The dysfunctional development of anger and anxiety are two components of anxious attachment. neglecting (10). aged 15 to 49 years. resulting in consequent adult attachment difficulties as well as in possible difficulties in the development of appropriate care-taking behaviour. however. aged from two to 24 months. EXPERIMENT 2 Seventy-three low socio-economic scale infants.Revised 9 November 2012 and in the development of internal representations of significant others as accessible and reliable. these mothers would be likely to respond to such a misapprehension with dysfunctional levels of anxiety and anger and with feelings of rejection. were assessed in terms of: • • • • • • • congenital abnormalities. Crittenden assessed what the differences were between ill-treated and adequately reared infants. mother-child interactions. It seems possible that abusing mothers. aged from one to 19 months. were classified as: abusing (8). 1979) In a later study. There are implications that DeLozier perceives from her research and she summarises them as follows: The pattern of attachment dysfunction found in the abusing mothers in this research suggests the attachment-related origin of at least some of the inappropriate parenting directed toward their children.

14(1). The highest secure scores on attachment was directly related to the longest placement with the more sensitive care-givers. the abused subjects were difficult. the neglected subjects tended to be passive. were classified as: • • • • • • • • • abusing (17). Psychol. & Segal. adequate (13) The results gave evidence that: the mother initiates the maltreatment but both mother and infant behave thereafter to maintain the situation. assessment of the extent of attachment dysfunction in high-risk families. When intervention procedures were introduced with the mothers. such an intervention further strains the poorly developed attachment relationships within the family and 11 Crittenden. In this regard. Develop. Their mothers. Although sometimes mandatory for the child’s protection. and the attachment classifications were inconcordant.Revised 9 November 2012 sensitivity of a second adult was experimentally manipulated. & Psychiat. an attachment theory view of child abuse calls for the early detection of attachment disorders in both parent and child. P. for example. J. Children’s relationships with alternative care-givers: The special case of maltreated children removed from their homes. 12 In conclusion. [pp. 12 Page 6 of 7 . This approximated to a division between the more sensitive and less-detached caregivers on morning sessions. [pp. and somewhat helpless when stressed. 7181]. Jnl. problematic (22). the common practice of removal of the child from the home warrants careful inspection.. 11 It is important to understand how abused children react when they are placed into the care of alternative adults following abuse at home. and intervention with abusive families to reduce separation anxiety and support the more adequate development of attachment bonds. Child Psychol. neglecting (21). C. neglect. mildly delayed. Maltreated infants: Vulnerability and resilience. and angry when stressed..M.. the ill-treated subjects did not differ from adequately reared subjects in congenital characteristics. significantly delayed. 1993. Jnl. It was found that the children were just as likely to form insecure and particularly insecure-avoidant. 85-96]. than with the lesser motivated afternoon care-givers. & Allied Discp. The subjects did vary in their attachment behaviour depending upon the particular care-giver.. 1985. attachment relations with the alternative care-givers as might be expected had they remained at home. Howes & Segal investigated this situation with 16 children who had been removed from their homes owing to abuse and. Howes. aged 13 to 35 years. ill-treated subjects showed developmental gains and began to behave more co-operatively in their interactions. however the ill-treated subjects displayed some differences in characteristics that could have been affected by environmental conditions. Appl.. 26(1). or.

Revised 9 November 2012 further adversely affects the development of attachment and self-reliance in the child. if the child is to be returned home eventually. with the child either remaining in the home under close supervision or with frequent. separation in and of itself will serve to activate attachment behaviours upon reunion that further stress parent-child relations. • • DOCUMENT USE/COPYRIGHT Permission is granted to reproduce these materials in whole or in part for educational purposes only (not for profit beyond the cost of reproduction) provided that the author receives acknowledgement and this notice is included: Reprinted with permission from: For Want of a Better Good Author: Alan Challoner MA (Phil) MChS Any additions or changes to these materials must be pre-approved by the author. provide interventions in abusive and potentially abusive families that support the development of attachment bonds in children and remedy attachment dysfunctions in both children and adults. From the attachment theory Page 7 of 7 . and direct attention toward the provision of support to all parents in their rôle as care-givers. Crittenden’s work that suggests that some ill-treated infants actively contribute to their own misery needs careful consideration and efforts should be made to: • direct child-abuse treatment to the family unit where possible. albeit in another attachment relationship. prolonged contact between parent and child during separation. possibly eliciting further abuse. In particular it might be asked whether spouse abuse is a continuation of this effect . COPYRIGHT PERMISSION ACCESS Organization: PR Research 2008-2012 E-MAIL: oakwoodbank. If this outcome is comprehensively established then it has relevance in adult situations. Moreover. thus enabling them to provide more reliable and accessible caregiving to their children. therefore.

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