Attachment to Abusive Parents

Why do children not sever relationships with absuive parents? Srestha Mazumder investigates.

When children are abused, it seems only logical to us that they would become detached from their abuser. In most cases, the abuser is a parent. However, in this article we will be focusing specifically on the mother and the infant. Abuse can refer to physical, emotional or mental torture inflicted upon the infant. Any abuse, whether physical or psychological has detrimental effects on a child and their life as they grow older. Physical abuse is easily to identity. Bruises, cuts and black eyes scream to us that this child is victim to violent episodes at home. But psychological effects are impossible to be visually detected. They are so delicately imprinted into brains of infants that a skilled therapist is required to undress this abuse with the use of specific diagnostic tools and skills.

The Strange Situation Test is one of the many methods that can be used to seek out any definite signs of abuse. This test aims to uncover any signs of “disorganised attachment”. Disorganised attachment is when a child shows the need for a caregiver whilst simultaneously expressing signs of fear.

But what is it exactly that causes this attachment? After all, it’s an instinct to avoid any form of aversive stimuli. So why is it that we get attached rather than detached from abusive parents when logically, we should be doing the exact opposite.

The bond between a child and a caregiver is vital for survival. This significant biological imperative is so strong that once formed it is tough to break, even with an abusive caregiver.

Animals, including us, are hardwired to form attachments with our mothers. Although the attachment process begins before the child is born, the intensity of the attachment quickly accelerates after birth. Infants are programmed to have a preference of high frequency sounds of the human voice. The baby then familiarises itself with their mother’s voice and odours and hence constructs a concrete psychological bond. The concept of a child having a persistent bond with an abusive caregiver is mind boggling in itself. However, finding the explanation for such ‘absurd’ behaviour requires us to look into human behaviour/psychology.

The behaviourist model suggests that an animal will continue to carry out behaviours that provide them with a reward. Naturally, therefore, animals will tend to avoid behaviours that result then in receiving a punishment. Thus, logically one would think that a baby would avoid an abusive caregiver.

Experiments conducted on newborn rats have shown that they show a preference for odors that are an accessory to negative stimuli such as shocks or tail pinches.  Although they don’t like the negative stimuli, they like the odor and hence they form a good memory of a bad experience.

This provides us with an insight into why infants are attached to an abusive caregiver. Once the infant learns a preference, it remains a preference, no matter how bad it may be. Children are only able to form this link at an infant age and therefore when they are abused they learn an attachment between the stimulus and the bad events. Rather than learning an aversion a preference is learned.

One might question how such a disastrous preference is acquired. Some theories suggest that young animals are predisposed to learn maternal attachment, regardless of positive or negative experiences. This is because as children we are prepared to associate all situations and learnt associations as positive, with the mother. Inherently, we are predisposed to learn positive associations between stimuli and outcome.