Entropy Rules

Outcome Examples:

Maltreatment And Insecurely Attached Children

    The drive to maintain the attachment bond with a caregiver is so strong that children will form attachments even with maltreating caregivers (Freyd & Birrell, 2013). Unfortunately, the quality of that attachment relationship differs in key ways from secure attachments, impairing optimal development (Becker-Blease & Kerig, 2016). Maltreatment is associated with parental behavior that is confusing, frightening, or otherwise distressing to the child (e.g., Hesse, Main, Yost, & Rifkin, 2003; Lyons-Ruth, Bronfman, & Parsons, 1999). The child's experience of distress is a cue to seek out the primary caregiver for comfort and assistance resolving the distress. However, an abusive or maltreating caregiver is both the source of distress as well as the person whose default role is to soothe the child. Thus the child is left to make sense of cues that simultaneously urge the child to avoid or flee from the parent while simultaneously propelling the child towards the parent - a situation termed "fright without solution" that is linked to toxic stress (e.g., Siegel & Hartzell, 2014). Since child maltreatment is usually an ongoing condition rather than a single event, chronically misattuned attachment relationships produce chronic toxic stress that exert deleterious effects on physical, emotional, cognitive, and interpersonal development (see Norman et al., 2012 for a review). Fear is the typical response to the chronic stress of maltreatment, especially in the first years of life.
    When maltreatment persists unregulated for an extend period of time, dissociation is a common outcome. Dissociative behaviors occur on a continuum but all are characterized by a fundamental detachment from the external environment, with more attention directed towards subjective experiences of coping internally (Schore, 2001). Dissociative coping may be adaptive in uncontrollable circumstances where the likelihood of having one's needs met is low because dissociation conserves energy, and inhibits potentially problematic behavior (e.g., crying) that could trigger further maltreatment. Thus dissociation may adaptively allow the child to remain "unseen", avoiding further opportunities for maltreatment, and developing alternative strategies for self-soothing (Schore, 1994). Dissociative coping resembles aspects of PTSD symptomology, including emotional numbing, avoidance, excessive compliance, and flattened affect (Schore, 2003b). Dissociation appears to be a primary strategy employed by children who must live in maltreating situations where the caregiver is consistently or erratically unavailable or unreliable at helping the child meet their needs and regulate distress.
    The effects of chronic fear and dissociation can be observed in the disorganized attachment style that has been observed in approximately 80% of maltreated infants (Carlson, Cicchetti, Barnett, & Braunwal, 1989). The behavior observed in disorganized children signals what Hesse and Main (2000) referred to as a "collapse of strategies". The child is in an essentially unsolvable predicament with no apparent strategy for getting their needs met. Fright without solution sets the stage for repetitive approach-avoid behavioral looping characteristic of disorganized attachment, which uniquely predicts dissociative propensities and relationship difficulties later in life (Hesse & Main, 2006).
    No genetic contributors to disorganized attachment have yet been identified, suggesting this problematic attachment style, like all attachment styles, is a product of the cumulative interactions between caregiver and child (Hesse & Main, 2006). Individuals who lack a secure attachment relationship early in life are less likely to develop emotion regulation skills and optimistic cognitive schemas. Importantly, severe interpersonal trauma in early life can override existing resilience factors (De Bellis, 2001). It has been suggested that disorganized attachment may be the first observable manifestation of child psychopathology, and the earliest measurable risk factor for a problematic developmental trajectory (Bernier & Meins, 2008).Problematically, when a dissociative tendency is established in the first 2 years through maltreatment, there is a higher likelihood the child will respond to future episodes of maltreatment with dissociation, a risk factor for developing PTSD symptomology (i.e., unresolved trauma; Sroufe et al., 2005). Dissociative behavior is particularly concerning in that it involves a weakening of executive functioning; two processes (approach/avoid) run in tandem, reducing the ability of the dissociator to choose an effective response (Hesse & Main, 2006).
    Parents with an unresolved history of child maltreatment are at greater risk of having their pasts influence their current state of mind with respect to parenting in a way that leads to suboptimal outcomes (Siegel & Hartzell, 2014). Parents who are at risk of maltreating their children tend to be single parents of young age (less than 21 years), with little education and low annual income (Appleyard, Egeland, van Dulmen, & Sroufe, 2005; Sameroff, 1998). Especially in the case of a caregiver who has not made sense of their own experiences of maltreatment, the caregiver sets the interpersonal conditions that either confirm or disconfirm the child's perceptions of self, other, and world, thus shaping the child's emerging internal working models.
    Many factors influence the extent to which parents are willing and able to respond to their child's bid for connection. For parents with a maltreatment history, some aspects of their development make it more difficult to respond to their child's fear, anger, and sadness in effective ways that would promote optimal developmental. For example, the parent's unresolved history of maltreatment may affect communication with their child, leading to automatic misinterpretations of the emotional signals from their children. "Miscues" happen when the parent fundamentally misinterprets the child's emotional experience in such a way that the child's behavior does not effectively restore the responsivity and availability of the caregiver (Kobak & Madsen, 2008). In the absence of a good-enough response, the distress and associated behavior are likely to continue, and the caregiver is at risk of experiencing and expressing distress in turn, which could lead to overt maltreatment as the parent unskillfully acts out from their own distress. Even in the absence of overt maltreatment, a "2nd generation effect" of child maltreatment has been found. Second generation effects occur when problematic but not maltreating attachment interactions occur. For example, the parent may (intentionally or automatically) display dissociated, frightened, and/or threatening parental behavior (Hesse & Main, 1999; Van Ijzendoorn, Schuengel & Bakermans-Kranenburg, 1999).
    In summary, due to the nature of the attachment relationship, children who are maltreated are likely to experience a "fright without solution" predicament, which over time can result in disorganized attachment with the parent, chronic toxic stress, and an increased reliance on dissociative coping tendencies. These factors set the child on a compromised developmental trajectory, involving negative cognitive schemas about the self, others, and the world, compromised emotion regulation capacities, underdeveloped socioemotional skills (such as those involved in interpersonal communication) and an ongoing tendency towards dissociation. Together, these risk factors make the maltreatment of the subsequent generation more likely.


⇲ About The Author

Robin Hertz, MA is currently in the process of completing a PhD in Clinical Psychology at the University of Oregon.

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