The first 5 years of a child life are really important for their development. During this time they form an idea about themselves and other people.
A baby is crying.
The mother picks them up and tries to help “do you need changing? Or are you hungry? Do you need a nap? Do you want to play? What if I make baby noises and distract you with this mirror”
This mother is learning what different cry sounds mean.
This baby is learning that their mother/father loves them, they are good, their mother/father is good, and the world is a safe place.
Not every child has responsive parents, some children live with parents who may be neglectful, emotionally abusive or emotionally unavailable. Perhaps these parents are sometimes attentive but at other times they are not.
Unresponsive parents show these characteristics
- Not showing love and affection
- Not showing interest in the child’s life
- Not spending time with the child
- Being emotionally distant or cold
- Being disengaged and uninterested in child’s life
- Dismissing the child’s emotions
- Speaking with an unfriendly tone or not speaking to the child
- Having low expectations for the child
- Not providing guidance to the child
- Persistently finding faults with the child
- Being verbally aggressive as part of discipline
- Not praising your child for good behaviour
- Offering no encouragement
- Not celebrating milestones with your child
- Not considering the child’s needs or opinions
- Not being interested in family life
- Not providing for the child’s basic needs for food, warmth, healthcare, and personal hygiene.
Why talk about parenting in a blog about child aggression?
Children who experience unresponsive parenting, in particular early neglect, will learn different things as they grow up. Some of these may correlate with aggression:
- Low-self-esteem: They may blame themselves in order to maintain a view that their parent is good . The message is “I am bad” “I am unworthy” “I am inadequate”.
- Mood Swings from Anxiety to Depression: There may be times when the child is anxious and tries very hard to “get it right” or “be perfect”. There may be other times when they feel despair or hopeless because nothing can ever change. They may be withdrawn, helpless.
- Lack impulse control: when they perceive that they have been wronged, they may cry, have a panic attack or shout. They may be very sensitive about any perceived rejection.
- Low emotional intelligence: As their emotional needs have not been met, they may struggle to decode the emotions of others, perhaps missing positive emotional cues or assuming that sadness or fear is really anger.
- Rigid: As they have not learnt that they can rely on others they haven’t learnt to wait, therefor they may show a lack of adaptability to change plans, or not be flexible when problem solving.
- Controlling: as others have not always met their needs, they may have a need to always be in control. They may undermine others at home or school. They may rebel against boundaries or have a general disregard for authority.
- Hostile: they may be hostile or aggressive. They are more likely to use passive aggression than violence, such as damaging your reputation, giving the silent treatment, stealing or sabotage.
- Manipulative: They crave love but they also do not believe they can get love. This may lead them to seek closeness or intimacy or affirmation from unsuitable places. They may use persuasion, emotional manipulation, coercion or grooming to have a control over others in order to feel affection or gain approval. They may struggle with jealousy and fear abandonment. People who had unresponsive parents in those early years have a higher chance of harmful sexual behaviour.
- Seek belonging: They may be attracted to join a gang or other group which gives them a sense of belonging. They may see the group members as good and themselves as bad and so try hard to be accepted and fit in.
So it's the parents fault?
There is little purpose in blame. There are many barriers which may interrupt the parent-child bonding in those earlier years. Being clear and pointing them out may help some parents to change their responses or seek support.
For those who are already beyond the first five years, the main message is “what happened to you is not your fault, how you respond is your responsibility”.
That response may start with greater understanding.
Why would a parent be unresponsive?
There are many factors that can contribute to this.
- Separation – parent being hospitalised or in prison or needing to spend time away from home for other reasons.
- Poverty – if parents need to spend long hours at work in order to pay bills and there is not a suitable substitute who can provide one to one support
- Inadequate housing – if the housing is draughty or damp or unsafe the parent may need to spend more time trying to fix the environment rather than trying to support the child.
- Lack of knowledge on how to care – maybe the parent was neglected themselves and has never been shown how to care for others. Maybe the parent has severe learning needs and does not respond in a sensitive way. Maybe the parent has been given bad advice forcing them to be unresponsive “let the baby cry it out” “don’t spoil them with cuddles”. There may be cultural barriers; wealthy families with au pairs and boarding schools may expect parents to be distant.
- Lack of support – having a baby can be exhausting, especially if the baby is a poor sleeper. If there is no partner or no extended family to support new parents then the parent will not be able to meet all of the babies needs as quickly and effectively as a family that does have that support.
- Loneliness and social isolation – Back in 2019, there was a lot of research which said “loneliness was the biggest killer”. One of my biggest worries during the Covid-19 pandemic was around the long term impact of lockdown which isolated families from each other, and took away community support groups. I think we will be seeing the impact of lockdown for years to come. Social isolation can also be caused by other factors such as bereavement, war or relocating to a new area.
- Messy relationship breakup – if the parents separate in those early years the parent may have to focus more of their attention on the practical “where to live” “how to pay bills” or on their own emotional needs. There could be ways the baby reminds you of the partner which could also have an emotional impact on your relationship.
- Domestic abuse – parents who experience domestic abuse or intimate partner violence are restricted in what support they can offer; how can you comfort the baby when someone else is controlling your behaviour. How can you reassure the baby when you are not safe.
- Parental depression – mothers with post-natal depression or fathers with post-partum depression may find it much harder to meet the needs of their child. It is important to ask for help from the health visitors so that your baby and you can be supported.
- Parental alcohol or substance abuse -a parent who is abusing prescription drugs, drinking to excess or taking recreational drugs is not able to meet the needs of the baby.
Recognising the pattern is the first step, sometimes it is recognising repeated patters – how was your own relationship with your parents as well as with your child. Many of these relational patterns may be passed on as learnt behaviours for several generations.
If you know where it started from, you can take the first step to changing the internal messages. Noticing when the message is true “sometimes people need to leave” and when it is not true “people leave me because I am not worthy of love”.
A parent who has experienced child to parent violence who recognises some of the links to early unresponsive parenting can still seek support. Therapeutic parenting approaches such as non-violent resistance on using the PACE approach (playful, accepting, curious and empathetic) may help to build new way of connecting.
Adults who wish to change their own attachment approach may wish to consider an emotionally focused couples therapy approach to help their attachment patterns.
Find out more about attachment:
Four books on Attachment Theory:
Attachment in the Classroom by Heather Geddes – an essential read for anyone working in school or for parents whose children are struggling in school.
Creating Loving Attachments: Parenting with PACE to Nurture Confidence and Security in the Troubled Child by Dan Hughes and Kim Golding – focus on how to change parenting approach to change attachment patterns; especially recommended for adopted or fostered children.
Working with Attachment Difficulties in Teenagers: Practical & creative approaches by Sue Jennings – book for therapists supporting teenagers.
Attachment Theory: A Guide to Strengthening the Relationships in Your Life – if you have recognised your own patterns in this blog and want to change them, look here.
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