Caregiver Core Sensitivities with a Child Who Has an Avoidant Attachment
The caregiver of an insecure avoidant child encourages independence at the cost of close physical and emotional contact. In the AAI these caregivers are considered “dismissing” of attachment needs on the bottom of the Circle, as stated earlier. They tend to be uncomfortable with direct emotional communication and appear uneasy with the expression of need. Over time, the child of such a parent learns to inhibit direct expression of wants or needs for the caregiver.
Hence it is not surprising that typically in the Strange Situation such a child shows little distress when the parent is absent, tends to turn away from the parent upon reunion, and has a relationship strategy intended to not rock the emotional boat. As attachment theorists explain, such a child expects his attachment needs to be dismissed. To avoid the pain of rejection associated with cuing needs on the bottom of the Circle, this child begins to build a pattern of creating distance and prioritizing exploration and/or achievement, which, not coincidentally, is what the child’s parent emphasizes. Parents who emphasize achievement and exploration are often esteem sensitive and are usually comfortable on the top half while being dismissing of bottom-half opportunities.
Safety-sensitive parents are also dismissing of closeness and promote self-sufficiency in their child. They do this not because their self-esteem depends on achievement, but rather because they choose to have a certain emotional distance in the relationship as a way to protect the self from being engulfed or controlled. Because closeness to another person was not experienced as safe, a working model of relationship was established that systematically sacrificed intimacy to maintain distance. In its place, this person learned to prioritize self-sufficiency. As caregivers, even though they are genuinely interested in relationship, these adults tend to be very careful about showing it and remain vigilant concerning the intensity of the child’s need for direct connection. An underlying fear of being emotionally smothered and a sense of being imprisoned by the child’s needs remain salient themes in the caregiving relationship.
Sometimes we see a separation-sensitive parent foster an avoidant attachment with her child. In this case the parent promotes clinging behavior on the top of the Circle—for example, micromanaging the child’s exploration—not to boost the child’s achievement but so the child won’t go too far away. This parent is not trying to support the child’s exploration but is focused on the top of the Circle for the purpose of closeness. This parent also rejects or avoids the child’s needs on the bottom of the Circle because they trigger painful memories and feelings. The autonomous selfregulation required to manage and ultimately put aside her own feelings so she can soothe her child is filled with shark music, so this mother distracts her child with toys. The separation-sensitive parent’s need to be needed can be intrusive enough that the child learns to be avoidant to cope. This behavior can be particularly difficult for the separation-sensitive parent as it creates a relationship in which the parent feels abandoned, now having created her own worst nightmare.