What Happens When Attachment Fails?

In the first 2 years a baby develops from having at first no sense of being an individual (totally connected with mom and dad, then slowly gaining an awareness of 'not me'), then trying out their independence and coming right back to mom or dad, then eventually having an internalized positive image of parents (remembering that they are attached even when parents are not around). When children are unattached they lack an internalized object. Because of this, they do not mature, but instead continue to be self-centered, impulsive and “babyish” well into adulthood. Their concern is always “What’s in it for me?”.
If left unchecked this can lead to
problems such as narcissism in adulthood, where a person who has not been mirrored by parents and who has never met with their own limits (because they were too busy protecting themselves), becomes totally self-absorbed, needy, vulnerable, grandiose, no limits. A narcissistic person has little sense of self, so if you make suggestions to them they  fragment. They also tend to put people around them with power and prestige and need someone to idolize.


Within the first few months of life a child needs to emotionally attach to their parents, to know that they can be trusted to be there, for feeding, cuddling, providing for sleeping...just being there. 

When these needs for attachment are not
met,  it can lead to a relational disorder called borderline personality disorder which carries with it the core wound of abandonment. An abandoned child can grow up to be an adult with various stages of relational troubles on a scale from very mild…just not able to form and keep relationships with anybody (being a ‘trust bandit’ with their lives strewn with a series of broken relationships), to a full blown  psychopath. Unattached children have  consistent behavior marked by having a lack of ability to give and receive affection, no conscience, being manipulative, charming when it suits their purposes and self destructive with sneaky cruelty. In the book “High Risk, Children Without a Conscience” (Magid, 1989), the authors say that what happens, right or wrong, in the critical first two years of a baby’s life will imprint that child as an adult. A complex set of events must occur in infancy to assure a future of trust and love. If the proper bonding and subsequent  attachment does not occur – usually first between the child and the mother and also between the child and the father – the child will develop mistrust and a deep-seated rage and become a child without a conscience.

Detachment is not only an issue of dysfunction. It can be a  problem in an adoption; if a child has not attached to a caregiver in the first few weeks of life they may feel abandoned and become their own boss. Often parents who were adopting a child used to say, the baby is so “good”, they never even cry or anything. While this is possibly true, it is also possible for an unattached child to decide at a very early age that nobody is listening and therefore not engage from very young. Take time to attach your baby. Keep giving them hugs until they are able to respond and hug you back.


It is also important to note that detachment can even happen sometimes in very functional families when trouble happens, for example if a child is very sick and perceives that the parents have not been able to fix it and decides the parents are therefore not in charge and are ‘not there for them anymore’, the child may detach. However, being aware of your goal of attachment, holding your child while they cry, hugging them until they are able to hug back, letting them know that you are big enough to look after them (its very scary to be in charge and they will be very relieved), spending time reattaching them to you and to God their Father.

(Note to parents: If while reading this you
realize that you have never ‘attached’, the
good news is that you can attach to God
as your Father, and then you will have the
gift of attachment to offer to your baby.)