I only started studying the affects of childhood abuse and neglect on psychology and development about a year ago. Since then, I’ve realized I can see the signs of abuse and neglect everywhere. It’s actually kind of unsettling. Sometimes people will tell me dreams or memories that just seem like novelties to them, but are actually kind of text book subconscious reactions to abuse. Or I’ll see an entire family with eating disorders and other problems that I suddenly realize are probably all connected to something going on in their home. Or I’ll see a man in the mall yelling at his kid and then he’ll start talking about how he never would have acted like his kid is acting when he was a child himself and I’ll suddenly realize that he was probably terrified most of the time he was growing up and because that’s all he’s known, he’s now passing it on to his own kid.
It’s kind of creepy, actually, the extent to which we wear our psychology on our sleeves if there is anyone there to look at it. I deal with this by just hoping that most of the people around me have not done this much reading on the subject. (And I’ve stopped talking about my dreams in public.)
OK, the unsettling part of this post is over. I’ve also realized, however, that animals react to trauma the same ways as humans. A friend of mine has a dog who she is pretty sure was beaten by a previous owner and who had been passed on from multiple homes. She can’t leave this dog home alone because he starts bashing his head against the ground. This is the exact same kind of self-harm, which I spoke of last week, that a child exhibits when experiencing unbearable psychological pain–in this case the pain probably stems from a fear of abandonment when the primary attachment figure (my friend) is gone.
I have been trying to understand this thing called attachment better. The idea behind attachment theory, from what I understand, is that we are programmed to depend on others. This starts in childhood when we are attached to first our mothers and then our parents and then an ever increasing, perhaps, circle of people who we can depend on to meet our physical and emotional needs. Then in adulthood we base our primary attachments in our romantic relationships.
It seems like our ability to develop into healthy, independent adults is based on our capacity for attachment and our response to stress and trauma depend on how secure our primary attachment relationships are. Kids who exhibit self-harm, particularly young kids who tear out their hair, bite their nails to the quick, and bang their heads against the walls, are probably insecurely attached–in other words, they don’t feel like there is anyone who they can trust without question. So they don’t feel safe in the world.
But the capacity for attachment can be learned when the person finds himself within a more loving and secure relationship–many hurt and abused children grow up to find a loving partner with whom they learn to feel secure. Or a foster kid finds a happy home and eventually learns to trust her safe and loving caretakers.
But the path that we take to love and security affects how we then do love. Please forgive me, but this entire post is really just to get us to a really interesting observation I made with my two cats the other day. The older cat, Squeakers, is around 18. We got him two years ago. He had been passed from a few homes, the most recent of which he had been living with several other cats and a few dogs. He was fearful and never left their bathroom. Our other cat, Lefty, we got almost a year ago as a tiny kitten.
Now we are very loving cat owners. (Well, at least I am, and my partner has come to really appreciate them and occasionally dote on them.) This is a safe and secure environment where their physical and emotional needs are being met. But I’ve noticed a distinct difference in their level of security and need for attention that I think is related to their childhoods.
Lefty has been with us since he was a kitten–he’s grown from kittenhood having all his needs met, being petted and fed whenever he wanted. Squeakers has been passed back and forth and was neglected in his youth. Both cats are securely attached to us at this point, but they behave very differently.
For the longest time, Squeakers would run and hide whenever a male entered our house or whenever we had guests over, period. He has just in the past few months gotten so he didn’t need to hide. And he has always let me pet him, but it took him a longer time to be comfortable letting my partner pet him. And he has only in the past few weeks finally started letting a few of our friends who are over most often pet him. Essentially, he finds it hard to trust others, but is gradually learning to expand his circle of trusted people (because he has discovered that trusting can be safe and rewarding)–just as a child who has gone from neglect to safety would do.
Lefty, on the other hand, has never had any difficulty being around other people. He is clear that my partner and I are his primary people, but he openly gives and receives affection with others. As a kitten, he was happy to play with neighbor children for hours on end. And when we have big potlucks at our house, he is most often to be found exactly in the center of the people–not necessarily wanting to be touched, but quite clear that there is nothing to be feared from so many people. He has no need to learn to trust because he has no experience of a world in which people don’t want to love him.
And there’s another difference, too. If I am home, Squeakers seems to find it almost unbearable if he is not in my lap. He is starting to ease up on this a tiny bit–is learning to go sit on my partner’s lap if I push him off–but really he seems to need nearly constant affection to be sure that we are not going to desert him. Lefty, on the other hand, sometimes wants to be petted (and it seems quite sweet when he’s in that mood since it happens so much less often than Squeakers), but he is not at all offended if you push him away, and he very decidedly has his own schedule for affection. And he has no problem whatsoever getting affection from others when it suits his fancy. In short, Lefty is secure and, therefore, independent. Whereas Squeakers is still learning that loving is safe, and he needs a lot more attention to feel secure.
Pay attention to the kids around you–they do these things, too. A secure, happy kid from a loving, attentive environment will have no trouble making friends and accepting affection. A kid from an unhappy, abusive home will pick fights, will isolate himself. A kid who has recently found himself in a new and loving home will need to constantly be near his caretaker (after hiding from her and pushing her away for a good long while) to make sure that she isn’t going to abandon him, as well.
Next Week’s Topic: How adversity hinders literacy and what graphic novels can do to help.