Unstable Parents and The Lasting Effect

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Unstable parents (Disordered parenting) can be traumatic and abusive for the child.  They experience neglect, emotional abuse and sometimes physical and sexual abuse.  For the purpose of this post I am referring to those parents with personality disorders and particularly the most severe forms who cause the most damage to families.


Yesterday I did a video advising how to provide stability to a child with an unstable parent.  Watch it here



About 4% of the general population are DIAGNOSED as having a personality disorder although this is higher in clinical groups.  There are different degrees of severity: only 1% is severe in terms of dysfunction and disability.  However with the population of the UK being 65.64 million, that means that 656,400 people (approximately) in the UK have severe personality disorder traits.  Not all of them will have children or go on to have children but it is still a significant number given than the average amount of children per household is 1.7.

The three main severe personality disorders identified in the DSM-V are: Antisocial, Borderline, Narcissisticpersonality disorders

(borrowed from Psychopathies and pathocharacterlogical development of personality)

What they all have in common though is a lack of empathy.  Healthy parenting requires both parent and child to recognise emotional cues from each other and their environment in order to form a secure attachment.  The inability to recognise the feelings of others will result in the attachment process becoming disordered and can result in avoidant, anxious and disorganised attachments for the children.

The outcomes for insecure and disorganised attached children are much poorer than for those who develop secure attachments.  It is therefore the responsibility of every professional who works with children to be able to recognise the attachment quality of a child in order to intervene in an effective way.


The power of attachment



Simple and often instinctive parenting behaviours, such as holding the baby lovingly and looking at the child with warm, happy smiles are key to the development of attachment. Just by talking to their child, and laughing and playing with them, parents teach children that
relationships are enjoyable and fun.

By picking up the child’s reactions and responding to their cries, and through their tone and body language, the parent builds trust in the child, reassuring them that they are loveable and their needs will be met. Children internalise this experience of warm, responsive care, and uses it to regulate their feelings and guide their behaviour, as they grow, and when parents are not there. This is what attachment theorists call the ‘internal working model’ of relationships. Later relationships, with other caregivers, peers, teachers, and ultimately
partners, can and do change these expectations and behaviours, but they themselves are influenced by the first attachments.

Biological and neurological pathways

The workings of sensitive and responsive parenting and attachment have also been seen at the level of hormonal changes and brain development. Our ‘stress response systems’ are thought to function somewhat like an immune system: they don’t necessarily affect the
number of stressful events that are part of life, but rather the reaction to them and ability to recover from them. Babies’ biological systems are immature and particularly sensitive; their ability to manage stress develops gradually and takes until around age four to fully emerge.
Strong emotional immunity comes from being helped to recover from stress; soothed, held and made to feel safe in these first years.
34 In contrast, babies can be flooded with very high levels of the stress hormone, cortisol, if no one is responding to them. Managing stress biologically parallels the psychosocial management of feelings: the secure child is able to tolerate whatever feelings come and find ways of dealing with them before they become overwhelming.

Neuroscientists also point to the importance of early parenting in the development of the infant brain.  The prefrontal cortex, and specifically the orbitofrontal cortex, in the brain is thought to be especially important in emotional regulation, processing and expressing
feelings, reading social cues and behaviour, and working memory, attention and decision making. Almost all of this area develops after birth. In the first year, a baby’s brain doubles in weight. Between six and twelve months in particular, there is a burst of brain development when attachment bonds are made. Research suggests that ‘toxic’ levels of stress – defined as ‘prolonged activation of stress response in the absence of protective relationships’ – can affect the infant’s developing brain. While the first years of brain development are not make or-break, they have been found to affect the child’s ongoing brain development in important ways, shaping both their social-emotional, and cognitive development.

(Adapted from Baby Bonds – Moulin et all, 2014)


Attachment Behaviours


‘Attachment behaviour’ is any behaviour designed to get children into a close and protective relationship with their attachment figure when they experience anxiety. This attachment system is an inbuilt mechanism for seeking proximity to a caregiver for protection, food and social interaction. It provides opportunities for learning about relationships and the environment. Three main attachment behaviours in infants are: signalling, such as cooing, laughing and smiling; aversive behaviours such as distressed crying; and making a direct approach towards caregivers.

Attachment can occur through the positive claiming cycle, positive interaction cycle and the arousal-relaxation cycle and help the child to form a view (Internal Working Model) of themselves in the world  The quality of attachment will impact their development on a physiological, emotional and behavioural level.


Types of attachment


There are four main types of attachment (some identify more and subgroups but for the purpose of this post we will focus on these four):

  • Secure
  • Insecure avoidant
  • Insecure anxious
  • Disorganised

Most people, approximately 60% of the population, have a secure attachment but the remaining 40% have either insecure or disorganised.  These styles can lead to much poorer outcomes for children even the development of a personality disorder.  It is therefore really important that parents know how to promote secure attachments.


If you are co-parenting with a narcissist, they will be unable to provide them with the positive attachment behaviours required to foster a secure attachment and therefore your role becomes even more important.  The best advice I can give you is to think of all the characteristics you want your child(ren) to have and how you want them to think about themselves and then set about modelling and reinforcing that behaviour.  So if, for example, you want them to fulfil their potential at school, give them lots of praise and support for everything they do at school.  Ensure you make school a positive experience for them by attending parents evening, helping them with homework and making learning fun.


The truth is though that we parent how we were parented as we developed our own attachment style.  If your own attachment is insecure or disorganised, it is likely that you will struggle to provide positive attachment experiences naturally.  I therefore strongly recommend that you attend counselling/therapy yourself and attend a local parenting programme.  If you would like to work on this with me, please feel free to book in for your FREE Break Free session.


If you are reading this and are worried that the damage has already been done, please know that we form many attachments in our lifetime and the more positive experiences we have, the more secure we come in ourselves and therefore start today.  Make a commitment to create more positive experiences in yours and your child’s lives.


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