Attaching and Connecting to Your Child: Risk Factors

The normal process of attachment can be derailed in a number of ways. Some are under the parents’ control and some are not. Unfortunately, bad things can happen even in the strongest and most well-adjusted family.

As a mom or a dad, you can save yourself a lot of grief and confusion by developing an awareness of these risks from the very beginning. They may also help explain some behaviors you currently see in one of your children that doesn’t seem to be able to be explained away. We can divide these risks into two categories: risks of nature and risks of nurture.

Risks of Nature

As we saw in Rhonda and Hunter’s story, a number of physical or medical situations can pose a threat to the development of healthy attachment in children, including:

  • a difficult pregnancy or prenatal trauma. Included in this category are various forms of medical trauma, such as a small hemorrhage or a loss of oxygen experienced by the infant, drug or alcohol use, anxiety, depression, or stress in the birth mother during pregnancy.
  • a difficult birth or delivery. This could be any medical trauma associated with complications during the labor process.
  • early hospitalization of the infant due to premature birth or medical complications requiring surgery or special care. Related issues, such as the pain of injections or minimal nurturing during a hospital stay, may also add to the problem.

Risks of Nurture

Attachment can also be impaired by unfortunate life events and negative developments in the relationship between parent and child, including:

  • toxic stress. Formally called adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), toxic stress can include a wide variety of illnesses, mental illnesses, childhood trauma, and circumstances that negatively affect a child. People with four or more adverse childhood experiences are four-and-a-half times more likely to develop depression than the general population, and twelve times more likely to become suicidal.
  • adoption. If you adopted your child, the prebirth background and situation, and the situation into which the child is being introduced, may also qualify as significant stressors. Adoption always entails a period of readjustment, and this can be stressful even under ideal circumstances—even if the baby was taken home directly from the hospital after birth. Be careful not to jump to conclusions, though. Adoption doesn’t automatically mean your child has attachment issues, but it’s something to be aware of and keep in mind.

What Are ACEs?

Adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) are:

  • physical abuse,
  • emotional abuse,
  • sexual abuse,
  • emotional or physical neglect (which typically causes even greater trauma than abuse),
  • parental mental illness,
  • parental substance dependency,
  • incarceration of a parental figure,
  • parental separation or divorce,
  • exposure to domestic violence.

Children are especially sensitive to repeated stress because their brains and bodies are still developing. High doses of ACEs affect:

  • brain structure and function,
  • the developing immune system,
  • the developing hormonal system,
  • how the DNA is read and transcribed.

All of these negatively impact a child’s ability to process life’s situations in a healthy way. No wonder statistics indicate that people exposed to numerous ACEs have a life expectancy twenty years lower than that of the general population.

Lesson Complete!