Your Kids May Have Attachment Issues; That Doesn’t Mean It’s Your Fault

by | May 9, 2022 | Parenting Teens, Parenting Young Kids, Research | 29 comments

Seeing attachment theory without blame
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When my daughter Rebecca was 19 months old, her baby brother died.

He was only a month old.

We learned when I was about 5 months pregnant about his heart condition, and that things would be very touch and go. We spent the last four months of the pregnancy petrified of what was going to happen, and so scared of losing him.

And then we did.

For the next few months I was in a grieving haze too. We tried to keep Rebecca’s life as normal as possible, keeping her routine as much as possible. Keith took a few weeks off of work and we went to the zoo and some big parks and tried to make some memories with her. But we were a mess.

I became pregnant with Katie just two months after he passed away. I was so scared all through her pregnancy that I would lose her too. And I knew the dangers to her of me trying to make her take her brother’s place. I tried so hard to love her for her (and I think I more or less succeeded). But there was absolutely no way that I did that perfectly.

Rebecca and I have talked about how she missed some developmental milestones between one and two years of age.

Maybe she’ll talk about it on a podcast coming up, because she understands developmental milestones better than I do, but the stuff that you’re supposed to have down pat before a year of age she learned with flying colours, and the stuff that you solidify after age two she learned with flying colours, but the stuff between one and two she’s often had issues with, likely because that year was the most stressful of our lives, and Keith and I just weren’t focused on her. We were focused on her brother and we were focused on ourselves.

And really, it couldn’t have been any other way.

The fact that Rebecca’s development and attachment was affected was not my fault.

But that doesn’t mean that it WASN’T affected. And I think part of being a good parent is  helping your kids acknowledge where their well-being and their lives may have been messed up, even by things that aren’t your fault.

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We live in an imperfect world, which means that no one is going to escape without some sort of attachment issues from childhood.

Sometimes that can be due to a parent’s selfishness or maliciousness or laziness, but often it’s not. Often parents are doing the best they can do, but other things come into play.

  • A sibling’s illness or death
  • A grandparent’s illness or death right around key developmental times in a child’s life
  • The marriage breaking up and the mom (or dad, if he becomes the primary caregiver) have to deal with the grief of that and the legal fights while also working to support the family
  • Money issues mean that primary caregivers work long hours and find themselves exhausted
  • Your own illness, anxiety, or depression
  • Marriage issues between the parents even if a divorce doesn’t occur–a parent’s affair; discovery of porn use; even abuse
  • Moving away from your support system and being exhausted and lonely yourself
  • Going through outside trauma, like accidents, betrayal, or sexual abuse from those other than the main caregivers

And I could go on. And on. And on.

Because sometimes life is really, really difficult and it isn’t your fault. But that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t affect your kids.

We need to get to a place where we can acknowledge that our kids may have been affected by things we went through

A woman commented on social media last week that my series on attachment, where I went over the four different attachment styles, can shame moms with post-partum depression. That was never, ever my intention, and I certainly don’t want anyone to feel like I am saying that it’s your fault if your child suffered in those days.

What I hope we can do is separate the conversations of attachment styles and attachment injuries from fault.

I mean, think of the trauma that the children from Ukraine are currently going through. That is going to affect them, and that is also not their parents’ fault.

Just because your child has issues that the need to deal with does not mean that we should feel guilty or that we are to blame. Sometimes life just happens.

I think the reason that we feel it’s our fault is this idea that we’re supposed to protect our kids from everything.

If something negatively affects them, then, it must be our fault.

Since that’s too horrible to believe, then it’s easier to say, “any discussion of how my stress/job insecurity/divorce/mental illness etc. affected my kids is off limits.”

But part of being a good parent is allowing your child to talk about the things that affected them.

I believe that I have raised my girls to be able to do this openly, and not just about Christopher. Keith and I had issues with yelling; we did it far more that I’m proud of. I wasn’t always as organized as I wanted to be, and that certainly affected our daily lives. So many things I can point to where I didn’t do an awesome job.

But you know what? I did good. I wasn’t perfect, but considering our circumstances, I did pretty well indeed.

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Can we celebrate being a good enough parent rather than a perfect parent?

One of the big things that differentiates families of emotionally healthy kids with families where they’re not emotionally healthy is the ability to talk about the parents’ mistakes or the children’s pain. Sometimes the children’s pain isn’t even caused by the parents, but think about how many kids who have been the victims of abuse have been pressured to get over it, simply because the parents can’t handle thinking about it anymore and want to put it out of their minds.

Or we’re so focused on our own recovery from substance abuse or mental illness or even a destructive marriage that we can’t talk about what that recovery period may have done to our kids.

Sometimes you’re dealt a really difficult hand. Maybe you yourself had very anxious or avoidant attachment, as we looked at last week. Combine that with marrying someone who is also distant, add serious money issues into the mix, and maybe a grandparent dying, and it’s really a miracle you got through anything at all!

I hope we can simultaneously show grace for ourselves while also noting where our kids may need some repair work, or even just the right to talk about how things affected them.

Think about how often in the Bible a person’s faults are mentioned and talked about, while simultaneously they’re praised for loving God. We don’t need to gloss over the more difficult parts of our lives. The whole point of our walk with Jesus is grace!

My daughter Rebecca is a better mom than I was.

And I’m so proud of that! She did so much research on sleep, and if I had done what she has done with her two kids, I would have had so much more energy to be a present parent, especially with Katie. She and Connor have researched teaching emotional regulation, and I can see the difference in the way Alex (who is 2 1/2) processes his emotions. Rebecca had such temper tantrums, and all I knew to do was time outs. They never worked. What she is doing with Alex is so much better! I love watching it.

I hope one day Alex and Vivian will be even better parents than their mom and dad were. And if something happens that throws the family through a loop, I hope they can talk about it openly.

And we need to let go of the fact that our parents had to be perfect too!

Sometimes one of the biggest roadblocks to our own growth is that we can’t grow unless we admit that something our parents did, even unintentionally, may have hurt us. The idea of admitting they weren’t perfect or made some mistakes is so terrifying and shameful that we instead blame ourselves for our issues, feeling like we are bad, dirty, or shameful. That seems safer than acknowledging our parents may have been wrong.

But admitting that your parents may have done the best they could–or even that they were sometimes selfish or malicious–does not mean that you can’t also be grateful for the things that they did right or that you can’t also love them.

Often it’s hard to talk about attachment styles because it seems like we’re criticizing your parenting, or your parents’ parenting.

What I’m hoping we can do this month as we look at attachment is let go of this dichotomy. It can be both/and. Your parents may have made mistakes, and they may still be good parents. You may have made mistakes, and still be good parents.

It isn’t about blame. It’s about understanding.

Because when we understand why we act like we do, then we can start to address some of the unhelpful coping patterns in our lives that are holding us back. We can address some of the attachment injuries that are still affecting us today and stopping us from enjoying awesome relationships.

That all starts with the ability to name what happened.

I hope we can get there; and I hope we can see that my intention in doing this series is not to shame anyone. It’s actually to help free us!

Seeing Attachment Theory without Blame

How can we get to the point where we don’t expect ourselves to be perfect parents? How can we talk about our mistakes? Let’s talk in the comments!

Sheila Wray Gregoire

Sheila Wray Gregoire

Founder of To Love, Honor and Vacuum

Sheila is determined to help Christians find biblical, healthy, evidence-based help for their marriages. And in doing so, she's turning the evangelical world on its head, challenging many of the toxic teachings, especially in her newest book The Great Sex Rescue. She’s an award-winning author of 8 books and a sought-after speaker. With her humorous, no-nonsense approach, Sheila works with her husband Keith and daughter Rebecca to create podcasts and courses to help couples find true intimacy. Plus she knits. All the time. ENTJ, straight 8

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Sheila Wray Gregoire

Author at Bare Marriage

Sheila is determined to help Christians find biblical, healthy, evidence-based help for their marriages. And in doing so, she's turning the evangelical world on its head, challenging many of the toxic teachings, especially in her newest book The Great Sex Rescue. She’s an award-winning author of 8 books and a sought-after speaker. With her humorous, no-nonsense approach, Sheila works with her husband Keith and daughter Rebecca to create podcasts and courses to help couples find true intimacy. Plus she knits. All the time. ENTJ, straight 8

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29 Comments

  1. Codec

    I had no idea that you lost a child. May his memory be for a blessing.

    I have learned a lot from you. I hope I continue to.

    Reply
  2. A2bbethany

    I’ve actually been thinking about that concept for years. That each generation is supposed to be an improvement on the last one. But how a perfect generation is impossible, because each generation makes their own mistakes and priorities. and my example is always of Xmas celebration styles.
    Growing up, until about 16, my family barely celebrated Xmas. We went to a Christmas play and then we read the Xmas story with our nativity. That was it.. other than watching “it’s a wonderful life”, my dad’s fave (I hated it).
    Contrast? My brother and his family go cut down a live tree and do DIY decor for the house. They go pretty all out!
    They are both fixed on very different aspects of the children’s experience! Both can be considered wrong, depending on how you interpret their motivation.
    My only parenting philosophy is:
    Relationships and connection
    I’ve seen it transform siblings into good friends from headlocked stubborn fights.
    (My mom has mellowed after I turned 16-17, and now does gifts and a tiny tree.)

    Reply
    • Codec

      I like that. You can not have a perfect generation.

      Generational frustration is an interesting topic. Reminds me of a moment in Fight Club where Tyler calls himself and his peers ” The middle children of history”

      Reply
  3. CMT

    Speaking of things beyond our control that negatively affect our kids… anybody else feeling like you’re going to be unpacking the impact of COVID for, well, ever? My kids were 7, 5 and barely 1 month old when our area locked down. Things feel back to normal here now in daily life (I wouldn’t say they really ARE back to normal but that’s a different story), but the kids definitely have felt the stress of it all.

    Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Oh, yes! Perfect example of things that aren’t our fault that can still have negative effects.

      Reply
    • Meghan

      Oh yes, absolutely. My daughter was 2 1/2 when COVID started. She’s missed 2 years of daycare because of it. She didn’t get to play with any kids for a really long time…maybe a year?…and can still only play with kids when they’re outside. My husband and I are both high risk so we figured being an orphan would be much worse than missing out on a year of social development, but I still hurt for her and all she’s missed out on.

      Reply
      • CMT

        Yeah… we also realized we couldn’t keep attending our church within a few months of that, so there was a big loss there too. It was like a one-two punch. Even now my oldest has zero capacity to handle stress some days. And my littlest is much shyer than her older brothers were. Maybe because she has had a tiny fraction of the interactions with less familiar people that they had by age 2. I’m hoping that keeping communication open as they grow up will help them process this, but some days I just don’t know.

        Reply
  4. Meredith

    What I struggle with is not that my parents made mistakes- I’m a parent myself and I’m already planning that my kids will have therapy when they’re older because of my mistakes!- it’s that my parents aren’t even open to having a conversation about how certain things they did or didn’t do, combined with the religious environment we lived in, caused me a lot of trauma. It’s like they’re deeply offended by even the idea that they may have gotten some things wrong, and that makes it impossible to talk with them honestly about what I’m going through as an adult.

    Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Yes, I think that’s really common (and very tragic). IT’s like, you want to talk so that you can actually build intimacy so they know where you’re at and what you’re feeling, but they won’t talk about it, which actually keeps you at arm’s length and perpetuates everything. I’m sorry.

      Reply
    • Nessie

      Meredith- I feel you on that in many ways. I think it adds hurt to try to repair a broken relationship and know it is more important to them to maintain an image of perfection than it is to be real, honest, and develop connection/healthier relationships.

      Reply
  5. Sonya

    So excited for more of this series! I’ve worried and wondered about my and my kids attachment, but many resources send me into an anxious mindset that can take some time to recover from. And while I’m working through that anxiety I notice I’m more emotionally distant from my kids. Setting the stage this way allows me to not have to fight as much to keep reminding myself that we’re all doing our best and having a sincere, open look at where things may have gone poorly can equip us to heal and do better.

    Reply
  6. Amy

    Something I have pondered a lot in my own family is how a tragedy could impact a family for generations. My great-grandfather died when my grandpa was 9 years old right at the start of the Great Depression. How did Grandpa not having a father after age 9 impact his life and his ability to parent his own children? Subsequently, how did Grandpa’s parenting impact my dad’s parenting of me and my siblings?

    Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      I think of this as a whole generational thing for sure. Think about it: Boomers were raised by parents who had gone through a Depression and a War. What must that have done to a whole generation?

      I read recently that the idea of a housewife focusing solely around her husband was largely a reaction to World War II when the men went missing and everyone was paranoid they wouldn’t come home. So after the war women oriented their lives around the men and the kids raised themselves.

      Not sure how much of that is true, but it was interesting food for thought.

      Reply
      • Amy

        I have seen theories similar to that explored. Basically, the men returning from WWII had PTSD that we didn’t know how to treat, so the “solution” was for them to go to work and come home to a nice, peaceful home. It was just a whitewash for all the war trauma they experienced.

        Reply
  7. Mara R

    I am the oldest daughter of an oldest daughter of an oldest daughter of an oldest daughter.

    And I mean oldest. No sons before those daughters. And I gotta tell ya. That is a lot of baggage.

    Oldest daughters are often the ones that have all the responsibility with no hope of any real authority.

    I can just about pick the oldest daughters of any age out in about any crowd.

    I once watched a little sister be crazy and out of control in a very nice department store while the older sister stood shyly off to the side. When the mom turned around to see the little one acting up, who did she yell at? Not the little sister. She yelled at the big sister who wasn’t doing anything. This older sister knew that she would be blamed and held accountable for what her little sister did, something she had no control of.

    I once heard a story from an overweight young lady named Lacey. She said that when she was younger she quit going outside to play with her younger siblings. When her mother asked her why, she said that any time she was out there with them, if any one of the started crying for any reason, the first thing that he mother would scream out the back door was, “LACEY!!!!!!”

    I was regularly shamed with, “You are older, you should know better.”

    I believe I was in my thirties before I started asking myself some important questions like, “Who am I older than? The whole world? Who should I know better than? The whole world?”

    My great grandmother was terribly abused. She, in turn, abused my grandmother. My grandmother did better. But she still was emotionally detached from my mother. My mother did better than Grandma, but she was not very nurturing. My own kids used to call me robot mom because they rarely, if ever, have seen me cry or show strong emotions in anything.

    But we talk. We talk a lot about a lot of things, include the above history and how hard it was for me to co-parent with someone who is on the Narcissistic Spectrum. And we talk about my mistakes and regrets.

    I have even let my oldest daughter know that I’m really glad, that God, in His wisdom, saw fit to give me two sons before my first daughter. This way, all the baggage I hadn’t worked through yet would not have been automatically dumped on her. Sure, she got some anyway. But nothing like what was dumped on me.

    Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      That’s so interesting, Mara (and sad!).

      I think it’s amazing how much insight you have. I think that’s often the beginning of change, when we can name things. It’s great that you can talk about these things with your kids!

      Reply
  8. R

    Wow, I knew about your Christopher, but I didn’t realize the timing lined up so similarly with our experience. — middle child died when older child was about 18 months; pregnant with third child about five months later. And I was terrified about third child too, but what happened wasn’t what I worried about. Third child’s life was never in danger, but there’s a serious lifelong disability instead, and it has caused a different type of grief. And there was a whole host of other issues within the marriage and external stuff. AND I feel like I absorbed toxic parenting ideas from evangelicalism. It is very hard not to look back in constant regret. I appreciate your efforts to help people try to move past the blame game. It’s not easy to put the blame/shame/regret behind.

    Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Oh, wow, R, I’m so sorry about your loss too! And the burden that you carry today. That’s so rough.

      Katie was so healthy from day one, and so I never walked through what you did. And, yes, having to deconstruct from harmful toxic stuff wasn’t something I really had to do much either. I hope you’re finding some freedom and spae to breathe!

      Reply
  9. Debi

    Sheila and Keith, such hard won wisdom. You allowed God to take your pain and turn it into blessing others.

    Reply
  10. Jane Eyre

    I think that part if being a good parent is knowing that you aren’t a perfect parent and being willing to understand the problems. In the workplace, people expect you to know the difference between mission-critical issues and “we are all human,” and there’s no reason that can’t be done at home, too.

    If you didn’t send your kid to the summer camp they really want to go to because you thought they were being frivolous and didn’t understand a budget, that happens. Accept that you might have hurt your kid by blowing them off and do better next time. If you insist on sending your kid back to a camp with an abusive counsellor, you are screwing up so badly that no apology might ever suffice.

    If your adult child tells you that you really screwed up, you have two choices: take off your blinders or move down the path to estrangement. My father cannot ever admit that he is wrong. He can’t even do it when he was wrong for understandable reasons. He cannot admit that his blind spots hurt people, especially his kids. I regularly pray that I never have to lay eyes on him again.

    Reply
  11. Stefanie Melo

    This is so important!

    I grew up Christian and my mom did SO MUCH BETTER than what was modeled for her, and she did it mostly as a single mama.

    There were things that were still harmful, but questioning or bringing up those things came with a message that I was ungrateful or that she wasn’t “good enough.”

    This has carried into my adult life, and learning (mostly through Maria Montessori’s educational approach) a healthier way has been a bumpy process. Learning not to judge everything, “good” and “bad” are both judgements, is so freeing for me as a daughter AND a mother

    Reply
  12. Anon

    My life has been an unending hell since I was six months pregnant with my oldest. I pray every day that God will somehow provide them what I can’t. I’m so angry that I used to be a happy and energetic person and I looked forward to motherhood so much. Now I mostly just exist and feel nothing most of the time, and when I do feel anything it’s sadness and rage. I hate that my kids have gotten short changed and sometimes I wonder why God gave them to me and then took away everything I needed to mother them.

    Reply
    • Meredith

      I’m so sorry to hear of your struggles. How old are your kids? Have you seen a doctor or a psychologist? It honestly sounds like something is deeply wrong with your brain and/or body. You deserve to feel happy.

      Reply
  13. Alice

    Wow… I cannot begin to describe how much I needed this. I had severe postpartum depression immediately following the birth of my daughter. And it’s taken me over a year to fully bond with her, to grow into motherhood, to heal, and to be the mother I always dreamt of being. There is so much I could say… I could fill pages and pages with the details of our story… but suffice it to say that even though I never chose PPD, and even though I did everything I possibly could to fight it as soon as possible and as hard as I could, I still feel so much guilt. I’m terrified that my daughter will be irreparably damaged mentally and emotionally because of how much I struggled during the first year, and especially the first six months, of her life. I’m so afraid that we will never have the relationship I long for with her because of how messed up I was for all of those weeks and months. It’s like I needed someone to remind me that even though I was the one with ppd, it wasn’t my fault. Thank you for this, from the depths of my heart.

    Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      I’m glad you found it helpful, Alice! And I’m glad you’re on the other side now. That must have been so, so hard.

      Reply
  14. GCB

    I want to add that another thing that can massively affect a child’s attachment styles is their school environment, especially if it’s toxic.

    This had a huge role in my psyche, both as a Christian and as a person. You’re exposed there at least as much as you’re exposed with your family and you’re in for some massive cognitive dissonance if you’re rotating between two very different environments with very different auras and no proper understanding of psychology or healthy coping mechanisms…or words or confidence that you can be honest with others about what’s going on with you and how you’re being affected.

    Reply
  15. Christine

    Really liked this post and the one with the overview of the attachment styles. Am thinking about my youngest, who sometimes shows anxious attachment in a family with securely attached parents and two older siblings. Not sure why…unless if has something to do with being practically blind until 2.5 before we found out about his vision loss, got glasses, visions therapy, etc.

    Reply

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