Sometimes children have grown up experiencing not total chaos, but a confusing combination of closeness mixed regularly with rejection or neglect. “What happened to our good little girl? Why are you acting like this? Maybe you’re telling me you don’t want to live with us, is that it? Is that the message I’m getting? What is it you want!!??” (Child hearing this may feel more and more desperate, as children are generally not able to understand or explain their various needs.)
The discouragement may eventually lead children to take charge in a desperate and disruptive manner. They act out to force the parent to respond, to get mad, to stay close, to get something, to leave them alone, to not set limits, to never say No (or the child will quickly try to reject the parent before the parent rejects them, “I hate you!”)
To all appearances the child and parent are organized together by conflict.
“Anxious/Resistantly [the original name for Ambivalently] attached children under-regulate [themselves], heightening their expression of distress possibly in an effort to elicit the expectable response of the caregiver. There is a low threshold for [feeling] threat, and the child becomes preoccupied with having contact with the caregiver, but frustrated even when it is available (Sroufe, 1996).”
Example of a 12 year-old child with ambivalent attachment:
A single-father was arrested for drugs and sent to prison for a year. Unfortunately he was the more functional parent, and his bright 12 y.o. daughter was left with her mother who ignored her daily. The daughter tried to cope alone with powerful feelings of abandonment from both parents. At the time of referral to me she could not tolerate allowing adults to be in charge. She was in the special behavioral day school, and acting very badly. Father arrived in session with an attitude assigned to him by his daughter – “The teachers have it in for her. I know my girl would not say the things they tell me she says.”
As I met mostly with father, we worked on saving his bright daughter from further nosediving into residential placement. Already she had daily out-of-control rages against authority figures. I gave father tons of empathy and support for himself, then suggested father imagine parenting his bright daughter in such a way that she could eventually go to college. Father soon reported a shift at home.
“Last week she was barfing in the middle of the night. She told me she was putting her finger down her throat so she could skip school. I suddenly stood up and told her, ‘Don’t do that anymore! That’s not a good thing to do!’ And she stopped.
“Then last night I took the Playstation out of her bedroom and said it wasn’t going back until the homework was finally done. At first she said she’d stick a knife in my heart if I didn’t put it back. Then she threatened suicide. Then she tried beating me up and pulling my hair. Finally she broke down and sobbed and asked me to get her up early to do the homework. I left the Playstation out of her room and we both got up early to help her finish the homework. It only took 20 minutes – she amazed me!”
Naturally the daughter resisted father’s stepping up to the plate and taking charge as the parent, but she also welcomed it. Children deeply need a safe adult to be in charge. As things gradually turned the corner, father reflected, “I’m not as bad a parent as I thought. But I have to deal with more than ordinary parents do. I don’t know why sometimes I have more authority than other times.”