Why do children attach to abusive caregivers?

There is at least one very perplexing characteristic of attachment in children: Why do children attach to abusive caregivers? Animal research provides clues to the answer to this question. Pain-related attachment is not unique to humans and has been observed in numerous species, including avian species and a myriad of mammalian species. Indeed, Bowlby, the father of Attachment Theory,18 built his model on the combined assessment of clinical work and animal research. First, the newly documented imprinting in birds suggested that attachment to the caregiver is innate or biologically determined. At hatching, chicks quickly learn to “attach” to or “imprint” on the first moving object they see, typically the caregiver, although a human or other animate object can be substituted. This imprinting occurs even when approach to the caregiver is associated with pain. Similar abusive attachment has been demonstrated in nonhuman primate colonies as well as other mammals such as infant dogs and rat pups. For example, shocking chicks during imprinting to the mother supports approach learning, while shock supports avoidance learning just hours after the imprinting sensitive period closes. Similarly, shocking or mistreating an infant dog while interacting with a caregiver still results in a strong attachment to the caregiver. This paradoxical attachment learning has also been demonstrated in nonhuman primates, including Harlow’s monkeys and more recently in other primate colonies, when abused infant monkeys form strong attachments to an abusive caregiver.19 Furthermore, children tolerate considerable abuse while remaining strongly attached to an abusive caretaker. It appears that selection pressure and evolution have produced an attachment system that ensures the infant attaches to the caregiver regardless of the quality of caregiving received.

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Common Reactions of the Brain to an Abuser

Several important ingredients that contribute to someone’s “addiction” to their abuser are oxytocin (bonding), endogenous opioids (pleasure, pain, withdrawal, dependence), corticotropin-releasing factor (withdrawal, stress), and dopamine (craving, seeking, wanting). With such strong neurochemistry in dysregulated states, it will be extremely difficult to manage emotions or make logical decisions.


Trauma bonding damage

Some long-term impacts of trauma bonding include but are not limited to remaining in abusive relationships, having adverse mental health outcomes like low self-esteem, negative self image, and increased likelihood of depression and bipolar disorder, and perpetuating a trans-generational cycle of abuse.

Traumatic bonding – Wikipedia

Can a victim of emotional abuse become an abuser?

Abuse victims, like anyone in relationships with high emotional reactivity, build automatic defense systems, which include preemptive strikes — if you expect to be criticized, stonewalled, or demeaned, you may well do it first. Victims can easily develop a reactive narcissism that makes them seem like abusers



Some propose that parental alienation be recognized as a form of child abuse or family violence. They assert that parental alienation creates stress on the alienated parent and the child, and significantly increases the child’s lifetime risk of mental illness.


Profiles of Mothers Engaged in Parental Alienation

Parental alienation (PA) describes a family dynamic in which a parent engages in behaviors that are likely to foster a child’s unjustified rejection of the other parent. PA is considered a particular form of child psychological maltreatment with both short- and long-term negative consequences. Parents who attempt to turn a child against the other parent in cases of separation/divorce can be difficult to identify. Increasing our understanding of the personality features of these parents via psychological assessment may enable us to identify PA more quickly following the onset of abuse. In the present study, the personality characteristics of mothers engaging in PA were examined through a comparative analysis of MMPI-2 profiles. The results indicated that alienating mothers presented higher moral virtue and extroversion. They were more vulnerable to interpersonal stress and they demonstrated unsuccessful self-representation. The findings provide a preliminary model for understanding the profile of mothers who engage in PA.



? By 1986, some form of father-daughter incestuous activity, ranging from minimal to brutal and aggressive, was found in approximately 1 in 20 families that included daughters and their natural fathers, and 1 in 7 families in which daughters resided with a stepfather.

? Incest often leads to traumatic bonding, a form of relatedness in which one person mistreats the other with abuse, threats, intimidation, beatings, humiliations, and harassment but also provides attention, some form of affection, and connectedness.

? There are so many disincentives to revelation that many incest victims will undergo several rounds of psychiatric treatment before they risk revealing this aspect of their histories.

? When evaluating a patient, attention must be paid to evidence of dissociation in the patient’s history and to the patient’s overall symptoms. Appropriate treatment is geared toward each individual patient-not around the problem, the relevant diagnoses, or a particular theoretical model.


Ramifications of Incest

Few subjects in psychiatry elicit more profound, visceral, and polarized reactions than incest-the occurrence of sexual behaviors between closely related individuals-behaviors that violate society’s most sacred and guarded taboos. Furthermore, few circumstances confront the psychiatrist with more complex, painful, and potentially problematic clinical dilemmas and challenges than the treatment of the incest victim and/or the management of situations in which incest has been suspected or alleged by one member of a family, and denied, often with both pain and outrage, by the accused and/or other members of that family.

Richard P. Kluft, MD, PhDPsychiatric Times, Psychiatric Times Vol 27 No 12, Volume 27, Issue 12


“Autoerotism” and “Narcissism”


Incest: transference and countertransference implications

This relationship is initially consciously and/or unconsciously consciously constructed by the patient as one that can typify his or her past and will be characterized by fears of abuse, neglect, and exploitation, as well as wishes and fantasies of merger, idealization, and reparation. “In the patient’s psychic reality, the experience of the analytic situation then becomes the trauma, be it seduction or failure to protect” (Levine, 1990). The concept of projective identification explains how the patient may attempt to reenact his or her history and how this may be used as a vehicle for empathy and change. 

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