Perhaps the most little known and understood aspect of childhood trauma is the impact inadequate needs provision has on the child’s perception of how their basic human needs will be met in future, and their associated actions to satisfy their needs. Yet, over eighty years of psychology research clearly shows that inadequate and inconsistent parental responsiveness will promote an enduring preoccupation with needs and high rate and great persistence in securing needs provision.
The same research also shows that simply changing the conditions for needs provision, such that a parent or caregiver responds consistently to the child’s signals regarding unmet needs, is not sufficient to reduce the child’s preoccupation with historically unmet needs or the rate and persistence of their need-seeking behaviours. So long as the parent or caregiver responds to the child’s signals regarding their needs, the child will continue to believe that they themselves are responsible for their needs being met. It is only through responding to the child’s needs proactively (that is, before they do anything to draw attention to their needs) that the child can develop an understanding that their needs are understood and important, and that they can depend on their caregivers to satisfy their needs. The consequences of this change in the child’s perceptions is anxiety reduction and opportunities for mutually-satisfying relationships through the lifespan.
A Tale of Three Mice: An Attachment Story
Once upon a time there were three mice.
The first mouse lived in a house that contained, along with furniture and other household goods and possessions, a lever and a hole in the wall from which food was delivered. Each time the mouse pressed the lever he would receive a tasty morsel of his favourite food. The mouse understood that, when he was hungry, all he had to do was press the lever and food would arrive via the hole. The mouse took great comfort in the predictability of his access to food and only pressed the lever when he was hungry.
The second mouse lived in a similar house, also containing a lever and a hole in the wall from which food was delivered. Unfortunately, the lever in his house was faulty and delivered food on an inconsistent basis when he pressed it, such that he might only receive food via the hole on the first, fifth, seventh, or even the eleventh time he pressed the lever. This mouse learnt that he could not always rely on the lever and that he had to press the lever many times, and even when he was not actually hungry, in order to ensure that he would have food. Even after his lever was fixed he found it difficult to stop pressing it frequently and displayed a habit of storing up food.
The third mouse also lived in a similar house, containing a lever and a hole in the wall from which food was to be delivered. However, the lever in his house did not work at all. He soon learnt that he could not rely on the lever and would have to develop other ways of gaining access to food. This belief persisted, even when he moved to a new home with a fully-functioning lever.
Source: Pearce, C. A Short Introduction to Attachment and Attachment Disorder. London: Jessica Kingsley, 2009
Colby Pearce is a Clinical Psychologist and author who specialises in assisting children and families overcome adversity and experience strong and secure attachment relationships. If you’d like to read more of Colby’s work, then you can visit his blog.