“Young children, who for whatever reason are deprived of the continuous care and attention of a mother or a substitute-mother, are not only temporarily disturbed by such deprivation, but may in some cases suffer long-term effects which persist”
Bowlby, J., Ainsworth, M., Boston, M., and Rosenbluth, D. (1956)
A few years ago, I was at a conference and the presenter talked about a child they worked with that lived most of their life in foster care. This child experienced some of the worst kind of abuse imaginable and was removed from their parents care when they were very young. Even so, when the child turned eighteen, they sought out the parents on social media, bought a bus ticket, and went to find them.
Why would anyone do that?
The more we sense that we are effectively connected, the more autonomous and separate we can be.”
― Sue Johnson
The need for approval begins with our parents. It is motivated by our need to survive. Human babies are the most vulnerable young in the animal kingdom. We are incapable of independently taking care of ourselves effectively for several years. This leaves us at the mercy of our parents/caregivers. We need them to survive. Even if they treat us poorly, we will continue to return to them in an effort to get what we need. We have no other choice.
I am going to love you even if you treat me poorly because I need to survive.
This is not just about food and shelter types of survival. Our emotional and psychological development is directly impacted by the relationships with our early caregivers. For a lot of researchers and therapists, we talk about attachment theory as a way to understand interpersonal relationships (developed by John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth). Attachment theorists suggest that the interactions between the primary care givers and the child creates a story in the child’s head about how relationships should operate.
If you have parents that are consistent in their parenting and are able to help you regulate your emotions by validating and comforting you when you are in distress, this contributes to the story you create about how relationships should be: patient, healthy, validating, and safe.
If your parents are inconsistent in their parenting and punish you or neglect you when you express the need for comfort, this will contribute to the story you create about how relationships should be: unpredictable, scary, hostile, and unsafe.
If you witness your parents engage in verbal or physical violence, this directly impacts you (spillover) because you are constantly worried that something is going to happen to the people that keep you alive.
This is some of the reason that therapists have the reputation for asking about your childhood. We carry stories created in childhood around with us for the rest of our lives.
I have known adults well into their fifties and sixties that still want their parents’ validation and approval even if it is unhealthy. The urge to connect with them and be validated by them may always be there to some degree. If you are one of those people, please stop beating yourself up for trying to have a relationship with your parents. You need to be mindful of your self-worth and manage healthier boundaries.
“May I be kind to myself in this moment. May I give myself the compassion I need.”
― Kristin Neff
Remember, the world is not black and white, but always shades of grey. Just because you had consistent parents does not mean you will not struggle in relationships and just because you had inconsistent parents does not mean you will always struggle in relationships. Attachment stories are just some of the many stories we create over our lifetime.
If you feel like your story about relationships is unhealthy, the best thing you can do is see a professional therapist. They will help you see the patterns of behavior that lead to reliving this story repeatedly. If you are a parent and you feel like you might be inconsistent in your parenting or you need support or suggestions, please see a professional therapist that specializes in family and child relationships.
You can absolutely have a happy and healthy adult life even if your childhood was not happy and healthy, but you might need help to do so.
What is more loving than getting the help you need to live a happy and healthy life?
“Just as children are absolutely dependent on their parents for sustenance, so in all hut the most primitive communities, are parents, especially their mothers, dependent on a greater society for economic provision. If a community values its children it must cherish their parents” (Bowlby, 1951, p. 84)